Brent Simmons’ Inessential Turns 20 →

Brent Simmons:

It started like this: at the time I was working at UserLand Software on a blogging app called Manila, and this was my own personal Manila blog. It’s gone through a few other engines since then. (These days it’s rendered — as a static site — by some Ruby scripts.)

It‘s tempting to think that The Thing of my career has been NetNewsWire. And that’s kinda true. But the thing I’ve done the longest, love the most, and am most proud of is this blog.

Twenty years is an amazing run, and I’ve been a happy reader for almost all of them. I enjoy Brent’s writing and few have a better perspective on the Mac. If you aren’t reading him, you should be.

As a side note, Brent is the guest on the next episode of Mac Power Users, where we talk about this and a whole lot more. Look for it on Sunday.

Writers I Read: Dr. Drang

Stephen: Dr. Drang, thanks for taking some time from whatever it is you do to chat. For those readers who might not know, tell us a little about what you do online.

Dr. Drang: My blog, “And now it’s all this,” lives at leancrew.com, where I try to post 4–5 times a week. I have an extraordinarily poor sense of marketing, so my domain, blog name, and pseudonym have no relationship to one another. Fortunately, Google sends people who search for “dr drang” to my site.

As its name (which comes from a John Lennon quote) implies, my blog covers things that strike me as interesting. Many of the posts describe the little scripts I write to automate the dull, repetitive things our computers—in my case, Macs—ask us to do. I don’t put the kind of polish into my scripts that Brett Terpstra puts into his, mainly because I view these kinds of scripts as highly personal, things that should be customized to an exact fit for each user. That’s why my posts usually include the full source code and a painfully detailed explanation of what the various parts do. I want to make it as easy as possible for my readers to tweak my scripts to match their needs.

Since getting an account on GitHub a few years ago, I’ve been putting more of my scripts, especially the longer ones, there so people can get them by downloading or forking instead of the more tedious copying and pasting.

I also write occasional posts on engineering topics (I’m a mechanical and civil engineer in real life), where I indulge my love of mechanics and the mathematics behind it. And scattered in the mix are posts on music and politics. I don’t do much link-blogging, and I tend to stay away from the topics that everyone in the Mac/Apple blogosphere is talking about. Unless I have something really different to say, I figure my readers have already had their fill of those topics by the time they get around to my site.

Like everyone, I’m on Twitter (@drdrang), where I try, like everyone, to be clever.

Stephen: I really appreciate the mix of writing and posts on your site. More than once I’ve Google’d for a solution and come to something you’ve done.

I mean, if you and Terpstra had a baby it’d take over the world.

(Awkward silence…)

Clearly you have a depth of knowledge when it comes to the Mac. How’d you start out in technology, and the Mac platform?

Dr. Drang: Well, as a traditional engineer and hopeless pedant, I object strongly to your implicit restriction of the word “technology” to mean only “electronics” or “computer stuff,” but I’ll save that rant for another day.

I got started using computers the way most engineers of my generation did—with a Fortran programming course my freshman year of college. This was “using” a computer in only the most indirect way imaginable. I never touched or even saw the computer my programs ran on (or, more commonly, failed to run on), which was, I suspect, some descendant of the IBM 360. The device I actually got to touch was a keypunch machine, which I used to enter my code, one line per punched card. The stack of cards, rubber-banded together— would be placed in a bin in the computer center for batch processing. Periodically, one of the low priests of the computer center would emerge from the mysterious back room, gather up all the stacks of cards, and then withdraw to run them through the machine. Some time—often hours—later, he would return with stacks of output on fanfold paper and distribute them into another set of bins according to the programmer’s last name. This is when you usually learned that the compiler had rejected your program for syntax errors.

A couple of years later, in 1980, I took a Pascal programming course and got to use a timesharing system. I typed my programs in on a terminal—usually an all-caps, green-on-green Infoton— and submitted them to the computer directly. This was a revelation, not only because I learned about my syntax errors immediately, but also because I could edit the faulty lines instead of retyping them. The editor was incredibly clumsy by today’s standards (you could only work on one line at a time), but it seemed wonderfully efficient to me.

My first personal computer was a Commodore 64, bought when I was in grad school and used mainly as a cheap plaything. I programmed it in Basic (its operating system was an extension of Basic), occasionally dropping into 6502 machine language with POKE statements.

I bought the second generation Macintosh, the 512k Fat Mac, my last year of graduate school. This was my real start in personal computing. I wrote my thesis in MacWrite, with graphics done in MacDraw. The small finite element programs I used to illustrate analytical techniques were written in MacPascal. They took forever to run because MacPascal was interpreted, but the writing/debugging/running process as a whole was much faster than using a timesharing system.

Over the next dozen years I used a variety of Macs. I got a Mac II when they first came out as a consolation prize in an Apple-sponsored programming contest, and I will always consider the SE/30 one of the greatest computers ever made. I did a lot of programming in HyperTalk, HyperCard’s internal language; it still seems like the best programming environment I’ve ever used.

By 1997, though, the bloom was off the rose, and I left the Mac for Linux. I wasn’t worried about Apple’s financial viability, I just couldn’t stand to work on Macs anymore. Cooperative multitasking was awful, and crashes were depressingly regular.

I spent about 8 years as a Linux user. I learned how to build my own computers (to my surprise, not that big a deal) and expanded my programming into Perl, Python, Lisp/Scheme, and PostScript (making a drawing by programming directly in PostScript can be surprisingly efficient for certain types of drawings).

By 2005, it looked like OS X was mature enough as a Unix platform to handle the text-based workflow I’d developed under Linux, so I switched back to the Mac and have been a satisfied customer—despite some grumbles about Lion—ever since.

Stephen: Despite my poorly-worded question, I do view technology being much bigger than computers. That said, I had no idea your background is so varied.

You were really in the right place and time to experience the shift from the “priestly” guys who ran your programs for you, without you being present to the personal computer, right on your desk. Sometimes, I wish I were older to see this change first-hand.

From your writing, I feel like you enjoy the power of Unix that resides under the Aqua crust of OS X, although you clearly draw from your time with Linux.

You said that your workflow is text-based. What does a typical day look like on your computer?

Dr Drang: I try to write everything—blog posts, reports for work, notes to myself, and the occasional email that needs a bit more styling than plain text can provide—in Markdown. When I came across Markdown 7–8 years ago, it seemed like it was made just for me. I had long since decided that plain text files were the way to go, but hadn’t settled on a single form of plain text, shifting between HTML, troff, SGML, and LaTeX. Markdown was the single form that I could use to do all my writing, both formal and informal, transforming it into different outputs to match the audience.

(I wrote a series of posts last year about my history with plain text. The last one of the series has links to all the others.)

I write almost everything in TextMate 1.x. Although the Mac’s consistent handling of basic text editing, combined with tools like Services and TextExpander, can give you nearly the same writing experience across a range of editors, I prefer to stick with one and use it for all its worth. The only exceptions are short mail messages, which I write in Mail.app itself, and outlines, which I write in OmniOutliner Pro. (I’d be happy to ditch OmniOutliner and write all my outlines in Markdown, but TextMate can’t collapse and expand nested lists or passages under section headings. That was one of the things I was hoping to get out of TextMate 2, but I haven’t been brave enough yet to use it.)

My non-writing is generally done through plain text, too. The calculations I do, whether elaborate or elementary, are typically done in either Python or Octave. I’m currently experimenting with SciPy, a set of numerical libraries for Python, which holds the promise of consolidating all my numerical analysis under one roof. I’m not big on spreadsheets. I have Numbers, but I seldom use it except for making nice looking expense reports or, less often, entering a series of numbers in tabular form (spreadsheets are really efficient for that) which I then export as plain text input files to be read by Python or Octave.

The charts and graphs I generate also start as plain text. I’ve been using Gnuplot for years but am currently giving Matplotlib a try. As with SciPy, Matplotlib would allow me to do more work in Python and do less context-shifting from one syntax to another. Could I use Numbers to make my graphs? No. Numbers charting is worthless for the kind of work I do. Excel’s charting is a big step up, and I used Excel a lot in the 80s and early 90s, but I really don’t want make my workflow dependent on MS Office again.

Continuing the plain text theme, I have occasionally produced drawings from plain text by writing directly in PostScript. This is pretty rare, though. Most of my drawing is done in OmniGraffle. It’s obviously not intended to be a general-purpose drawing program, but it works surprisingly well in that role. A lot of what I use it for is annotating photographs and charts, which is where its underlying structure really stands out. My annotations typically have leader lines running from the text to the object being described. With OmniGraffle, I can move the annotations around and the leader lines follow automatically. This saves a lot of time.

As for productivity apps, I’ve been all over the map, never really satisfied with any system. I was big on OmniFocus for a while but ultimately found it too fiddly for my needs. What I keep coming back to is TaskPaper, which is probably as close as any app will get to fitting my way of working, but I stray from it, too. Right now, I keep my task list on the white board in my office, erasing items as I complete them.

Stephen: The picture of you in front of a giant white board, with a rolling ladder comes to mind.

So, we’ve talked about your workflow, and I think a lot of nerds resonate with the desire to keep things text-based. I know for me, I like the flexibility and portability that .txt files offer.

Despite the large amounts of information you share about your workflow, your identity is a secret, even to interviewers. What keeps you anonymous?

Dr. Drang: When I started blogging, I thought I’d do more political posts, and it seemed like a good idea to keep my online and real life personas separated. I didn’t want potential clients Googling my real name and having all the hits come from my personal blog.

As it happened, the political blogging was never a significant part of ANIAT, so maybe the pseudonymity was unnecessary. I do think about dropping the mask, but since I don’t see much advantage either way, I’ve stuck to the status quo.

I should point out that the personality expressed in ANIAT and my Twitter feed is my real personality (to the extent I have one). And the details of my life that I let out are real: I’m 33 years old (in hex) and married, with a daughter and two sons. I do have a Ph.D. in engineering, with an emphasis in stress and structural analysis.

“Drang” is the German word for stress and is part of the name of a famous engineering textbook, Drang und Zwang, written by the father and son team of August and Ludwig Föppl. The father, August, also wrote an even more famous textbook, Vorlesungen über technische Mechanik, but “Dr. Vorlesungen” just didn’t have the right ring to it.

Stephen: So you think the mask will stick around? How do you view the site’s future?

Dr. Drang: I have no plans to change the way the site looks to visitors but have been thinking about changing the back end—moving it away from WordPress and turning it into a statically generated site. So far, I haven’t found a static site generator I like well enough to pull the trigger on that. If I have to make my own, it may never get done.

As for content, I want to do more engineering posts. They’re fun, albeit time-consuming, to write, and are a change of pace from the scripts ‘n’ tips. I’d like to write more software reviews, too, but by the time I’ve used a product long enough to feel comfortable reviewing it, everyone else’s reviews have already been published and mine seem superfluous. I’ve killed several half-written reviews because of that.

I don’t see linked list-style posts ever being a significant part of ANIAT. Other people do that and do it better than I ever could.

We’ll see about the pseudonymity. I suspect I’ll stay hidden behind the snowman for quite a while.

Writers I Read: Marco Arment

Editor’s Note: Marco Arment is probably best well-known as the founder and creator of Instapaper, but he also has an impressively popular podcast on the 5by5 network, as well as a weblog, where he writes about technology, coffee and more. Marco and his wife are expecting their first child later in the spring.


Stephen: Marco, thanks for taking some time to talk with me. Between Instapaper, your podcast and a little one on the way I’m sure you’re busy. Anything I’ve missed?

Marco: And my blog. But that’s about it. I guess it doesn’t sound like much. This is probably a good time to take on a few more projects, join a startup, and learn how to crochet.

Stephen: Haha, that sounds like a bunch of bad ideas. Before Instapaper, you were at Tumblr, correct? How’s that timeline go?

Marco: I was at Tumblr from its inception in late 2006 through September of 2010. In the middle, in late 2007, I started working on Instapaper.

Stephen: So, we’ve established that you are super, super busy. In all that noise, do you have a daily routine in place?

Marco: Slightly. We have a dog, so he keeps us on a somewhat regular schedule. And our upcoming baby will probably keep us on a crazy sleepless schedule for a while followed by many years of a much more rigid schedule than we have now.

But once I’m awake, there are things I care about and things I don’t. I’m willing to spend 15 minutes making breakfast and coffee in an elaborate routine every morning because I care about those, but it only takes me about 5 seconds to choose my outfit for the day because I don’t care about that.

Stephen: Care is a good word to discuss moving forward. With the products of yours that I have used, I can see care in them, from the big-picture items to the small details.

It’s worth noting that your projects all revolved around words. Why do you think people care to write and read what others have written?

Marco: Text is an amazingly versatile medium. Relative to other media, text has very low production costs, both in authorship and distribution. One person can produce a great essay or even a complete book. It’s much harder to be a one-person filmmaker. And since text as a medium does not have a fixed timescale like audio and video, it can be easily skimmed or read at any desired speed.

In the digital world, text becomes even more useful. It takes up almost no space by today’s standards, it can be easily indexed and analyzed, and tools like mine can edit, restructure, and reflow it to do all sorts of different things.

The ease of producing, distributing, and messing around with text has resulted in an effectively infinite supply of great expression, information, and entertainment being written and read in this wonderful medium. Whatever you want to read, there’s already more of it than you could read in a lifetime, and there’s probably more being produced right now.

Stephen: How does Instapaper fit into that view?

Marco: Those great characteristics of text make Instapaper possible, but also make it necessary.

Since text can flow around other page elements and can be infinitely messed with, publishers have crammed a lot of distracting elements into their text layouts, and have often laid things out in a way that isn’t comfortable for some (or many) people to read.

Since text is so easy to skim and is so often browsed while multitasking in a busy personal-computer environment, people have grown accustomed to skimming through web articles quickly, leading to high demand for (and therefore even higher supply of) shallow, skimmable content such as “listicles”.

Instapaper solves both of these problems: it dramatically increases legibility and reduces distractions when reading, and it makes it easier to attentively read long, detailed, or nuanced writing. And while it won’t change entire industries, Instapaper has succeeded, to at least a small degree, in increasing demand for (and therefore, slowly, increasing supply of) more of this sort of writing online.

Stephen: I know — as a long-time Instapaper customer — that the app definitely allows me to read more. However, I think there are those out there that view what you’re doing as a way for people to get out of seeing ads on publisher’s websites. (Of course, many of those publishers already offer full-length RSS entries.) How do you handle that sort of comment?

Marco: That’s a common question. I like to address it whenever anyone asks, because it’s an incomplete view of what Instapaper really does.

Because of how the bookmarklet works, the vast majority of pages saved to Instapaper correspond to complete pageviews, ads and all. I’ve carefully designed Instapaper to keep this ratio high, even when it’s a competitive disadvantage. (For a great example of this, see the implementation of the Friends and Editors sections in the iPhone/iPad app, which require you to view the recommended articles before you can save them.) If you compare Instapaper to any of its competitors, you’ll find that I’ve been much more sensitive to preserving and promoting full pageviews on publishers’ sites.

And in the bigger picture, my strategy has worked very well. Every major publisher I’ve spoken with loves Instapaper for what it brings them: increased reader engagement and a lot more people sharing links to their articles, without stealing their pageviews en masse, scripting around their paywalls, framing my shared links, or requiring them to make business deals with me. Instapaper helps publishers without them needing to do or change anything. I think this is why, despite there being a very easy method on the website to do so, no major publisher has opted out of being saved to Instapaper.

Stephen: I agree with you — I think Instapaper’s treatment of writers’ material is more than fair. I think you being a writer helps bring that balance to your product. How did you start out blogging?

Marco: I’ve always had opinions, I’ve always been a bit weird, and my relatively poor social skills have always let the opinions and weirdness out a bit too much. So I’ve always loved writing as a way to express myself.

Before blogging, I’d mostly only “write” on web forums. I was primarily a forum junkie (Something Awful’s are the best) until David Karp and I started Tumblr, at which point frequent blogging fell into my lap as a practical matter: I needed to test my work regularly.

Since then, blogging has become an addiction. I get intellectually restless if I don’t write for a while. It’s a very strong internal drive. I can’t fully explain it.

Stephen: I totally get it. In fact, many people I’ve interviewed for this series have said similar things. For you, it seems to scratch a creative itch that something like developing can’t. I think that’s great, honestly.

So, what’s the future hold for Marco?

Marco: When the baby comes, I’ll become one of those people who only talks about baby stuff and my blog will shift to reviewing only baby products for five years. After that, I’ll probably return to talking about the nuances of coffee brewers, headphones, shiny rectangles from Apple, and matte grayscale rectangles from Amazon.

What I do has evolved a lot in the last few years. Over time, I’m enjoying writing a lot more, and my efforts are shifting to reflect that. Two years ago, I was a web programmer with a little iPhone side business and a tiny blog for fun writing. Today, I’m a predominantly iPhone programmer with a minor web component, and I have my blog as a little side business. Maybe in the future, I’ll primarily be a writer with a small programming side business.

That sounds really great to me, actually.

Writers I Read: Shawn Blanc

Editor’s Note: I’m not sure this guy needs much of an introduction. Hailing from the Midwest, Shawn Blanc is an independent writer, coffee nut, and soon-to-be dad. We got to hang out at Macworld 2012, and it was a blast.


Stephen: Thanks for agreeing to an interview. I know you’re a busy guy. You’ve been a full-time writer for a while now. While you’ve shared some about how the transition has been going, I’d love to hear more about how you got the point where you felt like you needed to make the jump. What led you to take such a leap of faith?

Shawn: There wasn’t necessarily a specific, defining moment where I decided to go for it. It was more like a series of moments that lead me up to realizing that I wanted to take the site and my writing full time. Though if you were going to twist my arm about it, I would say that perhaps the most significant of all the moments that lead up to the decision was one evening when my wife and I were eating dinner.

Anna and I were at home one evening after Christmas but before the New Year, and I mentioned to her how I’d been thinking of taking shawnblanc.net full time. This wasn’t the first time I’d mentioned this to her, but every time in the past I only half-meant it when I said it, and so she would half-reply with a raised eyebrow as if to say, “isn’t that nice, dear.”

But this time I meant it, and she knew it. She looked me in the eye and said that if that is what I wanted to do, she would stand behind me.

When your wife tells you it’s okay to take a risk and that she’s on your team even if you fail, then how can you not go for it? After that, all I needed was to decide for myself if I truly wanted to take the risk and make the leap. I mulled it over for a few days, and then decided I would go for it.

Stephen: Dude, what a great picture of marriage. I’m sure it was probably more than a little scary to do it. At the same time, it’s clear to me that you felt like you had to do this.

The timing is interesting to me. I think that you are riding (or maybe even helped create) a wave of great content that is out there right now. People seem to have a newfound interest in reading good writing and listening to good podcasts. What do you think is causing people to gravitate towards our type of content?

Shawn: I’m not sure that I fully agree with your statement that there is a newfound interest in reading good writing and listening to good podcasts. I think people have always been interested in reading good writing and listening to good shows. It’s just that there wasn’t a whole lot of good content out there, nor was it as easy to find as it is now.

There certainly has been a noticeable rise of good writing and broadcasting talent within the tech- and design-centric spheres, and I think part of it has been because the whole scene is begging to mature a bit. Writers like John Gruber and podcasters like Dan Benjamin have gone from being lone wolfs to standard bearers. Because of their commitment to high standards and exceptional work in tech writing and podcasting others have grown to appreciate that type of quality, and have used it as a standard in their own work.

Moreover, there are a lot of fantastic tools which are making discovery and engagement with this talent easy and even enjoyable. Apps and services such as Instapaper and Instacast are simultaneously riding this wave and contributing to it.

Stephen: I think you’ve better shaped what I’ve been thinking about. There is more good content — and better tools to enjoy them with — then before. I also agree with the maturity bit, as well.

Part of me thinks that this is a natural step, as those of us who grew up with the personal computer industry have a draw to think, write and speak about. Do you think there’s much to that?

Shawn: Yes, but I don’t see it as a new trend rather just a new topic for an age-old trend. My point being that for writers — or any artistic creator, really — there has always been a draw to produce work which is centered around what is current and what is relevant. Not all writers will write about current events or current trends, but many will. And, to top it all off, thanks to the Web it is easier than ever in the history of writing to get an audience. People who 50 years ago would have abandoned the vocation of a writer because they had no outlet for their writing, can now sign up for a free WordPress blog in a few minutes and instantly have an outlet. It’s a personal publishing revolution.

Stephen: Have your views on self-publishing in any ways changed since starting out full-time?

Shawn: My view hasn’t changed so much as my perspective has broadened. I’ve learned that self-publishing is a lot more work than I thought it would be. You are in essence running a one-man small business and thus you have to do the work of the visionary leader, the organized manager, the secretary, the accountant, the janitor, and the employees.

I’ve also learned about the incredible value of building relationships with others. Both online and offline, I’ve found that getting to know other people in the same field as me has been a great asset because I can learn from them, bounce ideas off of them, and we can work together on projects. The life of self-publishing / self-employment shouldn’t be an isolated one.

Stephen: As one of the few guys who have been able to make the jump to full-time, what’s your advice to those who want to do it one day?

Shawn: There isn’t any one path to becoming a full-time blogger. The two things that seem to have worked for me are consistency and diversity.

The first, consistency, is in regard to showing up every day to write for the site. I ran the site as a hobby for nearly 4 years before taking it full time, and during those years I built a reputation of consistently showing up. That’s not to say I wrote every day — sometimes the site would go a week or a month without any updates — but I never abandoned the site nor let it go dormant.

I think it was that consistency which helped impart a level of trust to my readers. And that trust was invaluable for enabling me to go full time because of the membership.

And that is where the second thing comes in to play: diversity. This isn’t so much about blogging as it is about common business sense. Writing your own site as your full-time job means you are also a small business owner. And so diversifying your income streams is important. I have a few sources of revenue for the site that all add up to enough to keep the lights on.

And, though I didn’t mention it earlier, there is a third issue you need to settle. It’s passion; or drive. Being a full-time blogger is difficult and tiring. There are more and more folks who, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, have been able to step into the world of self-publishing. But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s right for you. I would advise anyone considering this occupation to deeply ponder if it’s something they are willing to pour themselves into. It is exciting and rewarding, but at times it is also very lonely (as all writing often is).

The good news is that there is no better time to go for it than now. The Internet favors the indie writers and self publishers. The tools and the opportunities have never been more available. All it takes is the determination to work your butt off and the willingness to take big scary risks.

Stephen: Thanks man. Best of luck with the site and little man on the the way.

Writers I Read: Jim Dalrymple

For this interview, I had the pleasure of talking with Jim Dalrymple from The Loop. Well-known among the Mac-savvy, Jim has been writing about Apple since 1995. I was nine years old then.


Stephen: Jim, Thanks for taking some time to chat. I suppose we should jump right in. Mind telling the lovely people at home a little bit about you and your site?

Jim: The Loop is actually the third site I’ve been involved with since I started reporting on Apple. The first was MacCentral, a site I helped start in 1995. That was sold to Macworld in 1999 and I held several positions there, leaving a decade later in May 2009. I started The Loop one month later.

The Loop was a response to what I saw happening in the industry for the last few years. I really believe that people want to hear opinions from their favorite writers, no just re-hashing the news. There are sites out there that do a great job of breaking news, but breaking news isn’t opinion — I try to provide that whenever I can.

The site also gives me a chance to talk about a lot of different topics. I post about music creation, design and of course Apple and the tech industry. I like the variety and the readers seem to like it too.

I live in Nova Scotia, Canada with my wife, two kids, two Border Collies, and the beard.

Stephen: I think your years of experience covering Apple pays off often on the Loop, and I agree that people want to hear more from their favorite writers than just a re-hash of the latest news or rumor.

1995 was a very different time for Apple. How do you think the coverage of Apple news and rumors has changed as the company has grown so much?

Jim: 1995 was so much different — there weren’t many Mac websites around then. In fact, we received a lot of the press releases via snail mail, so breaking news was a few days old at best. MacCentral was one of the first news sites to go daily — we wondered if there would be enough news to post updates on a daily basis, but it all worked out.

The types of stories have changed a lot. In 1995 and even later, we posted straight news. That’s what we did at that point and it worked really well for us. Because news was so hard to come by, people were happy to hear about what was going on in the community. Now, everyone can find the basic news, so it’s important for me to share my opinion.

I not only write my opinion, I read other people’s opinion too.

Rumors were different too. Apple leaked like a sieve before Steve came back. There were no secrets back then — everything was out in the open whether Apple wanted it to be or not. These days being able to confirm or deny a rumor carries a lot of weight. Thankfully, I’m able to do that in a lot of cases.

Stephen: It’s clear from your writing that you have good sources, without a doubt due to your years in the industry. Honestly, the whole thing about press releases via snail mail sounds almost refreshing this day and age where news is recycled and regurgitated so quickly. But we’d be talking in circles if I asked you about that again, I suppose.

Last year, you and Peter re-designed (re-launched may be a better word) The Loop? What went in to that decision?

Jim: Relaunching the website was one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made. We literally took every single element of the site and decided whether it was important enough to keep — did it serve a purpose and what did the reader get from having it on the page.

This was a very reader-focused redesign. I wanted the site to load extremely fast and be mostly text. That meant I had to rethink everything, including advertising. That was tough — I was making a decent amount of money on the money, but I hated visiting the site because I thought it was ugly. I contacted a designer friend of mine, Phil Letourneau, and the work started.

By this time I had decided to go with one ad on the site using Fusion Ads and supplement that with sponsorships and memberships. I told Phil what I was doing and he came up with the design, the new logo, the “Follow Us” images and then coded the entire site. With the help of fast servers from Cleverkite, page load times have gone from 10–15 seconds to under a second in many places.

It’s gratifying to measure site speed in milliseconds rather than seconds.

Of course, with the change also came a slight change in the content. Peter and I still post original stories, but we post more links to interesting stories around the Web now. That’s a lot of fun because we get to point out things that catch our eye and then give readers our opinion.

Stephen: I think the re-tooling of the site is simply wonderful, and I think it’s been well-received by everyone I’ve talked to about it.

One thing I think it has allowed you guys to do is to have individual voices in a new way. How do you and Peter work together? The though of having a co-writer makes me break out into cold sweats.

Jim: Having a co-writer is not an easy thing. However, Peter and I have been working together since 1996 and I trust him implicitly. We don’t always agree on everything, but he’s free to post his opinion whenever he wants. I don’t check Peter’s work and he doesn’t check mine — unless we feel another set of eyeballs would help the story.

I don’t know of very many writers that have the type of relationship that Peter and I do. We’re co-writers, co-workers, but most of all, we’re the best of friends.

Stephen: That’s really, really cool. I guess we can’t go much longer without talking about The Beard. It seems to have a personality all its own. How’d that come about?

Jim: The beard really has taken on a life of its own over the years. It’s to the point now where companies ask for appointments with the beard for a drink — I guess they just figure I’ll tag along.

The beard even has its own Twitter, although it’s not me that does it. Imagine my surprise to learn that my beard was talking to people on Twitter.

I guess I’ve had it for about five years or so. I just got tired of being like everyone else and decided it was time for a change. From there, the beard caught on and became a big part of my personality, online and in real life. It’s fun, I just go with it.

Stephen: Rumor has it that the beard would self-destruct if you were to shave, and in doing so, take you out with it. Any truth to this?

Jim:
Absolutely true.

Stephen: Yikes. I’m nervous about asking any more beard-related questions.

Without a doubt, you’ve more experience writing about Apple — and writing on the web — than anyone else out there I’ve talked with. That said, I have two closing questions. How do you think coverage of Apple will change the next few years? With that in mind, what can writers do to remain relevant and enjoy growth?

Jim: Writers need to ready for change because Apple is. Apple will continue to enter more consumer electronics markets, so writers are going to need to understand the technologies in a broader market. That’s going to be tough for some people to do, but it will also open the door for new writers.

Relevancy in writing is a funny thing. You’re as relevant as your audience thinks you are — as long as they keep coming, most writers are happy to continue writing what they always have. I think that will change in the next few years too. There are a lot of fantastic writers out there who don’t work for big publications — these are the people I read the most. They don’t worry about pissing off advertisers, so they write what needs to be said.

That’s what I try to do everyday. I don’t try to be confrontational, but I write what I believe. Not everyone agrees with that, but that’s okay — it would be really boring if everyone always agreed.

Writers I Read: Thomas Brand

For this interview, I talked with Thomas Brand, the fine-looking young man behind Egg Freckles, a well-written technology blog that is themed to like like an Apple Newton. Seriously, it’s freaking awesome.

Stephen: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. You and I have a lot in common, as it turns out. Can you give our lovely readers a little of your background?

Thomas: Stephen, you are one of my favorite bloggers to read, because we are both of a similar age, and appear to have a similar history using Macs. I grew up with a Macintosh in the house. My Dad says it was a 512k, but I always thought it was the original 128k Mac. I learned to write and paint on that Mac before I could even held a pencil or a brush. It was not until elementary school that I experienced an Apple IIe, Logo, or the command line. Born in 1983 I am a child of the GUI.

I studied graphic arts in college because I didn’t know what to do with myself, but knew I wanted to use Macs in my profession. I was constantly distracted by people asking me for technical advice, or help fixing their computers. I took my school through the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, Netbooting the computer labs in between classes to make use of a limited set of software licenses. Mid way through college Apple made plans to open a new retail store down the street. The year was 2003 and I dropped out of college to become a Mac Genius.

From what I am told the first Mac Genius were all Apple engineers. The second generation were die-hard Apple fans like myself. I don’t know what generation Apple is on today, but when I worked behind the bar a Mac Genius could help you with Classic Mac OS extensions conflicts, or Unix file permission errors. We were not afraid to fix beige boxed Macs, or multi-processor G5 towers. A lot has changed behind Apple’s Genius Bar support model. When I worked the bar their was no concierge. You were supposed to help everyone who came in the door with a question, and keep track of the queue in your head. There were no Creatives or One-to-One Specialists. No Genius Bar admins with an iPad in hand maintaining order. We were the face of Apple customer service, and I loved it.

Continue Reading → “Writers I Read: Thomas Brand”

Writers I Read: Federico Viticci

This time around in “Writers I Read”, I spoke with Federico Viticci, the founder of MacStories.net. MacStories has quickly become a must-read for Mac nerds. Federico and his team of writers are hard at work every day publishing in-depth reviews, great analysis and timely news stories. I don’t think they ever sleep over there.

Stephen: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. As you’ve probably seen, I like to keep these things informal and fun. I’ve been reading MacStories for several months now, and have enjoyed it greatly. What got you so interested in the Apple universe?

Federico: Well, it really all started when I got my first Mac. I was a Windows PC user, always having to deal with slow and, design-wise, ugly machines that I was getting tired of. The operating system wasn’t cutting it for me anymore, so a few months before the release of Windows Vista I switched to OS X. The computer was beautiful, the transition to Leopard painless.

Since then, my interest in Apple news and reviews of apps I like has been growing so much writing for MacStories has become more than a simple job. In fact, it feels like a natural extension of a hobby rather than a series of articles and tasks. I think this is what keeps me going in the end.

Also, the original iPhone I imported from the U.S. in 2007 greatly increased my interest in Apple, technology news and, overall, mobile software.

Stephen: So you’re relatively new to the Apple scene. If my math is right, then you started MacStories not that long after switching. Is my timeline about right?

Federico: That’s correct. I switched to the Mac almost three years ago and have not looked back since. I guess the iPod Classic I got in 2006 for a trip to Benicassim, Spain with my friends also helped getting my mind ready for the transition.

That iPod still rocks, by the way, although I got a larger Classic last year.

Stephen: It sounds you have a real “fork in the road” type moment. What were you doing before MacStories? Is the site your full-time job now?

Federico: Things are going very well for the site and I couldn’t be happier about the team we’re building. Since I started MacStories in April 2009 it’s always been my full-time job, even when it was paying off much and, actually, was already an expense to add to the list. However, I couldn’t see myself doing anything but this, so I guess yes – it’s a full-time job and I hope it’ll stay this way for years to come.

Before MS? I used to sell stuff on eBay for a living. True story. I worked in a “professional eBay Store” (those places where people go and ask to sell their items on eBay, because they don’t have time to waste / cannot use a web browser / don’t know what PayPal is) for roughly 10 months until I was fired. I waited a few months, then started MacStories. Before the eBay “experience”, I pretended to be a Philosophy student at the La Sapienza University in Rome, but I dropped out after 3 months. That was 2007.

Stephen: That’s crazy. How did you end up writing for a living? Did you do a lot of writing in school, or was it something you just fell into?

Federico: I think I just fell into it, by accident. Like I said I ended up jobless all of a sudden, and I was really into the MacBook Pro I had bought a few months before.

Back in high school I wasn’t really much of a writer (we didn’t have a school newspaper or online magazine students could write for), but I did enjoy laying down a good essay every once in a while if the subject was interesting enough. I knew, however, that I wanted to do something with technology someday – namely, when I was a kid I had this dream of becoming the editor for a videogame magazine, so I could attend E3, get free games and write about them for a living. Maybe when I was around 12 I even tried to write some fake reviews for Nintendo 64 games, though I can’t remember well now.

So, yeah, I think I’ve always had this thing for technology in general, but never considered myself a writer. I still don’t consider myself a writer, but I do enjoy writing about Apple (and sometimes, mobile games) for a living now.

Stephen: I’ve spoken with several full-time writers about their days, but never with one overseas. What’s a normal workday look like for you, being based in Italy?

Federico: It’s crazy. It’s true I’m based in Italy, but being MacStories a US-centric website I had to adjust my daily schedule to a different timezone, namely the EST (New York City) one. I simply couldn’t stay on top with news and write articles by forcing myself to follow “a regular life” in Italy, so while this was hard to accept for my family and friends at first, now they understand there’s a reason why I stay up late at night and wake up around noon every day. After all, it’s like I’m waking up at 6 AM – only in the wrong country.

It’s different, but I deeply enjoy it. There’s a strange beauty in breaking news at 5:30 AM with the sun rising outside your room’s window, but there’s also no denying this is still causing some problems with activities like, say, going out for dinner with friends or vacations. Like I said, everything would be perfectly normal if I just happened to live in another timezone. I don’t know if other European-based writers do this, too.

Stephen: That is pretty hardcore. From what I can tell, you are the only one dedicated to such a schedule. Where do you see this taking you in the future? (Besides maybe the hospital…)

Federico: Well, I see myself moving to the States to re-adjust my schedule to a more natural one, and finally get to meet the people and developers I’m writing about in real life. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now, but couldn’t make it to WWDC this year. I’m definitely going next year though, and I hope that will be the start of a new life for me, as well as the business behind the site.

Stephen: Dude, that is intense. I assume you see this being your gig for the foreseeable future. Where do you see the site going in the future?

Federico: I see the site growing both in terms of quality of content, audience, and the range of topics we try to cover every day. What I’d like to remark is, we love to report news and analyze each rumors that comes out, but we haven’t forgotten our “indie” roots. We love talking about apps from small, indie developers that try to make a living out of developing great software for the Mac and iOS. We may be pretty good at breaking news and getting our hands on some exclusive info every once in a while (and people seem to like it) but, personally, I still love being the indie guy that covers the relatively “small” stuff.

So to answer your question, yes, I see this growing a lot throughout the next years, but with our own principles.

Stephen: That’s awesome. I know I — and many other Mac nerds — look forward to seeing where your site goes in the future. Thanks so much; go get back to work!

Writers I Read: Aaron Mahnke

2011.07.22 Update: Aaron’s new book — Destiny: A Fairy Tale — is out. It is about a young orphan discovering his true heritage. Go buy it now.

—————

For this interview in the “Writers I Read” series, I got the chance to talk with Aaron Mahnke. His name should be familiar to at least some of you, as he is the man behind the Read and Trust Network, Wet Frog Studios, a self-titled blog about writing and a collection of some fantastic works of fiction.

Stephen: Aaron, thanks for taking some time to chat with me. You seem to keep busy with your design firm and novel writing. Can you fill in the lovely readers about what you do?

Aaron: Busy is one of those words that doesn’t seem quite equipped enough to describe my life. I’ve brought it upon myself, but I couldn’t resist — the kinds of projects I’m involved in are so exciting and rewarding. They do, however, keep me moving from place to place without much rest.

What is it that I do, then? Well, to many people I am a curator. At the very end of 2010, I launched the Read & Trust Network which is a gathering of some of the very best writers on the internet. These amazing writers touch on topics such as minimalism, technology, politics, writing, software reviews and productivity, and honestly, I’m just in awe every day that I get to offer them a tiny bit more exposure and connect them to other great writers. So that’s part of who I am and what I do.

I also run a graphic design shop in the Boston area called Wet Frog Studios. It’s what pays the bills and keeps me busy most of the time between 7am and 5pm. I’m one of those self-taught, self-motivated designers who decided to hang my own shingle and start my own business, and the last three years have been humbling. I’ve watched my business grow by leaps and bounds, and have been able to work with some amazing clients. A lot of what I do is brand-related; I have a passion for crafting a brand and the materials that support it. And as a result, I’ve had the chance to design logos for some top-notch sites you might have heard of, like MinimalMac, The Brooks Review, Bridging the Nerd Gap and Idea Cafe.

And lastly, I write. I do a small amount of blogging over at aaronmahnke.com, but most of my writing is published fiction. My fantasy novel The Hand of Andulain is currently selling extremely well, and is the first in a series that I hope to write. I also have a new novel hopefully releasing in July called Destiny: A Fairy Tale, and I’m really excited about this one. It reaches back into the core of myth and story to touch on the basic elements that we all resonate with. These things challenge me; writing is both the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I do.

And there’s my long-winded answer to your simple question!

Stephen: Hey, I’ve got no issues with being long-winded when someone needs to be. Let’s walk through this stuff, bit by bit.

Read and Trust is a fantastic network. My favorite writers are members, and I’ve gotten to know several of them better through this series (including some interviews that are in progress). What drove you to start something like this?

Aaron: Thanks for loving Read and Trust. I’m so glad it’s proven to be a great resource for you. How did it start? Man, this is where I get all meta on you … hold tight!

I’m a learner. I love to learn. But as the years tick by I’m starting to notice that I have another passion grafted onto the learning thing – sharing. I love to share what I’ve learned, and that can manifest through conversation, posts on my blog, or projects I start up. Read and Trust is one of those projects. See, back when I was first going solo with my design business I started gathering resources to help improve who I was and what I produced. I turned to RSS feeds and twitter, and in the process did what a lot of us do. I would follow a site, then time would go by, and eventually I’d find that I was either connecting on a deep level with the writer, or not. If so, they became a “favorite,” and if not, they got cut. This went on for a long, long time. Rinse and repeat, you know?

Fast forward three years. This past November I cracked open my RSS app and it occurred to me that I had amassed quite the collection of trusted blogs. They all exuded quality and passion, and I had even begun to connect with many of the writers through Twitter. So Read and Trust honestly was just a project birthed from that desire to share the resources I had collected. It helps answer that question, “I wonder what other writers my favorite writer reads and trusts?” So for that person who has discovered Shawn Blanc and really digs him, they can now explore a whole list of other writers that Shawn reads regularly, trusts for quality content and has no problem recommending to others. And that’s a cool thing.

So now, what took me years to gather, connect and quality-check can be discovered in a matter of minutes by a newbie to the scene. That’s something I’m very proud of. I get to work closely with some of the best writers on the internet, and bring enrichment into people’s lives by introducing them to someone they’ve never read before. It’s really a rewarding project.

Stephen: In my interview with Shawn Blanc, we’re talking about people’s desire for quality content. Clearly, Read and Trust fits into this quite neatly. Do you think people have a newfound desire for such content, or that the market (for lack of a better word) is just starting to respond to it in a clearer way?

Aaron: For sure, quality is king. But I think the new push for quality content is not a result of people intuitively deciding they need it. My opinion is that it’s a direct response to a realization that much of the content out there is just not that valuable.

Shawn just touched on the pulse of a growing issue recently in his piece about RSS and twitter. Behind all the stats and survey results it’s clear that people are overwhelmed with all of the content being tossed at them daily. Whether or not there is guilt about not reading through it all, I think it is very common for people to spend all this time reading through their feeds and walk away feeling like they wasted their time. We are assaulted regularly by posts on rumors, fleeting topics, materialistic masturbation. And people are feeling a bit empty.

I think it’s in our nature to create, and to strive for quality. And so when we pull up a chair and dine at the table of fluff and garbage, we walk way hungry for something deeper. And there are very few writers and sites out there who are committed to producing content that satisfies. I think what we’ve done with Read and Trust is to gather a good majority of them together in one place. You can point to that directory and say, “Look, here’s a list of top-notch writers who will respect your time and attention, and offer up only their best stuff.”

Perhaps the best way for Read and Trust to grow in the future is to bring in writers of that caliber who touch on topics and passions that aren’t from the tech/Apple/GTD/design/developer family. I’d love to see the very best food writers, the best sports writers, the best fiction writers all gathered together. People need—and deserve—better quality content without all the hassle of discovering it on their own.

Stephen: I really resonate with what you said about walking away empty from RSS, Twitter, etc. I am trying to be more deliberate about what I read, because honestly, most of this stuff isn’t worth time out of my life.

When I was outlining what I wanted to ask you about, I was having trouble linking this subject with your fiction writing and design work, but I think we’ve been talking about it all along. I am loving reading The Hand of Andulain, and am excited about your future books. Likewise, Wet Frog Studios is producing quality work all over the place, it seems. How do you go from writing to design work and back again? Or is there just a natural link between the two for you?

Aaron: I totally agree regarding time. You’re in the same place as me right now, with a young family. Our two girls are absolute joys to be around (most of the time!), and I’ve been fighting this war with my iPhone for two years. It’s easy to allow all of that digital distraction cut in and steal time from the things that matter most. Most people think it’s normal, though, and that’s sad.

I’m coming to realize that the internet in all its forms (my computer, my devices, even the television) is simply a place. And I can only be in one place at a time. When I’m sitting in a room with my 2 year old daughter who wants to read a book and I’m checking my phone every five minutes, I’m not in that room. So my goal is to be as fully present as I can, all the time, no matter what I’m doing.

Glad to hear you are both reading my novel AND enjoying it. When you create something there is always that innate fear that it will be rejected or judged unworthy. I hope I’m not the only one who feels that on a pretty regular basis.

Creating is creating for me. So whether I’m crafting a logo and brand for a business or blog, or settling in to tell stories that other people will read, I have to force myself into the same “place.” Part of that place involves removing distraction, and another part involves adding inspiration. Music is a big part of that for me. And the place I’m sitting or standing.

But there are a ton of similarities between how I run my design life and my writing life. The biggest is that I’ve had to make a commitment to a “capture system” that works for each. My design life is mostly digital, so I capture things like tasks, inspiration and notes all with digital tools. Apps like Simplenote and Notational Velocity, LittleSnapper and OmniFocus are pillars that hold up the rest of my work. Without them, everything falls apart.

For writing it’s a Field Notes book tucked into my back left pocket along with a Fisher Space Pen (because I can sit on it and it will never, ever leak). The notebook looks pretty ragged at the end of its life, but I fill it with ideas, plot, names and timelines for my stories. My goal with anything it to make the act of capturing the things I need to keep around as frictionless as possible. The less friction a system has, the more likely you are to use it and keep it.

Of course, all of this does a great job of explaining the connectedness, the how and the what of my design and writing. But none of it touches on the why.

Stephen: So, why do you do what you do? That’s the real thing I’m trying to get to with this chat.

Aaron: That really is the best question, isn’t it? Some people do what they without a “why” and they tend to burn out or lose interest. For me, design and writing is all about the creation. Bringing order and beauty and life onto an empty page. Adding value to the world around me, and making something that others can take enjoyment from.

Design is all about solving problems and communicating. In some ways, design is storytelling. When I build a logo for a client, and go through those research, creation and refinement stages, I’m hopefully making something that tells the story of the company or person it represents. I was obsessed with Egyptian hieroglyphics as a kids, and I think it was because of all the words, meanings and legends built up inside one simple little iconic shape. I aim to provide that to my clients every day. Layout design is similar. I’m guiding people’s eyes across all the elements and building a message.

Writing, even though it isn’t what pays me bills and thus isn’t where most of my time gets spent, is where my heart finds total peace. I have memories of being eight and nine years old, scribbling out short stories and telling people I was going to be a writer someday. And I’ve written ever since. Why? That’s a deep question…something I’m probably going to need a psychologist to really figure out. But I have a feeling it stems from a need to communicate and share things I create.

And now, with the ability to write and publish my own books quickly and without waiting on a middle-man or giving up most of my rights and royalties to a publisher, I have found a freedom I’ve never felt before. I can write and share it. And if a few hundred, or a few thousand, people decide to pay me a little bit of money to enjoy what I’ve created, then I think we both win out.

Stephen: I think the middle-man is going the way of the dinosaur, in many ways. We can self-publish, be self-taught and work at home, not to mention companies like Amazon putting places like local book stores out of business. As a creative, what do you think about this shift?

Aaron: For sure. It’s amazing what we can get immediately these days. Etsy has revolutionized a market that once was the realm of consignment shops and boutiques. I remember going to auctions with my father when I was a kid, and those days are gone as well now that you can run one online at eBay and reach millions of additional buyers. Yeah, the middle man, and a lot of the obstacles to “shipping” are gone now.

I’m going to miss local bookstores, personally. I love browsing through those stores. I’m sure a few will hang on, but our kids aren’t going to grow up with the same experience with these big-box stores that we did. It’s sad, but I see the benefit of the progress too.

I think the shift is going to introduce a few things to consumers. First, get ready for a ton of crap. Really. Because when you no longer have a tiny little gate guarded by the Big Six publishers, all manner of written word is going to become available for purchase. A lot of it will be great stuff the publishers just didn’t have the time or resources to discover and print. But most, unfortunately, will be crap. Have you seen the way kids text these days? It’s not even English! Now imagine buying a novel written like that, and you’ll see what I mean.

But there are going to be benefits to this change. I read a great book a few years ago that has become foundational to how I view a lot of the world, called A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. Without giving away the cookies before dinner, he basically makes the case that the world is transitioning into a new Age. There was the Industrial Revolution, and then the Information Age, and now, he thinks, we are entering into the Conceptual Age. Specifically, he claims things like design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning are beginning to take on the most value in our economic system.

So now, I think, all these independent creatives like myself and so many people we know, who write and paint and build and draw and program and bake and design, are watching their potential audience grow. You can’t mechanize creativity. You can’t write a program that can spit out novels. These things are what people are going to value more than anything else in the near future.

Stephen: The more digital our world becomes, the more we crave real, hand-crafted, human-made content and goods. I think this thread is pretty strongly evident throughout your various work. Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap this up?

Aaron: I often get asked for advice by people who are trying to get more done in their day and tackle those side projects, like Read & Trust or my fiction writing, that seem to spring up out of a hectic work schedule. They want to know how I can be a husband, father to two small kids and run a full-time design business, while still finding time to create. And it’s a hard question to answer. So how about a collection of cliché statements that I honestly believe to be true:

Remove all the friction from your life:

  • Find those frustrating systems in your day, work or personal, and push yourself to find ways to get them done easier and with less friction. The smoother the process for a task gets, the less likely you are to forget it.

Capture everything in the moment:

  • Just imagine how many great ideas—ideas that could make you money or grow your skills—you have thought up and then forgotten through the course of the day. Find the best way to capture ideas, tasks, notes, etc in as short of time as possible.

Find a way to pay your bills doing what you love:

  • When your “day job” is something you care deeply about, you walk away with more energy at the end of the day. And that’s energy you can pour into side projects. Do whatever it takes to get yourself into that kind of a situation.

And that’s that. I hope this email dialogue went according to plan. And thanks for the opportunity to babble to someone besides my wife!

Writers I Read: Myke Hurley

This time around, I’m talking with Myke Hurley, one of the guys behind three great podcasts — The Bro Show, Enough — The Minimal Mac Podcast and 11 Minutes. He also tweets and writes at The Podcasting Project.

Stephen: Hey Myke, thanks for agreeing to spend some time chatting about what you do on the Internet. For those readers not familiar with you, who are you, and what do you do online?

Myke: Hello Sir! Thanks for inviting me to take part. I’m honoured and in such great company!

I’m Michael Hurley from London, UK. Online you’ll know me as a Podcaster extraordinaire! Currently I am a co-host of The Bro Show, Enough — The Minimal Mac Podcast and 11 Minutes. I write on my personal blog The Podcasting Project, in which I document my journey in Podcasting and I also submit (far too lengthy) iOS reviews for Macgasm.

I also post random things to my Twitter account.

Stephen: I’m a huge fan of both of your shows, and was honored to be a guest on the Bro Show a while back. You’re doing some great stuff, man. How’d you end up in podcasting?

Myke: Well it’s something I’ve been interested in for many years. Back in 2006 I recorded something in GarageBand. But it was just me and at the time I didn’t really know what I was saying or doing. However, I knew it was something I’d like to pick up one day.

Then in March 2010 I was talking with Terrence on the phone and we were ruminating over some Apple rumours and the latest lawsuits. Then we had the idea that other people may actually want to hear it. Terry hadn’t been very geeky until then so I jumped at the chance of being able to spend a couple of hours every week talking about my favourite subject.

We were planning things for a few weeks, making sure we had a format and a website ready, before recording and releasing the first episode of The Bro Show on April 9th 2010.

Stephen: One of my favorite part about this series is seeing how many people “fall into” their passions. It’s exciting that it was similar for you. You said Terry wasn’t very geeky before the podcast, what about you?

Myke: I agree! I consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I do now. We are close to making money from the shows and they are really growing. Where money isn’t the ultimate goal—it’s what aids further growth and pays for any costs and future equipment.

Me? Geeky? Oh you bet!

I know no programming languages – i’m not that smart when it comes to that stuff. But I love what I love—products and the businesses that encapsulate them. I’ve been a religious Mac user since 2005 and haven’t looked back since. I have a real thirst for tech news; I love to know what’s going on in the tech world and recently, the relationships that technology is able to build.

Stephen: The relationships that are possible due to things like Twitter are amazing. It is crazy that you and I would ever chat, let alone become friends. We’ll probably never meet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be involved in each other’s lives.

Myke: Oh definitely. The Internet has changed what a relationship can be. People can be heavily involved in someone’s life without ever having any face-to-face interaction.

However I do have a dream of taking a massive American road trip at some point in my life where I can stop off and say ‘Hi’ to these people that I talk to every day and consider close friends.

Stephen: I think The Bro Show is a great example of this. You’ve had some superstar guests. How did you land those early ones?

Myke: We’ve been extremely lucky to speak to the people we have. And what’s even greater is that a lot of our guests have become friends and are happy to be a guest again. It’s something I have always found hard to wrap my head around.

I am a fan of every person we have had on the show, so getting to talk to these people is always awesome for the geek inside me.

Our first guest was Mr. Patrick Rhone. I reached out to him on Twitter and he was very gracious to agree to be a guest. He spoke very nicely of us after being on the show and this brought us in to a close circle of people whom we interact with daily. These are the people who have mainly made up a lot of our guests since. As we started to bring on more people (Dave Caolo, Brett Kelly, etc) it showed to their collective fans that they enjoyed what we did. It was like a stamp of approval.

Any other guests we have had who are out of this circle (which now mainly consists of the Read & Trust members) have just come from me reaching out. On the whole any others have just come from reaching out and appealing to people’s kind natures. We are always extremely grateful of the time they give us.

Stephen: The relationships that are formed on the Internet are strange, aren’t they? You live thousands and thousands of miles away, but are just a click away, all at the same time.

Read & Trust is a great network. My favorite writers on the Internet are members, and I count many of them as friends. I think Read & Trust is a response to a hunger people have for valuable, well-done content in a world of re-tweets and rumor sites. I think that podcasts like yours are in the same category.

But quality content takes time and hard work. What does the Bro Show look like behind the scenes?

Myke: Most definitely. The work that those guys are doing is awesome and is surely inspiring many others to put their fingers on a keyboard and create something. The work that they do inspires me to create more shows and better content with a level of quality that people can enjoy.

A lot of the work that I put in to The Bro Show is actually on the days when I’m not recording. Before we first started doing the shows I used to skim the news and Twitter, picking up on things as I went along. But now I have to pay a lot more attention to stories, ensure I am reading them fully, checking over multiple sources and making notes—as this is the material I will be referencing later and talking about for an hour.

My iPhone is probably the machine I do the majority of work on, I use Reeder to pick up all my stories. I send the links and articles in to Evernote (as I can access it everywhere and both me and Terrence can email stories straight to it) and I write up a basic outline of what we’re going to discuss in Simplenote. It’s really important that I can access these services on my iPhone, iPad and Mac as I will use all of them to collect data before the show and have them on hand for reference during it.

When recording the show I keep notes of what we have discussed and any links mentioned for when I type up the show-notes later on. These notes are written in to a Moleskine notebook and I have used the same one for every episode we’ve recorded so far. I’m sure this will be a collectors item one day!

We record The Bro Show using Skype and when we’re finished I chuck it in to Garageband, trim the edges and add the music—before throwing it through a couple of other apps for post-processing and leveling. If you’re interested in finding out about my crazy set-up with this I have written about it in more detail here.

The other shows (11 Minutes and Enough) are completely different and require entirely different processes of their own. Enough is simpler as Pat does a lot of the thinking and the typing – I just edit and produce the show – whilst 11 Minutes can take hours. This comes from finding the exact points to include, trimming down the three tracks (each individual) and putting it all together.

It’s safe to say that my evenings are rather busy, but I wouldn’t change it for the world at the moment.

Stephen: That’s awesome. It’s very evident to me, as a listener of all three shows, just how much work and care is put into each episode. Where do you see these shows going in the future?

Myke: Thanks man. It’s hard work but I do enjoy it.

All of the shows are being adapted now to accept sponsorships. We have reached the point where to continue allowing the shows to grow we need to start making money. I will always ensure that our content is not harmed by the advertisers and we will only take ads from good companies. We have a great partner who will be delivering the ad sales for us and I’m really positive about where this will take us.

Obviously there will be some people that object to us putting ads in the shows — but I just hope that the majority of people will understand that without it the shows may not be around forever. Additionally I hope that one day I’ll be able to take this full time. So earning money is a big factor.

All of the shows are constantly evolving. Originally The Bro Show was just me and Terrence talking about tech, movies and video games. It has changed dramatically in to a show with a guest mainly discussing about Apple news. We are also starting to bring more guests on Enough. Having guests can be useful as it brings other viewpoints to topics, ensuring that our listeners don’t just hear my opinion over and over again.

I don’t have any other specific plans about how to adapt the current shows, but I keep an open mind—they will evolve naturally and I’m happy with that.

I do have some ideas for other shows that I’m working on. Hopefully the first of those will have begun by the time this interview is published.

Stephen: Care to give us a sneak peek?

Myke: In to the other shows? Why not…

Currently I am working on getting a show off the ground with Joshua Schnell over at Macgasm. This will be a show centered around iOS apps and games. I’m a big fan of the fruits of the App Store so I’m looking forward to this one. At the moment we are still fleshing it out, but it should be out very soon.

I have a couple of shows I’d love to do in the future. They’re basic ideas but maybe by sharing them I could get some great feedback from any readers.

  • A Movie Review Club: This show was inspired by what Dan Benjamin and John Gruber are doing on the Talk Show with the Bond movies. Every week the host(s) will set an assignment to the listeners to watch a movie which will be discussed on the next episode. We’ll tackle single movies, franchises, old and new. I would like there to be some form of audience participation in this one too—maybe leaving comments prior to the recording that could be referenced in the recording.
  • Essaycast: Every week a topic is set by the host and it is discussed by an esteemed panel of maybe 3-5 people. This can be on anything—but usually with a Tech slant. As the host I would play Devil’s Advocate for either side of the statement/question and a vote will be taken at the end as to what side of the argument the participants sit on. Again, I see this having audience participation in the form of comments and a poll to see where they sit—reviewed on the next show.
  • Web News: This would be a video show I think. It would mainly focus on reporting current Memes and other crazy web stories. It would be a comedy show in which everything is being reported in a sensible manner. A satire I guess.

They’re the shows I have locked in my brain at the moment. I sure hope nobody steals these ideas…

Stephen: Thanks for sharing. I think my readership is free of scumbags, so your ideas are safe with us! Thanks so much for chatting with me, Myke!

Myke: Haha! I certainly hope so.

Stephen, thanks for inviting me to be a part of this series. I’m a big fan of the site and it’s a pleasure and an honour to be a part of it.

Writers I Read: Dave Caolo

For the fourth installment of the “Writers I Read” series I’m sharing my conversation with Dave Caolo, TUAW news editor and curator of 52 Tiger.

Stephen: Dave, thanks for being willing to chat with me a bit. I know that you stay busy editing at TUAW, yet you still find time (and energy) to write 52 Tiger.

From the outside, it seems like your day revolves around words. What are you up to when you’re not behind your keyboard?

Dave: My day starts at 7:00 AM when I quickly review posts prepared for TUAW while I slept and schedule them for AM publication. Then I’m off to get my kids to school. I return to my desk around 8:00 – 8:10.

From there, it’s a lot of writing. My co-workers and I use IRC as a virtual office for coordinating stories and real-time communication. While we’re finding stories and writing them up, I’m also noting things I’d like to discuss on 52 Tiger in Notational Velocity.

My TUAW duties end around 2:00 PM when my kids return from school. After they arrive I’m in Dad Mode until 7:00 PM when they go to bed. That’s when I plop back into my chair and catch up on reading with my iPad and work on posts for 52 Tiger. I usually finish around 10:00 PM.

My biggest challenge since going independent three years ago has been time allocation. In the course of a day, I must be a writer, editor, father, husband and neighbor. At this point I’ve devised a workable routine but it can all change in an instant. A sick child, malfunctioning network, etc. can toss the whole thing out the window. So really, the bulk of my workday is responding to the huge number of little things that pop up unexpectedly.

Stephen: I have to say that I’m impressed by people who can work from home. It is probably because both of my kids are still so young, but if I stay home, I usually end up playing games, watching Thomas the Tank Engine, or something other than working. I’ve gotten better at putting my shields up, but its hard.

You seem like a very busy dude, with a hectic schedule. What tools do you use to keep tasks under control?

Dave: It’s a tightrope walk. I’ve got to be an excellent father, and that includes earning enough money to provide my kids with clothes, a place to live, a decent education and so on. I’ve also got to be available to them, and not always staring at a glowing screen. This is the single most difficult aspect of my work.

It’s easy to assume that independent workers with a home office are free to do what they please whenever the mood strikes. You’re “your own boss,” right? Actually, you’ve got 10 bosses. Or 15. Or however many clients you have. Each one requires and deserves your full effort and attention.

When my kids were home each day it was very hard to get things done. Now that they’re both in school full time, I have a good six hours, Monday through Friday to work in a quiet house. It’s a tremendous privilege and miracle to pour tea, sit at a desk, type on a very nice computer and write words that thousands of people will read.

It’s not always easy to walk away at 2:00 PM when the bus arrives, but that’s what you do. If I’ve learned anything in my time as an independent worker, it’s to do what I’m doing. When I’m writing, I write. When I’m playing with my kids, I play with my kids. Don’t worry about that project when you’re playing chase in the back yard, because there’s nothing you can do about it right then, anyway.

I try to keep the number of tools I use to a minimum. Here’s what I consider indispensable.

  • A notebook and a good pen. There isn’t an app in the world that matches the flexibility and power of a piece of paper and a pen. Heck, a few lines on the back of a napkin could change the world.
  • Billings from Marketcircle. It’s the only invoicing/time tracking app I need. Both Billings and Billings Touch for iPhone are fantastic.
    Notational Velocity. While I love pen and paper, sometimes I receive information that’s best stored digitally. Notational Velocity is my digital inbox of choice.
  • TextMate with Brett Terpstra’s Blogsmith Bundle. TextMate is my preferred text editor, and the Blogsmith Bundle features several tweaks specifically designed for blogging for TUAW.com. It’s incredibly useful.
  • David Seah’s Printable CEO forms. The Emergent Task Planner is an essential part of my day. I use it to map out what’s going to happen hour to hour, record incidental stuff, track progress on major projects and stay on task.
  • OmniFocus. As I’m not part of a team working on several huge projects, I need a task manager suited to individuals. For me, this is it.

Stephen: A quiet house sounds like a magical place. I’ve forgotten what it’s like.

I like your views on “do what you’re doing.” For me, being on the computer makes that more difficult. As a writer for a major website, how do you manage the never-ending stream of incoming RSS feeds, tweets, IMs and mail?

Dave: I’m afraid I’m a bit old-fashioned. I still use Google Reader for RSS feeds. Mostly because I disliked moving back and forth between an app and my browser.

The good news is that Twitter and IRC have replaced IM for me. I haven’t launched iChat in months. So that’s been eliminated! As for Twitter, growl notifications alert me to any mentions my accounts receive, so I needn’t look at Twitter all day.

Email is another thing entirely. I’d like to say that I only check it at 9:00 AM, noon and 4:00 PM, but that’s not the case. We get lots of tips and other useful bits of info via email all day, so I must keep an eye on it. One thing I don’t do is fiddle with folders, mailboxes and complex rules.

I have one email box, and that’s where everything goes. When I switch over to Mail for a little email triage, I look at each message, decide what it is (tip, reference material, junk, etc.), treat it accordingly (share with the team, file away, trash) and then delete it. Right then and there. Your email client is not a filing cabinet, so don’t treat it as one.

All of that bouncing around between Twitter, IRC, RSS and email is a large part of my day, unfortunately. Yet it must be done. Fortunately, things like Growl and no-holds-barred email triage make it tolerable. Mostly.

Stephen: Sadly, email also has taken over way too much time for me. Oddly, as Twitter and other things have taken off. I think that as more conversational tools have become public and abbreviated, email has become more important.

You’ve shared a lot about how your workflow operates. It sounds like you’ve got some systems in place to keep from drowning. But what drove you to the deep end? You write for TUAW, 52 Tiger and probably personally. How’d you end up behind a keyboard for a living?

Dave: I didn’t choose the life of an independent worker, I had it thrust upon me. In the mid-nineties I was working as an IT Director at a residential school here in Massachusetts. It was a great job and I loved it. The best people you’ll ever meet, lots of fun equipment to play with, decent pay and a “hard” day at work wasn’t hard at all. Just a nice job.

In the meantime my wife and I had our first kid, and I started a blog about the experience, as many have done. About a year in I got an email from the people at Parenting Magazine. They were starting a multi-author blog and asked if I’d be the “dad blogger.” I said yes and it was my 1st paid writing gig.

I was also reading TUAW at the time and they put out a call for bloggers. I applied and was hired. This was back when TUAW was a part of Weblogs, Inc. and Jason Calacanis was at the helm. Before the Aol acquisition.

The more I wrote for these sites the more I enjoyed it. And that was a good thing, because in 2008, my co-workers and I were told that the school would be closed for good in eight months. It took three. One hundred and ten of us lost our jobs.

I went into panic mode and applied for a series of jobs I didn’t get. Subsequent meetings with a career counselor helped me identify tech writing as something I really enjoyed. I spent 2009 (a horrible year I’d love to forget) busting my arse and doing everything I could to earn a modestly respectable amount of money from writing online. Today, I’m almost there.

After three years I’ve learned to enjoy working independently. It’s like tending a garden. Abandon it and nothing grows. Make an effort and you’ll get a few sprouts. Work hard and you’ll have a nice harvest. Maybe. Sometimes. Probably. If you’re lucky.

Stephen: Very cool. Like so many people I’ve spoken too, your desire and ability to write have been matched by life’s circumstances. And (also like many people), you write for multiple sites. Do you ever have to deal with questions about what should be posted at TUAW and what should be posted at 52 Tiger instead?

Dave: Oh man, every day! I’ll take it even further and note that I often get ideas that I’d like to discuss that aren’t appropriate for either venue. Where do they go? Or, do I need to share them in the first place?

Right now, TUAW is my primary focus. It pays the bills, has a significantly larger audience and has been very good to me. I love the people over there and working with them is truly a joy. As news editor, my job is to find news stories that will interest our readers and get them out in a timely manner. It’s fast paced.

At 52 Tiger, I like to take my time. Let a post stew for a few days. Spend 1,000 words or more on a thought. That’s not always possible on TUAW. So I divvy up posts that way.

Stephen: And you bang all those words out on an Apple Extended II keyboard, right?

Dave: You know it. Same one I’ve had for two decades. Once a year I take it apart, give it a good cleaning and put it back together again. I dread the day it finally dies, as I don’t have a replacement.

What I like most about it is the sound. Much like a jackhammer operator who feels satisfied at the end of a noisy work day, I feel I got much accomplished with all that thonking and whacking.

Stephen: That’s awesome. I bought a new-in-box one about 4 years ago and love it. I use my backup — a used one — at the office. I would love to see a how-to video up at 52 Tiger next time you clean yours.

Alright, I suppose we should wrap this up. Any advice to those who want to write full-time?

Dave: Write a lot. Every day, in fact. Even when you don’t feel like it or think you have nothing to say.

Educate yourself. If you didn’t major in English or journalism, take some classes on either or both. Practice makes perfect and it also makes permanent. You don’t want to teach yourself bad habits.

Form your personal Board of Trustees. There are several people I often tap for advice, and they’re invaluable.

Understand that no one cares about you. In your writing, that is. The best writing advice I ever received was this. “No one cares about you. They care about themselves. People want to find themselves in your writing. It must be relatable to your reader. Think of who you’re writing to and write to him/her.”

Give yourself permission to write the shitty first draft (thank you, Anne Lamott). Just getting your idea out will benefit you later. Don’t fret every syllable the first time you sit down. You’ll dive yourself crazy and productivity will suffer. There’s plenty of time to make it pretty.

Writers I Read: Ben Brooks

For the third installment of “Writers I Read,” I’m sharing my conversation with Ben Brooks, writer of The Brooks Review, a great blog about Apple, tech and other nerdy stuff.

Stephen: Ben, thanks for taking some time to talk to me about what you’re doing over at brooksreview.net. “Meteoric” is the first word that comes to mind when I think about your site. In less than a year, you’ve grown it to one of the must-reads.

This series is all about getting to know the people behind the by-lines. I’ve read that the Brooks Review is the latest in a long string of blogs you’ve tried to pull off. Is that true? What makes this one stick so well?

Ben: Yeah I have been blogging off and on since college — so I would say I started in 2001–2002, but it never lasted for more than a few weeks with each attempt.

For me TBR has stuck because of the great emails and discussions that my writing generates with readers. I love the back and forth and it really keeps me engaged with the blog.

Aside from that, I finally have started to feel comfortable writing, while at the same time letting personal attacks roll off of me. You can’t blog and expect success if you are offended every time some one emails to yell at you.

Stephen: I agree. People can be vicious.

“Comfortable” is a good word for your writing. Some blogs read like speeches; yours reads like a conversation at a side table in Starbucks. I like that. What does your writing and editing process normally look like?

Ben: Oh boy, my writing/editing process looks like the back of a desk — a mess of cables going unknown places. At least that is how it feels right now. In simplistic terms my process looks like this:

  • Idea
  • Add to list of ideas
  • Pick an idea from list
  • Start writing in TextMate (markdown only)
  • Edit
  • Convert to HTML and paste into MarsEdit
  • Add missing links (it is at this point I usually forget to add some pictures)
  • Add pictures
  • Post

That is the short version. The long version is that I get two types of ideas: ones I want to write now, and ones that I want to write at some point. The ones I want to write now I do write as soon as I get the time. The rest I write and work on over longer periods of time. I used to work on multiple posts at one time (5–6), but that felt like my attention was being pulled in too many directions. Now I try to work on no more than 2 posts at a time. If I need to I will create an OmniOutliner document and start jotting down ideas for the other posts.

This keeps me from getting too overwhelmed with everything.

Stephen: It seems like you and I have very similar workflows, except I just work right in MarsEdit in HTML.

That type of workflow — for me, at least — can be quite manic. Do you go through periods where you don’t have ideas or just don’t want to write? Or is your desire/idea flow pretty stable?

Ben: There are definitely times when I don’t have any desire to write. I usually will have the ideas, jut not the drive to write them up. Either that or I go through spells when I have ideas, but they all suck. When ever that happens I take it as a sign that my brain wants to do something else, so I go do something else for a bit.

Stephen: Gotcha. I know you seem to stay busy between TBR and your business. What other hobbies do you enjoy?

Ben: Outside of the tech world and running a business I love to get out and hike as well as dabble in photography. I started hiking when I was young and my grandfather would take me out, teaching me about survival and just general manliness. Photography took a different route as digital is really what made me get into it. The idea that I could twist a mediocre picture into something great with Photoshop really stuck with me.

Then I found out that you still need to be an artist to make a crappy picture look good with just Photoshop. I decided it would be easier and faster just to learn the photography and try to make great pictures from the camera. I like photography a lot, but sadly it is the hobby that seems to get put on the back burner most often.

Luckily photography and hiking go very well together and Seattle has a lot of great trails to get out and enjoy.

Stephen: Cool — I didn’t know you were into hiking. My best friend from high school lives in Seattle now, and loves it. I’m a pretty serious mountain biker, and started with my dad when I was just a kid, similar to you and your grandfather. I love just getting into the woods — it really helps clear my mind. If we had any hills here, I’d probably be all about some hiking, too.

I think a lot of people think that {insert any photo app ever here} can cover up a bad shot. Sadly, you’re right. That said, I’ve seen some of your shots — I think you’ve got a good eye. What kind of camera gear do you use?

Ben: I am a Canon guy. Currently I shoot with a Canon 5D (the original not the sweet mark II) that was a hand me down from my Grandfather. I couple that with a few lenses that I have accumulated: Canon 50mm f/1.4, Canon 100mm f/2, Canon 17–40 f/4L, Canon 80–200 f/2.8L. That covers most of the range, but honestly I use the 50 most of the time and the 17–40 when I am hiking. The other two I usually use for portrait work.

Along with that I have a ton of light modifiers, but only one flash. I have an Canon G9 that I will take on overnight hikes so that I don’t have to carry the bulk of the 5D. The G9 also gets a lot of use by my wife to taking product shots. Lastly the iPhone 4 has become my primary and go to camera most of the time. It is not great in low light by any means — and turning on the flash is the worst thing you can do to your images — but it does a great job for macro shots and for general out and about snaps.

Stephen: Dude, I am a total G9 fanboy. I carry mine everywhere I go, and simply love it. If you don’t have it, the wide-angle attachment is killer — as is the macro mode.

What do you process your photos with?

Ben: Every time I use the G9 I am reminded just how great it is. I was a heavy Aperture user for a long time, but in September 2010 I switched to Lightroom. It came down to speed and quality. Lightroom just feels a lot faster to use, even though I don’t like the module layout of the app.

What really swung me to Lightroom was how nicely it applies any treatments you do (skin smoothing, neutral density filtering). It is done in a way that doesn’t make your photo look over processed. Overall I like Lightroom a lot, but Aperture still has its uses.

Stephen: Cool. I appreciate you taking the time and chatting about what goes on behind the scenes at the Brooks Review. As a nice way to close this out, what advice would you give to those who either want to start blogs or grow what they are already doing?

Ben: No matter what endeavor you take in life, people can always tell if you are passionate about it. The minute you become complacent in your writing, or work, is the same minute that people stop caring about what you are doing. We can all see through pitchmen when they are hocking goods in three easy payments of $19.99, but we can also pick up on when someone is selling something they truly believe in.

Passion is what will sustain you long term on any project that you start — I truly believe that. If you are starting something new, make sure that your heart is in it. If you are trying to grow something you already started, then you need to assess if your growth has stagnated because your passion is waning.

At least that is my $0.02.

Writers I Read: Ian P. Hines

For this installment of “Writers I Read,” I’m sharing my conversation with Ian P. Hines of ianhin.es & intrv.ws.

Stephen: Ian, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. I’m a huge fan of ianhin.es and intrv.ws. Your interviewing skills are great; I hope I don’t embarrass myself too badly in this process.

This series is all about getting the know people behind the blogs I love. In your Colophon, you describe yourself as a “modern do-gooder.” Can you unpack that a little?

Ian: First of all, thanks for asking me to be interviewed. Interviewing others is certainly something I’ve always enjoyed, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what if feels like to be on the hot seat.

So “modern do-gooder,” eh? I first stumbled upon the phrase in a column by David Brooks of The New York Times, and wrote about it a bit here. Basically a modern do-gooder is someone with:

  • an orientation towards public service;
  • a belief in the power of the free-market of ideas;
  • a relentless focus on measurable results and accountability; and
  • a deep respect for people who pursue excellence in what they do.

Let me break those down a bit deeper.

By an orientation towards public service, I’m speaking specifically of doing for others as a matter of course. Now, that could be in your job, or in your spare time. Whatever. The point is that you feel it’s important to do work — in the broadest sense — that makes a positive difference in the lives of others. It’s not just about making money.

The free-market of ideas is an important concept, because it implies that the best ideas will naturally win out over the long term, assuming that experimentation and debate are allowed to occur. This is the biggest reason why too much top-down uniformity can be a bad thing. We need a diversity of approaches, as the first idea is rarely, if ever, the best one, and might very rarely makes right.

Results and accountability? Well, if you’re afraid of those two things you really shouldn’t even be involved in whatever you’re doing. Show me it works, and I’ll embrace it wholeheartedly. But prove it. We’ve spent far too long trying to fix problems with solutions that are based on a “gut-feeling,” but never pan out. We simply don’t have the time to guess anymore.

And lastly, pursuing excellence. I mean this in every context. If you’re a father, be the best father you can be. If you’re an employee, the best employee. Etc. Don’t settle for second best. Ever. People are counting from you; expect great things from yourself, and they’ll happen. And visa versa.

The number one thing that attracts me to a writer online is that I recognize these characteristics in them. And most especially the last one. Patrick Rhone, Shawn Blanc, John Gruber — these guys are so well read and so well respected because they approach everything they do with a zeal for quality. And in a world where everything is right at your fingertips, acceptable isn’t enough. People are looking for stellar quality. And that’s what I shoot for every day.

Stephen: I’m not sure my questions are grilling enough to term your spot the “hot seat,” but we’ll see where this goes…

I really like your definition of a “modern do-gooder.” While I don’t write much publicly about it, I work for a large, faith-based non-profit as my day job, and it’s very rewarding to see what good can come out of caring for someone that society has forgotten. While I don’t spend a lot of time on the front lines, I support those who are, from an IT and multi-media standpoint.

But enough about me. How do you get to flesh these ideas out in your every day life?

Ian: By being kind to people. By remembering to focus on little things. By doing my best work. By constantly re-examining the ideas and conventions I encounter at work–looking for the best approach, solution, etc.

But, let’s face it. I fall far, far short of the goal. We all do.

I just wake up every morning thinking, “I want to be a good person.” Then I try to do that. I look to my faith to guide me when I’m not sure how. I used to look to political theory–to politics–but that’s not the way to find truth or wisdom.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said “The truth is the truth even if no one believes it, and a lie is a lie even if everyone believes it.” I believe that. It’s important that we recognize that everything is not relative–that there are objective rights and wrongs in the world–and that we need to do everything we can to act properly towards one another.

So, I don’t know if that answers your question or not. But it’s what I think on how to live your life as a good person. Adopt a strong moral compass rooted in a proper understand of right and wrong and follow it unflinchingly. It’s hard, but it’s the only true way to live.

Stephen: Thanks for letting me pry into your life a little bit with that question.

I see your desire to do good all over your online presence. Your writing online is always respectful, even when you are disagreeing with someone. You are open about how things are, not how they should be — putting truth above all else. I respect that.

So let’s talk a little about your writing. In a post titled “Content”, you said:

There is nothing inherently wrong with short-form content, except that it cannot be the end-all be-all. Blogs, or tumblelogs, filled only with links, photos, reblogged items, and the like fail to grasp the true potential of blogging: to share who you are as a person with the wider world.

You don’t have to be controversial; you don’t have to be particularly interesting, or thought provoking; you don’t have to be anything at all. What you should do is endeavor to be yourself because your life, inherently, is worth sharing with others.

When I’m reading you work, the whole experience is authentic. You seem to have created your sites to be as transparent as possible — putting the emphasis on the content, rather than the vehicle for content.

You mostly write about the Macs, design and doing good. How do you see those three things being tied together? How much energy goes into the content we see?

Ian: I think that good design makes the world a better place, and that Apple’s product line is one of the prime examples of good design in the modern marketplace.

The reason I feel that way about good design is because good design is the result of a continuous process of reexamination and revision, with an eye towards making the best possible product. That’s really what life’s about, no matter what you do: an endless process of reevaluation and revision, with a goal on doing the very best job possible.

Take religion, for example. You don’t normally hear people compare religion to design, but work with me for a moment. No human being perfects the practice of their faith on the first go round–no matter how hard they may try. Rather, living one’s faith is a constant process of reexamination and revision of habits, with a goal of living up to a great ideal. So, too, with design.

Did Apple make the perfect computer when they release OS X? No. Sure, they made a damn good one, but they knew they could do better. We can always do better. So, unlike Microsoft, they are engaged in a constant process of refinement and improvement, with a goal of doing their best every time.

So, I guess for me the real unifier between those things is that they’re all focused on doing your best all the time. On making things better than they are now. On constantly improving, even if it sometimes means returning to basics.

Stephen: I love that bit about faith and design. I really do.

You’ve answered the ultimate question I want to ask the writers I read — why you write what to you do. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken chatting with me. I love both of your sites, and will continue to read with a greater appreciation of what you’re doing. As a parting piece — what advice would you give to someone wanting to make a splash in the blogosphere?

Ian: Be yourself. Take your time. Focus on what you love. Always strive for excellence. Be kind to others. Pay attention to detail. Read voraciously. Say hello. Disagree without being disagreeable. Obsession Times Voice.

Writers I Read: Joshua Schnell

Editors’ Note: This is the first interview in my new “Writers I Read” series.

Joshua Schnell is the Editor-n-Chief of Macgasm, a Mac-centric blog based in Ottawa. I currently moonlight as the Senior Contributing Editor for Macgasm, and have enjoyed working with Josh closely on the site. However, I’ve read Macgasm for years, enjoying Josh’s writing style and no-nonsense attitude towards some of the silliness in which other Mac sites partake.

Stephen: Josh, thanks for being agreed to be interviewed. I know you keep busy running your Mac-centric news site, Macgasm. It’s been in my RSS reader for a long time. What got you started in the tech writing world?

Joshua: It was probably a little bit of a personal perfect storm. I was pretty enamored with ZDTV and TechTV growing up. Around the time that G4 started bastardizing the network, I began to lose interest in their programming, and I found myself trying to keep up with the original TechTV personalities online. It’s kind of weird, but once TechTV collapsed, it kind of left a technology void to be filled.

Between 2004 and 2007, I started dabbling with a personal blog. Around the same time, I made the switch to a Mac in 2005/2006. I found myself without any available resources when it came to the Mac (turns out that I just didn’t know where to find them), and I started keeping notes on interesting things I found on my personal blog. By 2007 I started to notice search engine traffic coming to those posts, and I figured it was time to throw my hat into the ring. Macgasm remained a bit of a personal hobby from 2007 through until 2009, but then I really started to ramp up coverage, and one thing led to another. It’s been an extremely exciting and frustrating ride over the years.

I’ve always had a disposition to writing about technology on the internet. When I was in high school (from 1995 to 2000), I dabbled with starting a video game website (e-central.org), but it ultimately led nowhere. It also helped that a good friend of mine managed to sell off his video game website for close to $200,000 at that time. Today $200,000 might not seem like all that much, but seeing someone with that amount of cash while still in high school really put the potential of the internet into perspective for me.

Stephen: I too fell into the Mac world in high school. For me, it was at the student newspaper. From the way you describe it, it sounds like you were almost destined to write on the web, and you’ve been doing it for a long time now. How do you think the landscape has changed over the years?

Joshua: I love the Mac community, and generally everyone who contributes to it really gets the culture that most of us have come to love. Maybe I had naive beginnings, but there’s a feeling I can’t seem to shake: something has definitely changed. Somewhere along the way it became less about helping others and more about making a living. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems like there’s more emphasis on getting eyeballs to websites than there is about writing responsibly. Corners get cut, Via links dry up, and some people even like to pretend that they’re a conduit for every minute detail that comes out of Cupertino by demanding link-backs. One of the reasons I started the blog was to help people make the switch, and I think this is probably true for most, but somewhere along the way it’s become less about giving back to the community and more about taking from the community. We’re not perfect—far from it actually—but we constantly reevaluate the way we do things in an attempt to rid ourselves of any of the “new media douchery” that comes with running a blog these days.

I don’t know if it’s the economics of running a technology blog, or a general change in the culture of the Mac community, but sensational headlines rule the day.

Stephen: That’s interesting. I see the Mac new world in three sections. Pros (like Macworld), prosumer (MacStories) and then columnists like Gruber. Writing style and content make up a lot of it, but attitude means so much to me. I like that Macgasm is trying to be different. How has it been trying to run against the current?

Joshua: To me, the most fun thing about this gig is trying to figure out who our primary audience might be, and then figuring out ways that we can provide things a little bit different than the others. We don’t always pull it off, but I like to think of us as a bit of a hybrid website. We’ll never beat any of those websites you’ve listed at their own game. They all do what they do extremely well, but I think providing news alongside commentary is something that a lot of people are looking for today. Straight up, news sites don’t have much of a chance anymore. Twitter has taken over the “fastest-post” market. People get news in 140 character chunks these days, but what they’re missing is commentary. Any time we can provide insights or thoughts on the news, we do it.

Being mentioned in the same breath as the examples you listed is an honor, but we don’t want to be like them. There’s no value in that. We’d only be playing second fiddle. Trying to run against the current has its own set of challenges. Some people won’t understand it, but others embrace it. Providing commentary is a bit more difficult than regurgitating the news like some of the other websites on the internet. Some people appreciate it, while others have no problem calling you a fanboy, troll, or idiot. It is what it is, but by not catering to the masses, we’re not going to see mass appeal and growth. That’s what we want. Don’t get me wrong, we’d love the extra traffic, but we’re not about to sell our souls to get it. We want to be something to someone, not everything to everyone. We’ve been around since 2008ish, and I don’t really see us going anywhere anytime soon.

We try to avoid the sensationalism because we don’t want to be associated with the hot air. A lot of people leave us positive responses when they notice that. They’re tired of being baited into clicks, and they’re tired of being treated like idiots. If giving them a positive experience means that we’re more selective with our titles, it’s worth the effort.

Stephen: I think you’re right. I know I’ve stopped reading many Apple-centric sites over the years because of their coverage, poor writing or traffic-grabbing tricks. As you so clearly put, you aren’t willing to “sell your soul” for traffic. That’s pretty ballsy when it comes to advertising revenue.

I also liked what you wrote when the news about Steve Jobs’ leave of absence broke: “If we hear anything more that’s based on fact we’ll be sure to update you. Other than that we’ll avoid conjecture and rumors on Jobs’ health issues.”

Its sad that your stance isn’t the default stance on the topic of Jobs’ health. Why do you think that is?

Joshua: I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s painfully difficult to make a sustainable income from writing about tech news, unless you already have a following. I’d love to get my hands on they guy who decided that advertising value on the internet should be based on clicks. When we slice away all the other possible reasons for traffic-grabbing posts, it really comes down to people needing the eyeballs to feed their family. It’s hard to blame a lot of people for going that route, but it’s not something we want to be associated with. To me, it’s that simple.

I’ve always said that I’d rather close the website entirely than compromise my personal ethics, but I fully understand that personal ethics are subjective. There are probably people out there who have a problem with some of the things that we do, so it’s difficult to point fingers. Frankly, Apple news sells, and that’s clearly evidenced by the number of blogs that are available online. But, to me there are limits about what we should write about. During 2008, when Jobs was battling liver problems, we had to make a conscious effort to not write about all the speculation and hype. It was difficult seeing the traffic flow to other blogs that were posting 5 or 10 articles on the topic, but I just couldn’t bring myself to invade someone’s privacy like that. Someone would probably say that that makes us bad journalists, that we shouldn’t care, and that we should just cover the news, but I don’t see it that way. Sometimes I feel like I need to draw the line, and when it comes to health concerns, there’s a pretty clear line. It’s one thing to write about rumored technologies, and it’s another to write about someone’s personal life.

For me, writing about personal life rumors are over a line, but to others, it helps them pay the bills.

Stephen: Traffic-grabbing is slowly ruining the web, I fear. People seem to be willing to do almost anything for clicks. I appreciate that you don’t run Macgasm that way. I think you’ve struck a good balance between paying the bills and selling your soul.

Ultimately, that makes your job harder, doesn’t it? Where do you see Macgasm in the future?

Joshua: Right. Everyone needs to keep the lights on, but there’s a line, and pop-unders, pop-ups, and interstitial ads are the line for us.

Writing a story for the clicks is probably a bigger detriment to the internet than advertising in my opinion.

Right now we’re focusing on paying the bandwidth bill and other expenses. Once that happens we can focus on expanding our team. It’s a bit of a catch 22, but we’re almost there.

We’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipeline. We’re working on a video podcast and iPhone app, as well as some other stuff that we can’t talk about just yet, but it’s going to be a fun year at Macgasm. 🙂