Archives for November 2013

RIP, Datamancer

I was looking through Boing, Boing yesterday when I saw an announcement that shocked and saddened me. Richard Nagy, Datamancer, had died. Richard was an amazingly talented artist, known for his work in the steampunk genre. He made astonishing artefacts that felt like they had come from an alternate universe of tesla coils, brass and vacuum tubes. What’s more, they worked.

I first came across Richard’s work somewhere on the Internet in 2007 and I was gobsmacked. I looked at his variants on the Von Slatt keyboard and I wanted one very badly. I did something I have never done before or since. I dropped him an email asking if he would make one for me. The answer was affirmative.

Over the next couple of months Richard and I exchanged emails and he hand-built me a keyboard that I prize to this present day. Richard was always pleasant to deal with and he kept me posted at every step of the way– when he was acquiring old type-writer parts from Hong Kong, when he was making custom key-tips, when he wrapped the finished keyboard and posted it to Scotland. I was very excited when I pulled it from the bubble wrap.

Looking at the pics you can see why. They don’t begin to show how impressive the keyboard is. I am as far from a good photographer as it is possible to get and the pictures were taken on our kitchen table with the camera in my phone and still the quality of the man’s work shines through.

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I’ve always meant to do a blog post about this keyboard. It looks like the sort of thing you ought to write Warhammer 40K novels on. Those blue lights actually work. They give off an eerie glow when the Caps Lock and Num Lock are on. 

I am sorry to be finally writing the post under these circumstances but I wanted to say my piece about someone who had touched my life with his work. Richard Nagy was taken from the world too soon. He left behind some amazing monuments.  Here are some more links to them.

The Pomodoro Technique

Over the years I’ve tried many different productivity systems—I am a sucker for them just as I’m a sucker for any piece of software that promises to increase the number of words I get done daily. Recently I have been experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique. This was originally developed by Francisco Cirillo back in the 1980’s and is essentially very simple.

The basic idea behind the method is that you productivity increases if you include small breaks between your work sessions. These should be interspersed with longer breaks whenever you have done a certain number of sessions.

The basic unit of work in this system is the pomodoro. (Yes, that is Italian for tomato—the system takes its name from the mechanical kitchen timer that its creator originally used to measure is work time.) In my case a pomodoro is 25 minutes. Each pomodoro is separated by a five-minute break. Once I have done a complete set of four pomodoros, I take a 25 minute break and then I repeat the process throughout the working day. During each break, you step away from the task and go and do something else—make a tea, do some stretching exercises, chat, whatever, as long as you break from the task you were doing.

Basically all you need is a notebook, a pen and a timer of some sort. I find the stopwatch on my Android phone does very well but I have also invested in Tomato Timer for my MacBook. At the start of each day, I spend some time planning, estimating roughly how long I think each task I intend to do that they will take me. I write this down and allocate a number of pomodoros to each task. If I think that a task will take me less time than one pomodoro, I can allocate a group of such tasks to a single pomodoro. For example if I know that writing a couple of emails will take me roughly 10 minutes, I will do that and some planning and then maybe write for the remainder of that pomodoro.

At the end of each pomodoro I take a few moments to write down what I achieved in the notebook.

I know, I know—it just sounds ludicrously simple doesn’t it? That’s one of the reasons it works. I find it very easy to work in 25 minute segments. I used to work in units of one hour but my repetitive strain injuries would flare up so I switched to working in units of half an hour. I’ve always been pretty good at maintaining concentration over that period.

My problem was that once the period was over I would take what I thought was a short break. Inevitably the short break would turn into half an hour or an hour of surfing the web or responding to emails or basically just frittering away my time in some other way.

The Pomodoro Technique gives me a structure that avoids that. It allows me to have a definite break at the end of each work period but it also lets me know that I should be returning to work within the next five minutes. The slacker in me is reassured by the fact that I will be getting a full 25 minute break at the end of the two hour period. This means that I feel that I am not being too imposed upon by my system.

I think having a basic structure and keeping to it is central to using this system. But that’s not all there is to it. The devil is in the detail with all these sort of systems and here are some more details. A pomodoro is treated as an indivisible unit of time. If you’re interrupted for more than a very short time then you need to reset your timer and begin your pomodoro all over again. But what if I have to take an urgent phone call 24 minutes into my pomodoro you’re thinking—well that’s too bad! You can either choose to answer your phone or you can reset the timer.

Or, alternatively and more sensibly, you can choose to respond to the phone call and tell the person calling you that you are in the middle of something and will get back to them soon. The system allows you to do that but very little more than that. When you are doing something during the course of a pomodoro then you should be really doing it. You need to train yourself to ignore such distractions and set aside some time to deal with them later either during one of your breaks or in a pomodoro would you have scheduled specifically for dealing with these things.

I think the Pomodoro Technique works in part because it forces you to focus on exactly what you are doing at the time you are doing it. It also tends to focus your attention on exactly what you can do within that 25 minute period. I don’t stop and daydream about what I am going to be doing in half an hour’s time—I keep my mind focused on the writing that I am doing at the time. I don’t need to worry about problems that might arise later in the book I’m currently working on. I just need to keep focused on writing one word after another and then one sentence after another and then one paragraph after another.

When it comes to editing, I have found that the Pomodoro Technique has certain advantages as well and I strongly suspect that these advantages are only going to become more obvious the more I use the system.

Because one pomodoro is an indivisible unit of time, you can actually measure what you have done in one pomodoro against what you have done in another. For example, I have always suspected that when I am editing I do so at roughly 6 times the speed that I write first draft prose. I have found that my editing speed actually varies considerably depending on the density of editing required. If I am basically just checking spelling and the sense of sentences and making a few late corrections, I can edit up to 7000 words in a pomodoro. This becomes considerably slower when heavier rewrites are required. Because I log what happens in each pomodoro I have some idea of how long each process takes me. Believe me, when you’re writing a book this can prove invaluable.

The Pomodoro Technique naturally generates a good deal of information about how productive you are at various times and when doing various things. When you check your records, you’ll have a very good idea about how long it took you to complete the process. The utility of this information will only increase over time as you gather more of it.

Also on record as a number of pomodoros you estimated that each task would take at the start of the day, compared to the number of pomodoros the task actually took. This means that you have a tool available that should, hopefully, over time allow you to become more accurate in your assessment of exactly how long a given task is going to take you. The Pomodoro Technique is one of those systems that helps you to become more productive the longer you use it.

A New Tablet

So I finally got round to buying a tablet. In a week where the whole world was going mad over the iPad Air, I bought an Asus T100T. A what? I hear you cry. An Asus T100T. It’s the latest release from the people who brought us the original netbook and more recently the very lovely Zenbooks.

Why did I buy it, rather an iPad? Well, I was curious, about a lot of things, Windows 8, Intel’s new Bay Trail processors and how useful a tablet would be in general. Given my needs a Windows tablet looked like it would be a better fit, particularly this one. Since the Asus has the full fat version of Windows 8.1, it runs Scrivener, Dragon Naturally Speaking and a lot of other software I use right out of the box. I wanted to use the tablet mostly as a PDF reader for my extensive collection of games PDFs, but I thought I might do a little light editing and emailing on it as well. Using speech recognition software obviates the need for a keyboard and, as I have remarked elsewhere, Dragon Naturally Speaking is very, very good for this.

The T100T was cheap. Roughly 10900 Czech Crowns, around £360, and that was with an Xbox 360 thrown in. Granted I suspect I was doing the retailer a favour by clearing the Xbox from his shelf space before the new Xbox Ones arrive but what the hell, I thought, I’ll set it up in my office and maybe finally get around to playing that copy of Dishonoured that has been sitting on my shelf since last Xmas. Not only that the T100 comes with a detachable keyboard and a free copy of Microsoft Office. Under the circumstances, it’s a bargain. For comparison the cheapest local version of the iPad Air (16Gb) is 12900 or so. In the US the Asus machine complete with Office and keyboard retails for $349, so you can see we Europeans are paying a bit of a premium.

The keyboard is pretty basic. It has no second battery in it, unlike the rest of Asus’s Transformer line and only one USB 3 port. On the plus side, I have to say it is the best netbook size keyboard I have ever used aside from the one on the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet, and let’s face it, you just can’t do better than a Lenovo keyboard. On the negative side, the trackpad sucks big time. Fortunately, the tablet part of the T100T doubles up as a touchscreen so I can ignore the shonky trackpad for long periods.

The build quality is solid. I have friends who tend to dismiss anything not made in Apple Aluminium as cheap-feeling but the truth is that I don’t care. I spend more time working with my computer gear than fondling it, and all I am concerned about is whether it will stand up to abuse. The T100T feels like it will.

There is the usual assortment of micro-ports—micro USB, micro HDMI, micro-SD as well as the aforementioned keyboard mounted full sized USB3 port. There is 2 Gb of RAM and 32GB of SSD. Much to my surprise I found I had 18 Gb or so left over after everything was installed. Many recent reviews of Windows 8 had led me to believe I would have about 4 Gb. 18 Gb is more than enough for my purposes but the memory card slot accepts up to 64 Gb SD memory cards so there’s more there if I want it.

The screen is not super-high res—its 1366 by 768, not anything like retina quality but it is clear and bright and perfectly readable, if a bit of a fingerprint magnet.

The new Bay Trail processor is pretty impressive for an Atom. I see no reason to doubt the claimed 11 hour battery life and everything runs with a certain snappiness. It is certainly more than capable of doing all the office work, web browsing and PDF reading I am likely to throw at it. I wouldn’t want to try the latest ninjatastic 3D games on it but that was never really going to be on the cards anyway. In truth, at the price I am delighted with the hardware. Which brings us to Windows 8 or rather in this case, Windows 8.1.

I have to say that I understand the hate that many people feel for Microsoft’s latest offering. I don’t dislike it myself but I can see why people would. It is schizophrenic in the extreme. The new Metro bits of the interface look great and work well but when you get into the Desktop itself, it is just familiar enough to be completely confusing. It looks like you should be able to understand it and do all the stuff you usually do in the way you would normally do it but when you come to try and do so, you find that nothing is in the right place. After a week I have gotten used to it eventually but I have to say I am felt some resistance at the start.

Going to the app store and looking at the reviews of the apps I use every day was also a bit of a shock. Dropbox and Evernote Touch appear to be watered down and very buggy versions of those old favourites. Fortunately since the T100T comes with Windows 8, not Windows RT, I can go to the appropriate websites and download the proper versions.

All of this leaves the T100T straddling a somewhat uncomfortable position. It is without a doubt, the best netbook I have ever owned. (That sounds like damning with faint praise, I know, but I’ve always kind of liked netbooks.) It can be split into a tablet that is only slightly heavier than the iPad Air and a detachable keyboard. As a tablet, the hardware is just fine but Windows 8 still has some ways to go as a tablet OS. The legacy desktop does not work very well with touch and the icons and menus are just a little too small and fiddly. The tablet does do everything I want it to, but my needs are not really those of most tablet users.

Would I recommend the T100T? Well, that depends. It is superb value, and it does everything the manufacturers claim and more. The problem is Windows 8 at the moment. If you are looking for an iPad-like tablet experience, or even an Android-like one, it is not quite there yet. If you know you are going to need a netbook-like computer and only want to do the most basic of Tablet-like things—answering email, streaming media, reading news and PDFs, I would say go for it. If you want something with the polish and limitations of an iPad, I would say go with that. The T100T is not really a tablet. It is something else, something new and something old at the same time. It is what netbooks look like in 2013. I wrote this blog post on it and it was a pleasure.