COVID-19 and BirchTree (in four parts)

COVID-19 and BirchTree (in four parts)

It’s an interesting time for tech blogging right now. A part of me is like “I’m going to be working from home for the foreseeable future, and going out is frowned upon, so I’ll have tons of writing time,” but another part of me is thinking “there is nothing going on to write about…in tech, at least.”

Obviously, there is tons going on in the world, and right now it frankly all feels more important than anything new happening in the consumer tech space I usually cover. I love the new update to Things’ Apple Watch app, but it just feels a little weird to publish much about it right now. I look through my timeline on Twitter, I look at what people in the real world are talking about, and this sort of thing just isn’t breaking through. And even if I did want to talk tech, it feels like a lot of the tech world is on pause right now. Most news is about things getting cancelled or delayed.

I’m sure I’ll find something to write about, and work-from-home allows many tech companies to proceed mostly with business as usual, but it’s all just a little weird.


Switching gears, I went out Wednesday night during the President’s address (that was an embarrassment for the office, but let’s move on) and my local grocery store was pretty normal for 8PM on a weeknight. I bought some ice cream and fruit and came home.

I then decided to get our weekend grocery shopping done a couple days early last night and oh my god, it was a madhouse! People were straight up shopping like they were not going to leave their homes for months. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer was sold out of course, but so was bread, milk, pasta, most beans, soap, paper towels, and thermometers. People’s carts were overflowing, and Target was running a weekly sale with signs yelling “FUN RUN!” all over the place, which I just thought was hilarious.

Anyway, my wife and I went to a few stores and they were almost all crazy. Walgreens was the only one not insane, but it too was out of the essentials.


My work is recommending all employees work from home starting Monday next week, and I will be following that guidance for as long as it’s needed. My at-home setup is not as nice as my office setup, and I really value working with people directly, but I’ll be fine. I definitely feel for all the retail and restaurant workers who can’t work from home and who can’t take time off nearly as easily. They are more essential than ever right now, as we’re all going to need to keep getting food and basic life necessities, so we need the grocery stores and other retail establishments to stay open for business. Be extra nice and extra courteous to anyone who is working and helping us all keep things moving.


You’ll see me mostly on Twitter, being as disappointed, but not surprised at the utter failure of this administration to handle this situation remotely well. We have a president who is unreliable and has coasted on a low-stakes presidency so far. All previous crisis were frankly of his own making, but now when the stakes are high and people will die, regardless of party affiliation, we have a man at the helm who peddles lies because his whole world view revolves around public relations and how he’s always “winning.” He’s a little man and we deserve better in times like this.

Buying a Coffee

I wouldn’t say BirchTree has a business model. I run ads on this site through Carbon, which is pretty nice, especially for the slippery world of online ads, but my podcast, newsletter, and YouTube channels are all completely ad-free: I do these because I enjoy them, not because they’re financially lucrative.

In terms of investment, these numerous projects take up money, and maybe more importantly, time. I’m not going broke running these projects, but I could be spending my time writing bullshit articles for Forbes and making a lot more money compared to the time investment.

My Ask

Which brings me to Ko-Fi, which is basically a tip jar. I’ve done the Patreon thing before, but I don’t think I give people enough value there, as to do that right, I would need to produce exclusive content and really cultivate a community over there. I don’t have time to do that, so supporting me there is basically making a monthly subscription to supporting my work, and I understand this could be too much to ask, especially in a world where people feel more and more impacted by “subscription fatigue.”

To that end, I’m trying out Ko-Fi, which lets you make small, one-time donations whenever you want. I think this lines up better for you and me, and I hope that you consider supporting my work. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Ko-Fi asks you to upload photos and set a goal. I wasn’t sure what to do for either of those, so I uploaded a bunch of Sherman pics, as well as set a goal of $100 to pay for my Birch Bark newsletter costs for 2020.

How I Build My Weekly Newsletter on an iPad

How I Build My Weekly Newsletter on an iPad

The third issue of my email newsletter, Birch Bark, will be hitting peoples’ inboxes tomorrow, and I wanted to take a bit of time to show how I build the email every week.

Requirements

I need to have a block of HTML that I can paste into a MailChimp template, so I should be able to write HTML easily and with a level of automation so I don’t screw it up.

I also need the system to be cross-platform, as I do most of this from my iPad, but could us a Mac, Windows PC, or even my iPhone to add content.

I was doing this in Things, my normal task manager, but with Windows in the mix, I needed to use something else, so Todoist was the winner. This is all I use Todoist for, so I use the share extension on iOS, and the browser plugin on my desktops to save things when I think they could be good for the email.

Content Syncing: GitHub via Working Copy

I create each email as a new HTML file, with the idea that I can simply copy the entirely of that file into MailChimp when I’m ready to schedule the email. On my iPad I use Working Copy to edit my files and sync them up to GitHub. Syncing to GitHub means I have access to these from any device, and I can easily sync changes quickly.

Birch Bark is a private project on GitHub, so no peeking 😉

Also, Working Copy has a nice preview mode, so I can preview the email as I write it, making sure my formatting is accurate at all times.

HTML Formatting: Custom Website

No judgement on the UI, please, but I made this basic webpage for myself to enter the relevant info for each link in the newsletter and it spits out the code I need for the email. Instead of writing HTML, I just enter the article name/link/description/image file name, copy the HTML, and paste it into Working Copy.

Image Creation: Affinity Designer

To make the email more appealing, each link also has an image to go along with it. This image is a simple 256x256px PNG that I create in Affinity Designer for the iPad. When on my Mac or PC, I use Adobe XD.

In both cases, I have a cloud document saved with the correct sizing, so I can easily get the right dimensions every time.

Image Hosting: DigitalOcean Spaces

DigitalOcean hosts all of my websites, and I really love their service. They also have a feature called Spaces which lets you upload files and give them public links that you can use everywhere. I upload through their web UI or via Transmit for the iPad/Mac. This saves me from having to attach all the images to the email or host them on MailChimp. It’s close to free, but does cost me a few pennies per month to host these specific files.

Publishing

Once I have all the links collected, the HTML written, and the images created and hosted, I simply go into MailChip for the final steps.

I create a new campaign by simply duplicating the last email, update the subject line and campaign name to the new date, edit the template to include the new HTML, and schedule it to go out on Friday morning.

Then we start all over again, looking for new fun links!

My PC Diary: Week 2

Well, it’s been almost 2 weeks since I got my new PC and wanted to give an update. Specifically, how well is it doing compared to the 4 primary needs I had for it?

  1. $1,000-sh price tag
  2. Great performance, specifically for Creative Cloud apps
  3. Top shelf gaming potential
  4. Web development

$1,000-ish Price Tag

As I said on my podcast episode last week, I wanted to spend no more than a bit over $1,000 on this machine. I ended up dropping $1,200 after tax which puts this in line with a low-end Mac Mini and the absolute lowest end iMac. In terms of specs, it’s not even close. We’re talking 2x the CPU performance, 2x the memory, and literally 10-100x the graphics performance.

But what impressed me about this is that the $1,200 I spent is actually less than basically any other comparable system I could get from anywhere I can find online. For example, the apparently well-priced NZXT would bill me almost $300 more for the same machine, and buying the parts myself would have saved me just a couple bucks.

TLDR: I was happy with the pricing from Dell when I bought it, and I’m even more impressed with it now.

Performance for Creative Cloud Apps

I’ve used Photoshop a few times and it’s been night and day compared to using it on my 2012 Mac Mini, which makes sense considering the age difference between these machines. But beyond that, it’s definitely much faster than the maxed out 2015 MacBook Pro I use at work, so for me it’s the fasted Photoshop Machine I’ve ever used, so I’m happy.

The Intel Core i5 9400 seems plenty quick for now, and since this is a totally modular PC, if I ever feel I need an i7 or anything else that’s faster, I can just buy the chip and swap it in.

Top Shelf Gaming

This has been an unbelievable home run. I’ve spent most of my time playing Forza Horizon, which runs at a silky smooth 60fps at 1440p and all graphics settings set to ultra. The hardest game I’ve thrown at it is probably Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2019) with also does 1440p and 60fps with all graphics settings, including ray tracing, turned all the way up.

My next game on the list is Control, which might be the first game to show any limits at all, but we’ll see. My hope was that this machine would play CyberPunk 2077 better than my PS4 Pro and it looks like that is going to happen, which is awesome.

Web Development

If there is one area that has fallen down for me, it’s web development. This part has nothing to do with the specs, it’s the software. Windows is just hot garbage compared to macOS in my opinion for web development.

The first issue is the command line, which is not the UNIX-based system I use everywhere else. I need to just install the Ubuntu…something on my machine so I can do what I want, but it’s annoying to work from a system that has such a fundamentally different terminal experience from my websites.

The second issue is the garbage collection of apps for doing dev work. I’m poised by things like CodeKit and Transmit for the Mac, and nothing on Windows gets even close to these for me. Local dev work is a pain and for FTP I need to use CyberDuck because apparently that’s still the easiest to use, nicest looking FTP app for Windows in 2020, which is just insane.

At least Visual Studio Code is here and works as wonderfully as it does everywhere else.

General Feelings

Overall I feel great! In terms of price-to-performance, I think I came out way ahead, and in terms of the computer being able to execute the games and software I wanted it to, it’s an absolute champ. I still don’t love Windows, but since I’m mostly jumping into game launchers and Photoshop or XD files, it’s not hurting me that much right now.

Birch Bark, Privacy, and Plans for the Future

First off, I’d like to thank everyone who subscribed to Birch Bark in the past week! The response was far larger than I expected, and I got an order of magnitude more subscribers than I expected, so thank you so much! If you already subscribed and had feedback on the first issue, let me know on Twitter or shoot me an email. But let’s get into some housekeeping that I probably should have covered in the announcement post, but like I said at the time, it was coming in hot, so I didn't cover all the details.

1. Privacy

As you have likely already seen, the sign up form for this newsletter simply asks you for an email address. I don’t need your name, address, or anything else about you. I’m not keeping track of who specifically signs up and I am not scouring the subscriber list to see who is reading. I will really only be going in there for troubleshooting purposes. I’m not trying to target anyone with ads or “special offers” or any of that junk. You wanted some fun links every week, so I’m giving you some fun links. That’s the deal, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Likewise, I’m not collecting email addresses to use with some other thing I’ve got cooked up. Don’t expect to see an email offering you my new self-help ebook or anything through this mailing list 😛

I had fun links I didn’t know how to share well. You said you’d like to see those links. That’s the relationship and there is no grand plan to make it more or less than that.

2. Advertising

As of right now, there are no plans in place to include advertising in the weekly email. I’m totally open to including some sort of ad down the road if this becomes successful enough, but I will tell you before hand, ensure it’s the sort of ad I feel comfortable with, and will clearly mark any sponsored content in the email itself.

I don’t love ads either, but this email is a bit of work to put together and it would be nice to be compensated for that time and effort. If one of the 15-20 links each week is a clearly marked sponsor, I hope that will be okay with you.

We’ll see if it gets enough traction to even make this a possibility though. 😊

3. Schedule

Like I just mentioned, this is a decent amount of work to put together, but it also turns out that there is more stuff to share than I expected. I held some stuff back from the initial email because it was getting too long, and next week’s is looking to be even longer. I still plan on releasing a newsletter every Friday morning (4AM Central so you have it when you wake up, in the US at least) to make sure I can keep up a schedule. I understand that I’m in the honeymoon period of a new project so it’s all very exciting, and I don’t want to overcommit now.

If there is interest in going daily or even Mon/Wed/Fri, that could be something we change to down the road. Again, let me know if this is of any interest to you.

4. Content

You’re really getting stuff that I like, so tech, science, video games, and “just makes you smile” videos, but I’m trying to get thing that speak to a broad audience. If there is a whole category I’m missing, I’d love to hear it. No politics though, let’s not go down that road…

The only addition I see coming, and this will be in the next issue, are music recommendations. I listen to a silly amount of new music, and will share one or two highlights each week with direct links to Apple Music and Spotify.

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And that’s about it for now. If you have any questions or concerns about how Birch Bark is running, you can always reach out with one of the links above, and I’ll be sure to get back to you. Thank you again, and I hope you enjoy the fun stuff hitting your inbox this upcoming Friday 😁

Not Selling the Computer I Want

Not Selling the Computer I Want

I love my iPad Pro, and it’s what I use to get basically everything done in my personal life. That said, I like having a traditional desktop around because, well, I’m a nerd and there are some advanced things that I just can’t do on an iPad yet.

Up until this week, a 2012 Mac Mini was filling that role, and for a $600 computer it’s held up quite nicely in the following 8 years. But for the past year I’ve been thinking about replacing it because it’s just not cutting it for some tasks anymore. Yes, it can handle the large Photoshop files I throw at it, and it technically can edit and export 4k video, but it’s not particularly good at it either. It was time to upgrade, but I wasn’t sure to what, exactly.

To get an idea of my thinking, here are Apple’s line of Macs:

  • MacBook Air
  • MacBook Pro
  • Mac Mini
  • iMac
  • iMac Pro
  • Mac Pro

The two MacBooks are immediately eliminated because I don’t want a laptop…I have an iPad. The iMac Pro and Mac Pro are also eliminated for cost reasons, so that left the iMac and Mac Mini.

The Mini was the direct upgrade, but frankly I wasn’t that excited about what I could get in my $1,000-ish price range. An 8th gen Intel chip with 8GB RAM and integrated graphics are pretty anemic, and while I know I can upgrade to get some more power, that’s a lot of money, and I’m still buying 2 generation old Intel chips.

The iMac was another option, but the pricing just didn’t work for me. I could spend north of $2,000 and get something pretty beefy, but that wasn’t the budget (and even if I did put up the cash, the GPU options are rough). My budget allowed for the 21 inch 7th gen Intel chips, which was just not something I had any interest in.

This all brought me to an interesting realization: Apple doesn’t make a Mac for me anymore.

Or maybe I’ve just changed what I want from a desktop computer. Either way, none of the options Apple currently sells would make me happy, which is how we get to today.

Dude, You’re Geting a Dell

After much consternation, I eventually found my way over to Dell’s website and started configuring a G5 tower. Here’s what I got for about $1,100:

  • 9th gen Core i5 9400 (4.1GHz 6 cores)
  • RTX 2070 Super GPU
  • 16GB RAM
  • 1TB HD with a 128GB SSD for the system
  • Wifi 6

And of course, because this is a tower, all of this is replaceable and is designed to be swapped out whenever I want to upgrade in the future.

Now I should mention that I’m not suggesting this machine is a flat out better value than the Macs Apple is selling now. Apple’s machines are far better looking and are much quieter that this guy, and that’s definitely some people will care more about than others. But for me, as someone who needs a desktop around to do heavy tasks that the iPad isn’t cut out for, I really want the specs.

Do I like the blue lights? Nope.

Do I like how loud the fans get when I push this thing to its limits? Not at all.

Do I like Windows nearly as much as macOS? No, and it’s not even close.

But do I love how fast it processes Photoshop edits and edits video? Do I adore how essentially any game will run at 1440p 60fps on ultra settings? Yeah, I really do.

I’m trying to think about all I have to say about this machine, and there’s a lot there, so I’m going to stop here for now and write some follow ups on specific things that make this a good and bad experience, but I wanted to share that yes, after 8 years I have finally upgraded my desktop computer, and to everyone’s surprise, including my own, it’s not a Mac.

Also, yes, I could have built my own PC, but I decided against that for a couple reasons, which I can get into later. Long story short is that this build was comparable in price to building it myself, which made me go this route.

Introducing Birch Bark: An Email Newsletter Experiment

Introducing Birch Bark: An Email Newsletter Experiment

Sign up here!

I’m not a big fan of putting substantial writing in newsletters (way to kick off a newsletter announcement, huh?), but I’ve grown quite fond of the sort of newsletter that just has some interesting links, such as the hugely popular Sidebar.

I read a lot on the web and I wanted a venue to share some of my favorite things (mostly tech related) and a newsletter seemed like an interesting route to go for this. This could just be a weekly blog post, of course, but this gives people a chance to subscribe to just these links, and I think that could be interesting.

As mentioned in the title, this is an experiment, so I reserve the right to stop the newsletter or just start posting it as a blog post, but I think this could be fun!

The first issue will go out this Friday, so sign up now if you want to get some cool links in your inbox going into the weekend.

Sign up here!

Also fair warning, this thing is coming in hot, so the style of the email is competent, but not out-of-this-world amazing. I'm going to see if there is enough interest to keep this going before investing too heavily in a top-tier email design.

Recent Podcast Appearances

You know this already if you follow me on Twitter, but in case you don’t I wanted to share a few podcasts I’ve had the pleasure of guesting on in the past week.

A Slab of Glass

Chris, Jeff, and I talked about how we use our iPads and tried to cram this episolde full of as many tips and tricks as possible.

9to5Mac Watch Time

On the whole other end of the spectrum, I talked with Zac Hall about the smallest screen in my life, the Apple Watch. We talk about my history with the watch, my watchOS 7was concept, and tons of other ideas for where the Watch could go in the future.

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Incidentally, I have one more guest spot coming out soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that one!

Something I Love About Books (there isn’t a Tomometer)

The recent debut of Apple TV+ gave me a chance to publicly roll my eyes at Rotten Tomatoes for the way I feel it reduces all semblance thoughtful criticism into a puree of thought replaced by a singular score. While I do use the site sometimes to get a ballpark on how a movie was received, I don’t obsess over the details of what each film or show scores. There are great pieces of art that are universally adored, and there are great pieces that are loved and hated in equal measure, so seeing something scored a 60 and something else scored an 80 doesn’t mean the 80 is better.

But I’ve been over this before, so I’ll move to what I love about books.

I love that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t compile book reviews, and as far as I can tell there is nothing out there that does the same thing for books. The closest I’ve found is Book Marks, which is similar, but doesn’t have nearly as many books, nor does it pull from nearly as many reviewers as Rotten Tomatoes. For example, the book I just finished this weekend, The Infinite Game, came out in October 2018 to some fanfare, but is not even listed on the site. Meanwhile, a book that came out recently and is on the site has a total of 8 reviews listed.

So while Book Marks may be a nice site to visit sometimes to get some ideas on what to read, it doesn’t have the impact of something like Rotten Tomatoes.

I love this!

Without a force like Rotten Tomatoes, which assigns a value of worth to every piece of film you watch, you don’t know as well how you are expected to feel about a book until you read it. Sure, there are classics and some books get a lot of buzz when they come out, but there is never a book advertisement that says “96% on Rotten Tomatoes!” suggesting that everyone loves this, and it’s better than something with a measly 82% on the site.

Nope, you either need to:

  1. Read the book blind and decide for yourself if you like it or not.
  2. Read some reviews of the book, none of which have numbered scores, forcing you to read what they actually think and not just see a number and move on.

I love this, and I think it makes each new book I pick up have more excitement to it. I don’t know how much I’m going to like it, and I don’t know what I’m expected to enjoy it. It’s a little thing on its own, but I think it helps me browse for what I want to read and process what I’ve read differently than movies, TV, or video games, and I kind of love it.

My Shortcut for Writing Quick Link Posts in Ulysses

My Shortcut for Writing Quick Link Posts in Ulysses

Download the Shortcut here.

Writing link posts isn’t that hard, but it does involve a lot of manual copy and pasting to get the title, link, and quoted text into your writing app, so I made a shortcut to streamline it! Here are the basic steps:

  1. Highlight the text you want to quote in your browser
  2. Uss the share menu to launch the shortcut
  3. Enter a blog post title

This will give you a nicely formatted link post and all you need to do is add your commentary below the quote.

This shortcut feeds the post data into Ulysses, but you could swap out the last step in the shortcut with an action for whatever app you use for writing; it’s just rich text, so it should be able to import cleanly into most mainstream writing apps.

UPDATE: Per suggestions on Twitter, this now converts the text you enter in the post title to title case. You can use the excellent app Text Case to do this as well, but since not everyone will have that, I'm just using the native Shortcuts version for this shared version.