My Sweet Setup: RSS

Being an RSS user is probably one of my most unconventional and nerdy habits, but they’re such a better way to experience the internet I feel I must evangelize them.

I could write paragraphs of text, but inspired by a recent talk I saw at RailsConf, I’d like to show you instead in a more… visual form:

RSS sketchnote page 1
explanation of what an RSS feed is
explanation of how an RSS feed reader works
demonstration of the convenience of RSS feeds
rss feeds are cleaner
final notes on why I like RSS

If you want to subscribe to some things via RSS, here are a handful of my favorite feeds:

  • Ars Technica (I pay to subscribe to Ars Technica, which gets me access to a special version of the feed with full-text articles, which I strongly recommend)
  • xkcd.com – a fantastic webcomic for nerds
  • The Onion
  • GitHub’s Blog
  • Daring Fireball
  • 9to5toys (a great feed of deals on gadgets, updated daily)
  • Meh founded by the prople who brought us Woot.com, Meh is its spiritual successor, selling exactly one thing each day at a good discount. I’ve been getting KN95 masks from them on the cheap lately.
  • Jacob Kaplan-Moss
  • Julia Evans
  • Macrumors

Most sites offer an RSS feed. RSS links aren’t as prominently placed as they used to be, and sometimes they’re called a “feed” or maybe even an “atom feed” or similer. Sometimes you might have to guess at the feed URL (it’s often found by adding /feed to the end of the home page URL).

RSS feeds are a little nerdy and that might predispose you to think they’re kind of arcane and weird to use. But in fact, the opposite is true. They are a much nicer, much cleaner way to use the web. When I watch other people browsing full web sites loaded with ads and annoyances, I get the same jarring feeling I get when I go home to Iowa and see family members watching broadcast TV with its obnoxious and loud commercials and terrible shows.

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My Sweet Setup: Displays

two LG Ultrafine 5k displays

I know what you’re thinking here: “Aaron, if you went whole hog on the tower, why didn’t you complete the set by buying the XDR displays to go with it?”

And I am not going to lie, I was severely tempted to get one or two of these, for a wallet-busting five grand apiece. But I remain confident that in a couple of years Apple will make non-XDR versions of those displays for a much more affordable price (and I’ll laugh to myself about how Apple has reprogrammed how I think about display pricing from ten years ago when I thought the $1000 Cinema display was absurdly expensive, to today when I think of a hypothetical $1900 display as a mass-market product). In the meantime, these 5K displays are great. Having two of them sitting in front of me makes working feel truly immersive.

And price-wise, here’s the kicker: an LG Ultrafine 5K display costs just marginally more than just the stand for an XDR display. That’s correct; the stand for a Pro Display XDR is a grand.

5K displays never really caught on. The vast, vast majority of monitors you can buy are either 1080p or 4K monitors. But from the first time I saw an iPhone 4’s screen in the flesh and noticed how beautifully detailed the Safari icon was, I have been in love with Retina-resolution displays (HiDPI in PC parlance).

Lest you think retina resolution is an extravagance only really needed by graphic designers and such, let me remind you that I basically am looking at text on a screen for a living. It is totally worth the extra resolution to make those letters look so smooth and crisp that my retinas can’t even see the individual pixels.

But in the computer display market today you can have something that has high pixel density, or is large, but you can’t usually have both. A 34" widescreen monitor sounds like a dream until you learn that it’s basically the resolution of a 4K display.

These LG displays are called “Ultrafine”, and I suppose that’s true if by “fine” you mean something like “the same fast food place for dinner again? Yeah, that’s fine” as opposed to “damn, that display is looking fine”. These are the exact same panels you will find in the 17" iMacs, but LG is a little less discerning about which panels meet their standards, so these monitors can have uneven backlighting. The displays have a pretty minimalist, understated look to them, but as soon as you feel it with your hands you know it’s not a premium product; all the money went into giving you a decent panel.

I’m optimistic that Apple shares my nonplussed attitude toward these LG displays and that they’re planning to make a few more displays of their own again for people like me, who want a nice display, but don’t need the level of color accuracy precision that the XDR displays offer. And I’m hoping that when Apple does this, they start offering the displays in 27“ and 32”, for prices ranging from around $1000 to $2000. And when that day comes, that would probably be a great time to try to buy my LG monitors off me for cheap.

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My Sweet Setup: Drafts

a screenshot of the Drafts app editing this very post

I didn’t realize there was a place in my life for an app like Drafts until after I learned of its existence. And while I’ve mostly focused on why I love the things in this series of posts, I think for Drafts I need to explain its whole deal.

Drafts started off as an iOS only app. The premise of Drafts is simple: you open it up to a blank screen that you can type text into, and it offers a very powerful interface for processing this text and sending it off to some destination app.

If I need to write something, I go straight to Drafts. No digging around for just the right app; I just open Drafts. Even if I know it’s going to be a text message or an email, I start off in Drafts anyway, because in Drafts I am free to edit and I am not afraid of accidentally sending the message first.

I used Drafts a decent amount when it was iOS only, but when it became a Mac app I started using it literally an order of magnitude more. My past drafts stay synced via iCloud so it doesn’t matter which device I drafted something on; I know I can find it in Drafts.

Drafts is the starting point for almost everything I write (including this very post you’re reading). Slack messages, comments on GitHub issues, long, thought-out replies to racist Facebook posts my relatives post, you name it.

And while Drafts isn’t meant to be a final resting place for documents or notes, it does serve its purpose as a digital version of a pocket notebook for me, but with powerful search. I often find myself searching my Drafts database as a means of combing through my mind over the past months. Because I’m in the habit of drafting almost everything in Drafts, my Drafts history basically has a copy of just about all of my writing, which is handy for digging through past correspondence and just generally getting a glimpse into my past state of mind.

The most annoying limitation I have run into so far is that it deals in plain text and plain text only. That’s perfectly reasonable (and I honestly think Drafts would be a worse app if it tried to do more), but sometimes I’ll be drafting something that I want to contain images too, and I’ll have to either draft it in Bear, or use Markdown image links in Drafts.

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Thoughts From Today’s Apple Event

new 24 inch imacs

Apple’s pre-recorded presentations have gotten so tight it’s kind of wild to think of the number of things that got announced in just an hour.

Apple Card Announcements

This was a nice little surprise. I still think there’s some bullshit in the recent news that cleared the Apple Card of sexist behavior (when the rules are influenced by sexism but you followed the rules, it doesn’t mean you aren’t sexist). However, the added ability for multiple family members to share a card and build credit history is nice. I hope Apple keeps investing in new features for Apple Card; it’s an area that a company with Apple’s pull can really do a lot of good.

Podcasts

I’m not surprised Apple’s making the moves it’s making with podcasts, but I’m sad that big companies are continuing to try to dismantle the open podcast ecosystem by pushing people to use their own proprietary apps.

I’m not worried about the podcasts I listen to; they tend to be made by people who care about being independent and will stay that way, but I worry a lot about truly open podcasts as a market shrinking. Soon podcasts might look the way streaming TV looks now, where you need five different services just to watch all your shows. That sucks.

That said, I do like the thought that this might get more people in the habit of paying for podcasts. While I understand not every podcast listener has the money to pay for podcasts, I think that direct financial support is a great way to make more sustainable podcasts.

New Apple TV Hardware

Just some bullet point thoughts on this

  • Finally!
  • Putting in A12 chips is a little chintzy. Hopefully they can be clocked a little higher to make up for their age?
  • Redesigned remote: another resounding “Finally!” This remote appears to address some longstanding annoyances while ignoring others. They kept it flat and symmetrical so it’s difficult to tell by feel whether you’re holding it right side up. Also, why not put in a U1 chip+tiny speaker for Find My support?
  • The color calibration thing is the kind of small annoyance that only Apple would obsess over, and using the iPhone as the calibration device is a really clever use of Apple’s vertical integration.

AirTags

The rumor mill’s been talking about these for years, so it’s good to see they’re actually real.

The concept is cool enough, but I’d have gotten way more value out of Apple rolling out meaningful Find My support to its whole accessory ecosystem. My AirPods case would greatly benefit from Find My support, as would my Pencil and my Apple TV remote, all things I routinely lose.

The form factor of the AirTags feels super limiting. You can hang it from your keys or luggage, but what else can it go on? And even if they were tiny and versatile enough that they could go on anything, they’re still pricey enough that I wouldn’t put them on tons of stuff.

I like seeing Apple is continuing to invest in Find My as a whole ecosystem though.

iMac

I’m still partially holding my breath to see what Apple does with higher end computers (in the meantime I’m sitting pretty with my Mac Pro so don’t worry about me). So far, they’ve only been making Macs with an M1 chip. The M1 Macs are great machines; they’re speedy and power-efficient, but they are still the low end.

These iMacs announced today are the first Apple Silicon Macs to have a new hardware design, and I’m really excited to see Apple finally evolve the iMac’s industrial design.

Seriously, these iMacs are just beautiful. It’s not just that they have new colors, but they have a beautiful new industrial design and they are so thin (and there’s no bulge anymore that the previous-gen iMacs had).

I hope that the higher-end iMacs get the same color treatment but I have a feeling pro users will be stuck with a muted color palette.

I can appreciate that the M1 machines have a 16 gigabyte memory limit. I’m not crazy about that limit, but Apple’s M1 machines are incredible even with that limitation. But offering iMacs in an 8 GB configuration feels criminal to me. Modern applications command more memory, and Apple can bullshit us all they want about how the unified memory architecture is better (and there is absolutely truth to it) but no amount of memory unification makes 8 gigs enough memory, and these base level iMacs will have a shorter life for it.

That said, these latest iMacs continue the iMac’s reputation of being the Mac-iest Mac. You can look at an iMac and see the soul of the original 128k Mac shine through. The new industrial design is fresh and will carry the iMac well into this decade.

iPad Pro

I’ve been hoping to see iPadOS become more desktop-like and after seeing the new iPad Pro announced today, I feel like Apple’s really teeing itself up for that too.

When you buy an iPad Pro, you’re buying Mac hardware (and as it would turn out, you’re also paying Mac prices). You’re getting the full M1 processor like the Macs have. That gives you a real USB 4/Thunderbolt port, which lets you plug iPad into a 6k Pro Display XDR (still with mirroring, but I bet we’ll see that change soon). Apple’s even starting to talk about the amount of memory in the iPad Pro, something it’s never done with iPads before.

It’s become clear that Apple thinks of iPads as a full-blown personal computer and they’re giving it the kind of hardware that they feel a personal computer deserves.

I’d like to have seen it get the headphone jack back (hell, even the new iMacs get a headphone jack).

Also, the XDR display in the 12.9 inch iPad Pro looks like a remarkable technical feat. The 32 inch Pro Display XDR is an impressive display, but it uses just 72 different LEDs to create local dimming zones. That means that for images that are mostly a black background with small lit objects, the Pro Display XDR has serious blooming problems. The 12.9" iPad’s display has thousands of LEDs to light the screen, which greatly reduces the problem. I bet it will look stunning in person.

I’ll be buying an iPad Pro, but as much as I love RAM I might struggle to justify the sucker punch of the price tag for a model with 16 gigs of memory.

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My Sweet Setup: Bose QC35 Headphones

I got my Bose QC35s thanks to a cranky tweet to Bose at a really opportune moment, I happened to get the Bose QC35s for free from them back in 2016:

a pair of QC35s with a nice card from Bose.

I still have these headphones today, and aside from some replaced earcups, they still work perfectly.

AirPods are a popular choice of wireless headphone nowadays (and of course I own some of those too), but the Bose headphones remain spectacular. I bought my first pair of AirPods years after I got my QC35s, and by 2019 they were no longer holding a decent charge. Both QC35s I own continue to give me hours and hours of battery life with no signs of the battery aging. And while the AirPods will periodically do finicky things like only having audio come out of one ear, or where I have to play a game of connection whack-a-mole, the Bose headphones always connect when I flip the switch to turn them on. They’ll even connect to more than one device. If you need to adjust the volume, you can do so with nice tactile physical buttons.

These aren’t Bose’s latest flagship headphones; if you want the latest and greatest get the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. I haven’t personally tried them (their industrial design seems odd at first glance) but they look perfectly nice. But Bose still sells the trusty QC35s today, and they can be had for well under $300 if you look in the right place.

If you need a pair of no-nonsense over-the-ear headphones that won’t break the bank, you’ll be well served by QC35s. They’re perfect if you’re looking for some headphones that are noise canceling, wireless, and just plain nice.

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My Sweet Setup: Dropbox

I’ve used Dropbox since its beta days in 2008. As soon as I saw that it magically offered the ability for me to have a folder that would be magically in sync on all of my computers, no matter what, I wanted it.

In the early days of Dropbox, the only way you could get more space was by inviting others to use Dropbox as well. I invited a bunch of friends to get gigabytes of synced space, and when they started offering paid plans I quickly hopped on board, getting boosted to a then-expansive 20 gigabytes of cloud storage. That’s laughable compared to the terabytes Dropbox offers now.

And indeed, Dropbox is damn near perfect at that. I save a file in my Dropbox folder, and it quickly syncs up to the cloud and propagates to my Dropbox folder on all other computers. Dropbox has since then built a number of other features around this, but their core file sync working so perfectly is their fortress. I’ve never had Dropbox lose data on me.

Dropbox is core infrastructure for me; it’s like my home folder, but more omnipresent.

It’s also handy that Dropbox integrates with just about everything, so I’m not just limited to file sync. I can use it with IFTTT and a Hazel script on my computer to automatically archive all my liked tweets as they come in. When I scan things, my scanner sends them straight to my Dropbox account right over Wi-Fi. And my beloved Alfred uses Dropbox to sync its settings, making Dropbox one of the first things I install on a Mac.

Dropbox is also just a great default place for me to save files. I have space for them on Dropbox, and by sticking a file in Dropbox, I get backups on multiple computers and an offsite backup, automatically. Not only that, but Dropbox keeps my deleted files indefinitely and will save previous versions of files, handy in case I make a change I didn’t mean to make.

Dropbox isn’t perfect nowadays. As a corporation they seem not content with having loyal, paying customers like me, and I get the sense they are constantly trying to dream up the next big thing that will launch them into a new growth phase. Their newest desktop application less like the creation of someone trying to make something useful, and more like something a product manager dreamed up to juice up engagement numbers for Dropbox, or to find ways for Dropbox to insert itself into things as intermediary.

And some of their newer features just aren’t as good as their core functionality. Smart Sync in particular is just awful and I have it completely disabled on my account (instead I use Selective Sync, which has me explicitly choose which files I want to sync).

The thing I ultimately love about Dropbox is that it nails the fundamentals. Sure, they’ve had their head in other new features, but they’ve kept core functionality working. I keep Dropbox around because unlike Apple, whose attention is spread super thin because they do so much, Dropbox’s file syncing is what pays their bills, and I trust that they are going to keep things working.

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My Sweet Setup: OmniFocus

screenshot of OmniFocus appThe largest benefit to using a to-do/task manager like OmniFocus isn’t the satisfaction of staying on top of tasks, or even the reward of getting those tasks done. It’s the feeling of relief you get to feel when you know you have a lot of tasks on your mind, and you dump all of those tasks out of your mind and into OmniFocus and get them nice and categorized.

That feeling is incredible because you can then replace that nagging feeling of “is there something I’m forgetting?” that’s been keeping you awake at night with a calm assured feeling that everything is taken care of because you know it’s in OmniFocus and you can trust that you’ll be told to deal with it right when you need to.

I happened upon OmniFocus in college shortly after it first was released, and it was just what the doctor ordered. I was just overwhelmed with tasks. I had schoolwork from multiple classes, I had music lessons and musical ensembles I participated in, and I had two jobs. I was in desperate need of something to keep track of all of my commitments, and OmniFocus was the right tool for the job.

Since college, my need for OmniFocus waxes and wanes, but I always like to keep coming back to it because every time I start using it again, I am reminded of that feeling of serenity I get when I start using it again.

OmniFocus in particular is a heavyweight system for tasks. If you just have a handful of to-do items and maybe a few different lists, it might not make sense for you, and you might be better served just by the built-in Reminders app or one of the many other simpler to-do list apps out there. But if you are a GTD practitioner, you might enjoy OmniFocus, as it was originally purpose-made for GTD (its newest version replaces contexts with tags, which is kind of cool because you can pick more than one tag now).

I’m especially fond of OmniFocus’s Forecast view; it provides me with a unified view of my due tasks and my calendar, which can be a great way to get a plan for what my day is going to look like.

If you do decide you want to try OmniFocus, spend some time with it, and I also recommend checking out The Omni Show podcast, which regularly interviews OmniFocus users (and users of other Omni apps). You can get to learn how they fit OmniFocus into their lives and get a good sense of how to effectively get the most out of it.

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My Sweet Setup: MindNode

screenshot of MindNode
It’s a niche use case but when I need it, nothing is better than a mind map, and MindNode is a fantastic tool for building them.

If you’ve never used mind maps before, I highly recommend them. At their core they’re just an outline, but they’re presented on an infinite canvas. When presented like this, it’s trivial to segue from one idea to the next and form ideas that you didn’t realize you had in you.

I love to use a mind map when I am working on a talk, presentation, or blog post about a topic, and I want to explore what I know and what I want to talk about. I can then traverse the mind map quickly and add structure to the document I’m producing.

MindNode works really nicely and has simple keyboard shortcuts. It also has an iOS app that works seamlessly with the Mac app, and when you save your documents in iCloud they’re both easily accessible from both your Macs and iOS devices, handy when you are working on building out a mind map over a long period of time.

And when you want to share your mind map, MindNode offers a ton of options. You can export in a variety of textual formats, a giant PNG, or even a PDF.

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My Sweet Setup: CleanShot X

screenshot of CleanShot X, a screenshotting app. I see the irony.
When macOS Mojave introduced an overhaul to their screenshots feature to make it similar to how iOS does screenshots, I was really excited initially and pretty quickly gave up on it; it’s weird to use and doesn’t really support drag and drop.

Last year I stumbled across CleanShot X, which is like if Skitch and the macOS screenshot feature had a baby.

I always loved how Skitch made it easy to quickly mark up a screenshot and then drag and drop it somewhere with a prominent handle on the window. I was initially excited when Evernote bought Skitch then brought it into the Evernote fold, but years of neglect and poor performance soured me to it.

CleanShot works beautifully, and I have it saving screenshots into a folder in Dropbox, making it easy to share an HTTP link to the file. I then index these screenshots in DEVONthink, giving me a rough equivalent to Skitch’s Evernote-integrated features, but since each component is a best of breed tool, they all work seamlessly together and everything is fast.

CleanShot doesn’t just stop with screenshots; you can also do simple screen recordings that can be MP4 files or gifs.

I take screenshots probably about a dozen times a day on a given work day and CleanShot is just perfect.

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My Sweet Setup: DEVONthink

a screenshot of DEVONthink
About a year ago I made a big switch in my paperless life: I retired Evernote and decided to use DEVONthink instead. As my past posts might indicate, I was a hard-core Evernote user.

But DEVONthink is a far better values fit for me.

DEVONthink feels like someone made a Mac-only version of Evernote for its most die-hard power users.

DEVONthink respects you as a user. Using DT doesn’t tie you to a syncing cloud account. Your database is totally under your control. In fact, you don’t even have to have just a single database!

I use a few different databases for DT for myself. One is a business database that I put receipts and scanned paperwork into. Technical notes and learnings have their own database. And my personal database contains other random pieces of information I have clipped from the web and other places over the years.

Not being backed by a cloud service might make you think sync is no good, but in fact it’s super flexible! I can sync using a variety of cloud services, and I can pick and choose which databases I sync, and to which devices. For added privacy, I can encrypt my synced database so that Dropbox or iCloud don’t know the actual contents. And for the particularly privacy-minded, LAN sync is available.

It’s nice and very at home on the Mac, but it doesn’t feel super lightweight. Not that the app is slow or anything; it actually performs pretty well even as I look through big databases, but the interface itself is just quite heavy. It’s an app for power users after all. As such, it’s not my go-to app for general notetaking and entry of data (though you can certainly use it like that if you prefer). For that I’ll typically use Drafts or Bear and archive to DT.

But you can do incredible things with DT. It’s fully AppleScriptable. It integrates beautifully with other Mac apps. I can archive mailboxes from Mail into DT. I can have DT index folders for me, allowing me to keep my files where I’m used to, but still get the benefit of DT’s organizing and tagging.

DT is happy with any old file type; as long as your system has a Quick Look plugin for the file, you can see it in DT. That’s freeing because it means I am free to use the app I think is best for a job.

I use DT as a digital filing cabinet of sorts. I archive stuff into it with confidence that I can dig it up later.

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