Cool Tools Review

Gerber EAB

I have subscribed to Kevin Kelly’s (KK) CoolTools blog pretty much since its inception. I love it because of the variety of interesting things that scroll across the blog. Every now and then I’ll stop to consider something I’m using and decide it would make a nice addition to the CoolTools blog. I did that a while back with a knife that I use pretty regularly, and the review was published this week.

KK has also made a book from the blog. Lots of books have been made from blogs, but this one is really great. It feels and reads like the old Whole Earth Catalog that my parents used to have laying around the house. I received a freebie copy because one of my old reviews was included in the book.

All my CoolTools reviews are here.

Productivity trio

There was a time when I was a complete honk for Getting Things Done, aka GTD. I first read the book back around 1999 or so, when I was working in Org Dev for a megacorp. I’ve been implementing, tweaking, and falling off the wagon ever since. I still think GTD is the seminal work in the field of personal productivity, but there are other shining lights. Two of my favorite are Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow and Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy.

Anyway, these days I’ve kind of got my productivity schtick figured out. Not to say that it doesn’t need tuning from time to time, but I’ve basically settled on my toolset. Because of that I don’t really poke around the old personal productivity blogs or pay much attention to that space at all. Even so, the last week brought three interesting productivity-related items to my attention. Without much comment, here they are:

1. A drink company wrote a very thorough screed on using GTD with Evernote, called The Secret Weapon. Lots of people have taken a crack at this setup, but this is the nicest tutorial I’ve seen. Evernote really can be a universal capture tool for many people.

2. Mark Forster came out with a new time management system called Final Version. You can get the details by subscribing to his newsletter on his web site. I’ve looked at it, and it’s pretty straightforward. No special tools needed, and it can be easily implemented with pencil and paper. Might be worth looking at if GTD gives you fits.

3. Finally, speaking of GTD, David Allen has an article in the current NYT about the relevancy of GTD to today’s workers. Good reading.

Neckties are for heathens

I don’t wear neckties. Haven’t for years. The last time I wore a tie was probably 8 years ago. One of my previous bosses died, and I had a ton of respect for her, so I suited up and went to the funeral. Haven’t worn one since.

Fortunately I work in an office where nobody really blinks if I come to work in a hoody. Even for me, though, a hoody is a bit lowbrow for work. And I’m careful to look at least marginally reputable if I’ve got visitors scheduled. But no neckties.

Heres’t the deal. I loved neckties back in the day. A nice tie made me feel like I was going to work, man. Reputable and responsible, and all grown up. A man to be reckoned with, even if I did drive a VW bus. Jiminy, I was such a tool. Anyway, neckties. After a while I started having a hard time spending $50 on new ties (I know…). And close on the heels of that revelation came comfort. I could not believe that the IT guys didn’t have to wear a tie to work! Even the marketing guys were squeaking by without ties, on Friday at least. So I took a bite of that forbidden fruit and I liked it. It had everything to do with comfort and nothing to do with theology. Who said anything about theology, you ask? Hold onto your hat, we’re getting there…

There is a whole Quaker theology about “plain dress.” I think it’s weird, and I’m a Quaker. What I find most odd is that there are some people who are so serious about this that it becomes their “idol.” Which kinda seems to defeat the purpose. My guess is that those folks are in the minority, though, which is why they stand out. Anyway, I think there’s something worthwhile about dressing plainly as a statement of faith and solidarity with those who are unable to dress any other way. Scott Holmes wrote a great essay about his own experience as a lawyer and Quaker and refusing to wear a tie in court. He makes many good points, but I resonate most deeply with his comments about the ways a necktie can become a class barrier between people. Guys with ties can easily be perceived as being in a different (read: better) class of people than those without.

For me, what started out as a comfort rebellion many years ago, has since aged into a pretty clear sense that by wearing a necktie I’m erecting a barrier between myself and others. Christ calls us to live among people, not apart from them, and it’s my sense that for me alone, neckties as daily work apparel get in the way of my ability to serve those to whom I’m called. There is a balance, though. People expect me to have some degree of expertise in my field and, like it or not, what I wear can help ease anxiety. If I look and act like a “professional,” I’ll have an easier time working with those who seek my assistance. If I look like I just got back from the skatepark it’ll be more difficult to quickly gain trust.

Image credit: Touzeen Hussain

Maeda’s First Law of Simplicity: Reduce

I’ve been following John Maeda’s work for years. He’s slowed down on the blogging since he became the Prez of Rhode Island School of Design, but his thinking on the laws of simplicity remain solid. His first law of simplicity is Reduce, for which he says, “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.”

I’ve got a bluetooth device that has just three buttons. But depending on how long you press them, and in what context, I can pair up the device, turn it on, turn it off, raise the volume, lower the volume, stop an audio track, pause audio, skip ahead one audio track, skip back one audio track, redial a number, answer a call, and end a call. Twelve functions with three buttons. Not bad. Someone clearly spent some time on thoughtful reduction.

At my job we put on an annual conference. For years we’ve bent over backwards to provide attendees the most granular options for registration, which has made creating online registration forms a bit of a nightmare. This year we’re cleaning it up a bit. For one track in particular, we’ve eliminated basically every option, and simply narrowed it down to a single price. Register and get everything you need, or don’t come. That’s going to polarize some attendees, for sure. What remains to be seen is whether the quality of attendees, and by extension the quality of the conference, will change due to the simplification of pricing.

Reduce is a killer concept for me. Super easy to forget, and way too easy to ignore. Scope creep in particular is a monster that I feel like I’m always fighting. But if I can remember to attend to the “thoughtful reduction,” and remain willing to spend the time working through the tradeoffs, Reduce often pays dividends.


I’ve been running a lot lately, training for my first 10k race. Some of these runs are longer than I’ve run before…did 7 miles today and it took a little over an hour. You know, it’s good to listen to music when you run, but unless you’ve got a huge library, or buy lots of new music, it can get a little old. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the Bootie and Hood Internet mashups.

I started thinking that maybe I should listen to audiobooks, but that gets either expensive, or troublesome if you try to check out an audiobook at the library (don’t get me started). So during spring break with the family, I poked around at some of the podcasts I’ve subscribed to but never listen to. You know what I’m talking about. Somehow I bumbled over to the B&B Podcast (great, btw) and one of their sponsors was Instacast. Never heard of it, so I grabbed it and gave it a try. It is excellent.

First of all, it’s for your iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone, this is probably reason enough to get one. I’ve got a 16GB phone, and I’ve got a lot of apps, and pictures I keep making but never delete. So space is at a premium. This thing, Instacast, it lets you subscribe to podcasts, but stream them over the air. So smart. You can d/l podcasts, too, if you think you’ve got manky reception coming up or something. But this streaming dealio has been great for me. Saves me a ton of space, simplifies podcast discovery, I can subscribe to a bunch more podcasts without affecting available space, and it makes my long runs way less tedious.

Excellent product, highly recommended.

Near Field Communications

The first edition of Google’s Think Quarterly has an informative article on Near Field Communications (NFC). It’s a clear explanation of the technology and it’s uses, the gist of which is to support the old saw that we’ll replace our wallets with our cell phones.

Of course I love this idea in theory, but I’m pretty skeptical that it will come to pass in the near future, at least in the U.S. There are just too many cards associated with organizations or businesses which simply don’t have the resources to convert to a new system, regardless how relatively inexpensive such a conversion may be. Consider your local library card–is your local library in an expansion mode, or a contraction mode? How about your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles? How’s their funding holding up? Are they ready to issue upgraded driver licenses to everyone in your state? Maybe your local schools and universities are ready for a wholesale conversion? The list goes on.

I like the old saying that goes something like, “In theory, there isn’t much difference between theory and practice. In practice, the difference is huge.” It feels to me like this is the case with NFC.