Playing “Whack-a-Mole” with Apple News on my iPhone

I love my iPhone. The dangerous problem is that while sometimes I love it the way a writer loves a favorite pen while at other times I love it the way an alcoholic loves beer.

Or like Brokeback Mountain. I wish I knew how to quit you, iPhone.

Today, I had a lovers quarrel with the iPhone.

From nowhere — certainly from no action on my part — the iPhone decided to start sharing notifications from the News app.

There has been no update for that App in the App Store (perhaps because it is bundled with the OS that updated a couple weeks back), and I cannot discern what triggered the change aside from Apple’s business strategy of disintermediating both Facebook and the news properties themselves.

I suffer from acute distractibility at the best of times, which is why I’ve deleted all social media from the iPhone as a portcullis next to a moat around my concentration, such as it is. I get no notifications when an email arrives. I think the new Facebook Messenger app has some nifty “we hate Snapchat” features, but after a five minute exploratory look I deleted it.

My attention is my most precious asset.

So when the iPhone News app started interrupting me to let me know that TIME magazine had a mighty keen article about “5 Tech Predictions for 2017” — this hardly qualifies as urgent — I opened “Settings” and scrolled down to News, whereupon I changed the alert style from “Alerts” to “None.”

Thinking that was it, I went back to my life. Au contraire!

The next time I went to do something with the iPhone and pressed the wakey-wakey button, there was a notification on the lock screen from the Wall Street Journal: “Taxpayers are pouring money into charitable-giving accounts, worried that deductions may not last.” Heaven forfend! Thank the good lord that the iPhone decided that knowing about this was more important than whatever it was that I picked the phone up to do in the first place… which I can no longer remember because of the interruption.

I went back to Settings and looked more closely. Ah ha! What I missed the first time was the faint gray little letters that said, “Alert Style When Unlocked.” I had eliminated the interruptions that would happen when I was using the device, but not when I was about to use the device… which is a vulnerable moment of distractibility.

Sheesh.

I then toggled everything off: “Show on Lock Screen,” “Badge App Icon,” “Show in Notification Center” and “Allow Notifications.” That’s a lot of things to toggle, and while I suspect that simply choosing “Allow Notifications” would have done the trick, I’m a suspicious sort of guy and decided to overcompensate.

But that still wasn’t enough.

If I swiped right from the iPhone home screen that took me to a screen where — you guessed it — right up top were two top stories from CBS and Bloomberg and two trending stories from CNN and The New York Times. That’s four opportunities to drop whatever thought was in my head and fall down the rabbit hole into the always-open-all-you-can-eat information buffet: now with unlimited breadsticks!

I’m pretty technical, but it took me a few minutes to figure out that if I scrolled all the way down on the all-the-way-to-the-left screen that had magically appeared with the most-recent iOS I’d find a faint gray “Edit” button that would let me rearrange, add and eliminate notifications on that screen.

It was too much work to limit the notifications coming at me from just one app, let alone managing notifications from all the apps on my iPhone.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of app developers: without notifications an app will wither and die from neglect. But I object to the whole “opt out” presumption of developers that turn notifications on — or make “yes gimme gimme” the “don’t think about it” option to pick — when installing an app in the first place.

I should be able to say, “Hey Siri: I don’t want notifications from the News app anymore” and have that remove everything. When I tried that, though, Siri simply opened the News app.

I think Siri has a learning disability.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times recently dubbed the iPhone “the thing that does everything,” which is apt.

But just because a thing can do everything doesn’t mean that it should do everything.

Shameless comment-seeking question: what do you do to eliminate distraction in your environment?

P.S. Don’t even get me started on how angry I am that Uber eliminated the “you can only track my location when I’m actively using Uber” option, so now I either have to let Uber track my iPhone 24/7/365 or I have to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Always” when I’m about to call a Uber and then remember to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Never” when I’m done. This is one of many reasons I think that Uber hates people, both its riders and its drivers. Lyft, I hasten to say, retains the “While Using” option.

SHORT: Don’t Miss REDEF Original on Truth in Advertising

From the “too long for a tweet” department:

I just finished Adam Wray‘s powerful Fashion REDEFined original article “With Great Power: Seth Matlins on how Advertising can Shift Culture for the Better.”

It’s about Seth Matlins‘ efforts to change how advertisements featuring too-skinny and Photoshopped models body shame girls and women (men too, by the way).

Here’s a useful except from Matlins:

This practice, these ads, cause and contribute to an array of mental health issues, emotional health issues, and physical health issues that include stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, self-hate. At the most extreme end they contribute to eating disorders, which in turn contribute to the death of more people than any other known mental illness, at least domestically. What we know from the data is that as kids grow up, the more of these ads they see, the less they like themselves.

What we know is 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re 17, 53% becomes 78%, so roughly a 50% increase. When they’re adults, 91% of women will not like themselves, will not like something about their bodies. Women on average have 13 thoughts of self-hate every single day. We know that these ads, and ads like these, have a causal and contributory effect because of pleas from the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Health, the Eating Disorder Coalition, and tens of thousands of doctors, mental and physical, educators, psychologists, health care providers, to say nothing of the governments of France, Israel, and Australia, who have urged advertisers to act on the links between what we consider deceptive and false ad practices and negative health consequences. And yet to date, by and large, and certainly at scale, nobody has.

I wish that the numbers in the second paragraph were stunning or surprising, but they aren’t. What they are, however, is infuriating.

My one critique of the article — and the reason for this short post — is that blame for this sort of body shaming doesn’t only lie with advertisers and marketers.

The entertainment industry also propagates unrealistic body images for females and males alike, and let’s not forget all the magazines and websites featuring photoshopped bodies on covers and internal pages.

It’s not just the ads.

As the father of a 15 year old girl and an 11 year old boy (a teen and a tween), I’m hyper-conscious of these images, but aside from trying (often vainly) to restrict their media access there’s only so much my wife and I can do.

So I celebrate Matlins’ efforts.

You don’t have to be a parent to find this article compelling, but if you ARE a parent, particularly to a teen girl, then this is required reading, folks.  It’ll be on the final.

Along these lines, high up on my “to read this summer” list is Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, although I’ll confess that I’m a bit afraid to read it, as I think I’ll feel the way I felt after seeing Schindler’s List for the first time.

On Meditation: a tweet drizzle in 11 brief parts

On meditation: a tweet drizzle (1) #mindful

OK, I get it. Morning mediation is important. It creates a shock absorber in my head for the day to come, gives me resources. (2) #mindful

The chattering monkeys and skittering spiders of my thoughts need taming, stilling, calming, tranquilizing (3) #mindful

Inner peace is probably beyond me, but a mind less like a New Delhi street with cars zipping any which way would be nice. (4) #mindful

But why does meditation have to be so damned BORING? My breathing just isn’t that interesting, nor are my aches and pains. (5) #mindful

Listening to music while meditating — even Gyoto Tantric chanting — seems like cheating somehow. (6) #mindful

I listen to the fridge whispering in the kitchen, the sound of my clothes rustling, house settling, birds outside waking. (7) #mindful

And then my mind skulks away from meditation into myriad chores, emails to write, what to make the kids for breakfast. (8) #mindful

Is this the project? A fight to dwell in a brief present amid a siege of thoughts? Does it get easier, effortless, soothing… (9) #mindful

Or is meditation always a struggle on the ground of the present moment between past reflection and future anticipation? (10) #mindful

End of tweet drizzle (so called because by definition something on meditation can hardly amount to a storm). (11) #mindful

The Problem with More: Coca-Cola, Electric Cars, Email, Facebook and Satisfaction

I Pac-Man chomp my way through many articles each week, digesting most with a tiny burp and leaving them to the brass-knuckled mercies of memory.  Yet two recent pieces have stuck with me: Matt Richtel’s October 10th piece in the New York Times, “In California, Electric Cars Outpace Plugs, and Sparks Fly” and Roberto A. Ferdman’s October 5th piece in the Washington Post, “How Coca-Cola has tricked everyone into drinking so much of it.

Both articles deserve close reading, but in the interests of your time, dear reader, the quick summaries are 1) in California there are now orders of magnitude more electric cars than there are charging stations, which is provoking people to behave selfishly when they need to power up their cars, and 2) an interview with the ironically-named Marion Nestle (author of a book called “Soda Politics”) charts the “valiant and deplorable” lengths to which Coca-Cola has gone to habituate people to drinking evermore of its unhealthy product over many decades and compares the company’s efforts to those of Big Tobacco.

The collision of these two articles in my mind led me to a mild, week-long experiment, which is that I don’t check Facebook or email until after 10:00am each day.  This piece is my attempt to unpack the “how the heck did I get to there from that?” of this experiment.

On the electric car dilemma, this is a crystalline example of how technology and behavior evolve in a complex dance: Darwin’s finches got nothing on Tesla, Leaf and Volt.  Since electric cars are getting on the road at a slower pace than people sign up for yet another social media service, we can get a clear look at how behavior changes over a longer period of time: oversupply of electric cars plus undersupply of charging stations equals conflict. 

<Digression> Before I go any further, confession time: if there were a support group called Facebook  Anonymous for people who can’t stop checking Facebook I probably wouldn’t join because I’d be too busy checking Facebook. 

I love Facebook.  The problem is that I love Facebook more than Facebook loves me.

I neither want to dignify my lack of social media self-discipline with the word “addiction” nor trivialize the piercing challenges addicts have with alcohol and drugs, so let me simply say that I am on Facebook (oy it’s a lot), Twitter (at least daily, way more at conferences), Google+ (yup, I’m the one) and LinkedIn (do you like me? do you like me?) too much for my own comfort and productivity when I take time out to think about it. 

The corollary behavior pattern is my over-involvement with email, which feels less like addiction and more like a punishment from God, but that’s probably just because email has been around longer and has therefore normalized itself in my sense of how the world works (see the Douglas Adams bit towards the end of this piece for more on how that works). </Digression>

Both articles are examples of The Problem with More

We want more electric cars on the road, but we didn’t think it through and now we have people arguing about who gets what access to which charging station.  It hasn’t gotten to the fight-fights-and-riots point yet, but I inferred a new form of pre-road rage is coming to California, from whence so many other technological innovations of dubious merit hail.

Coca-Cola’s profitability depends on getting more people to drink more of its products every year, and now, Marion Nestle says, a conservative estimate is that 50% of the US population drinks more than one can of soda per day, with many of those folks drinking much more— four cans plus.  Coca-Cola denies any link between its product and an obesity epidemic.

More isn’t the opposite of less: it’s the opposite of enough.

We humans, Americans particularly, have trouble with enough.  We want to earn more, go to the gym or spin class more, read more, spend more time on our hobbies, see our friends and families more, parent our children more, finish that project in the garage, be better about keeping up with the news of the world, bake bread from scratch, make our own clothes and brew our own beer.  We also want to do better at the office, get that promotion, give that conference paper, go to that networking event and turn every meeting and interaction into a miracle of productivity that leaves our colleagues breathless with gratitude because now they can go back to playing with their iPhones. 

This is where the myth of multitasking comes from.

Corporations have an even harder time — way harder — with enough.  Public companies need more, lots more, to satisfy investors.  Companies that are OK with enough get trivialized as “lifestyle businesses.”

We humans want more, so we squeeze more stuff in — both new stuff and more of the old stuff; corporations need us to squeeze more stuff in — preferably their stuff — in order to make the Street happy.

When corporations like Coca-Cola run up against limits in their customer base — that is, 50% of Americans do not drink soda — they need to get their existing customers, the other 50%, to drink more soda even though it’s unhealthy.  Faced with this question, soft drink companies dodge either by focusing on how people don’t exercise enough or on how they have other products (diet soda, water) that aren’t as bad for people— this is a “guns don’t kill people, bullets do” argument.

It’s when we come to the issue of satisfaction that things get murky.  If you know a little Latin, then you’ll already know that the word “satisfaction” literally means “to be made enough” from the combination of satis and facere

Our workaday understanding of satisfaction is the “Ahhhh” of the first gulp of an icy Coke on a blistering summer day when you’ve just finished doing something sweaty.  This is a transfixing moment: time stops.  You enter what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state where your attention is 100% focused.  For that one moment you need nothing else: you have been made enough.

Coca-Cola has built its formidable brand upon the rock of moments like this one.  Just think about its current slogan: “Open Happiness.”

The problem is that there aren’t enough transfixing moments for Coca-Cola to be profitable, so the company sells satisfaction but then delivers routine, it promises magic but provides habit bordering on addiction.  What psychologists call a Hedonic Set Point tells us that the second or third or fourth or fifth can of Coke can’t possibly create a moment like the first, but once you’re in the habit of associating thirst with Coke (rather than, say, water), you’re unlikely to stop.

Which brings me back to Facebook.  When we dive or dip into Facebook the potential for magic always exists: the old friend’s new baby, the new friend’s witty comparison, the frisson when you realize that two people whom you know also know each other.  But more often than not it’s click-bait, bad jokes or that day’s lunch pic by the perennial over-poster.

I have 1,528 connections on Facebook.  I’m an overachiever since the average number, last I heard, was 140 (close to Dunbar’s number), but even though I have 10X the usual number of connections Facebook needs me to add even more in order to increase the number of interactions happening within its user base, so it can sell more advertisements. 

As with Coke, more Facebook “friends” does not mean that I’m going to find my experience with Facebook more satisfying— it just means that there will be more of it.  There are enough magical Facebook moments to keep people coming back, but paradoxically the more you come back the less often you’ll find that magical moment because Facebook has become routine. 

<Digression> There’s another Facebook Problem with More, which is that Facebook presumes that any interaction I have with any person is an indelible mark of my interest in that person’s actions.  If my friend Tim posts a cute picture of his dog, and if I make the mistake of interacting with that picture (a like, a comment), then the all-seeing Facebook algorithm concludes that I want to see more stuff from Tim. 

But what if I’ve scratched my Tim itch?  What if I have satisfied my craving for information about Tim for the next few months and no longer feel the need to see his dog posts?  This never occurs to Facebook, which means that I then have to dive into the settings on one of Tim’s posts to turn down the gain or stop following him altogether, which is a homework assignment for I class I never decided to take. </Digression>

I’m confident that the satisfaction shape of having a lot of Facebook friends looks like this:


chart

So the more friends you have the less satisfaction you’ll feel, and you’ll work harder to get those moments of satisfaction… which benefits Facebook on the surface because it generates more advertising inventory for them but at a plummeting quality.

Since I’m polite, I don’t want to unfriend a bunch of people on Facebook.  And since Facebook’s filters suck ass — I can’t intuitively say, “more from THOSE 150 people, please” — the only thing I can do is limit the time I spend on Facebook in the hope that by making it less a chronic part of my day I’ll be able to notice more when the magic moments occur, and incidentally I’ll have more time to focus on my new bread-making hobby. 

Hence this week’s experiment. 

A closing irony: In addition to publishing this on my blog and on Medium, I’ll also post a link on Facebook and Twitter.

Notes from Bergen 4: the world is less virtual than we think

It’s 8:30am as I begin writing this post.  Just minutes ago Kathi and our son trotted off towards the University of Bergen, where she’ll drop him off for his last day at Nygard Skole — the Norwegian immersion program he’s attended this year — before going to her last day at the University.  My daughter shook a leg in a perpendicular direction to her last day at Rothaugen, where she has been in an immersion class embedded in the local junior high. 

Our adventure is ending: my kids have been in 10 countries in 10 months: USA, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, France, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany and Italy.  They are closer to being world citizens now, and the travel bug has bitten them.  I wait with fascination to watch them readjust to life in our small town south of Portland after being able to jet off to Rome for a weekend.

Now, I sit on the couch with the kitchen ravages of the morning waiting for me to order them, after which I’ll return to packing, organizing, scanning, pruning and getting ready for our crack-of-dawn departure back to America on Monday. 

Home.  We’re going home, first to visit family and friends in Los Angeles, then up to Portland a few days later.

Already, our 4-story, narrow, weird little 400-year-old house doesn’t look like us.  The books are gone, and a Berens without books is extraterrestrial.  We shipped six boxes yesterday, and this was after I schlepped an extra suitcase and bag of books to New York  with me a few weeks ago on a business trip to UPS westward at lower cost.

Other changes: the quintet resumed being our standard Berens quartet when Jordan, our beloved nanny who also works for me in the business, left on her European walkabout while I was in New York.  The house got a bit quieter. 

We measure in wake-ups: how many more times will we wake up in Bergen?  The answer as of now is three: Saturday, Sunday, Monday wheels up.  Our year-long presence falls from the house fast as an oak shakes off last leaves at autumn’s end… even though Norwegian summer is just starting to peek through the clouds here.

We have so much stuff, even in this pared down year.  We’ll travel to Los Angeles with straining duffles and carryons.  Despite buying digital books and music, being careful about what we acquire, scanning papers and then disposing of the originals… we’re still fleshy beings in a world of plastic, cloth, wood and concrete.  Friends are adopting our houseplants.  We’ve given outgrown clothes to charity.  Still we have to manage things.  Many things.

So the world is a lot less virtual than we think it is, and not just in the sense of “gosh, what a lot of stuff we have.”

When we moved to Bergen back in August I knew I’d be far away, but I thought that with Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Skype and Google Hangouts and email and a Vonage/VOIP phone things would chug along. 

In many ways, they did.  Facebook and Twitter helped me to keep an ambient awareness of what was happening with friends, and vice versa.  Many people have told me how they’ve enjoyed watching our European adventure unfold in picture after picture on Facebook.

But a chasm lies between recent-time Facebook updates and live conversations with family, friends and business associates.  Distance shatters immediacy, and the nine-hour time difference between Bergen and Portland is even harder to bridge than the geography.  Numberless times I’ve had to sacrifice either a meeting with business partners or dinner with the family because 9am in California is 6pm in Norway.  The numbers never added up.

After a while, I got used to the distance and forgot how different live could be.

Then, in May, I went back to Brown University for the first time for my 25th college reunion to renew acquaintance with classmates and campus.  I stayed in the dorms, which are no habitat for middle-aged bodies— each morning, the bleary shuffle from dorm to bathroom by coffee-deprived grownups (myself included) was near-slapstick comedy.  We all wandered the campus in endless combinations, trading lifetimes of anecdotes.  Often, I couldn’t recognize an older friend by looking, but when we walked, when the unchanged voice came from next to me, the years fell away.

After the reunion I went down to New York for a week of conferences.  Handshakes, hugs, smiles, meals shared, beer bottles clinked, knowing expressions traded, walks in the June sunlight: these things change, deepen and amplify interaction more than mere adverbs can capture.    

I shouldn’t be surprised by this: I’ve spent more than a decade programming conferences that exist because real relationships require real presence to start, bloom and mature.  The highest bandwidth signal we have is when we’re sitting across a table from others, feeling their bodies shift the air, hearing the crinkle of their clothes as well as their voices, noticing the new haircut, new age line, new cadence or habitual word choice.  Those things aren’t noise: they compose a richer signal.

The world is a lot less virtual than we think.

The dishes await, as do more boxes.  Tonight, friends visit.  More packing over the weekend, a last trek up Fløyen to say goodbye to the fjord on Sunday. 

You only know it’s an adventure when it’s over.

We’re going home.

Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow

Like Moe, the schoolyard bully in Calvin & Hobbes, Daniel Kahneman has taken away my cognitive lunch money for the last four years. 

Moe

To be clear, it isn’t the 81-year-old Nobel laureate himself: it’s his best-selling 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Let me back up.

I read fiction quickly, sometimes gobbling up a novel during a plane ride or a rare quiet evening. Nonfiction, though, goes down more slowly. Even delightfully-well-written nonfiction books (Adam Grant’s Give & Take, anything by Steven Johnson) go into my mind with kidney-stone-passing-out perceived slowness when compared to, say, the latest by Neil Gaiman.  I inhaled Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl so quickly last month that I belched afterward, metaphorically, of course.

But I can speed up my non-fiction reading rate by having a project at hand.  Right now, for example, I’m working on two different, oddly-echoing projects: the first is about the future of technology and user behavior and the second is about Shakespeare as a business innovator.  These projects are my cognitive rudders, helping me sail through non-fiction arguments and implications at higher speed, evaluating their relevance to my own work while making notes about interesting other bits for later.

So getting back to Kahneman, this is my third attempt at Thinking Fast and Slow, his remarkable book about how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are when it comes to making all sorts of judgments and decisions.  I’m about to start the fifth and last section, and this progress is because of the projects.

My first try was on the iPad, but what that copy of the book taught me was that I read, metabolize and retain nonfiction better on paper, with pencil in hand, underlining, annotating and making notes in the back of the book.  If I let you borrow a copy of any of my nonfiction books, then I must trust you a lot because I’m giving you a voyeuristic window into my mind, and you’ll see any number of checks, asterisks, “yeahs,” and longer marginalia.

Susan MacDermid, my then-boss and now-business partner, then gave me a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow.  I attacked it, pencil in hand, but that was around the same time that I was jetting all over the planet on business, and the hardback copy was greedily taking up most of my precious briefcase space, so I stopped lugging it around.

Over the last few weeks, though, my thoughts have returned to Kahneman time and again as my two projects have come into focus, so on a weekend jaunt to England from Norway I picked up a paperback copy at Waterstone’s and dug back in. 

Now, with projects in mind, I’m now able to place Kahneman’s arguments in context, tweak them into different directions, and think through what the book isn’t talking about as well as what it does claim.

This is great news, and a good rule-of-thumb for difficult books in the future: projects speed progress.

On the other hand, it’s bad news for when I’m between projects, as general reading without the frame of what I’m trying to do with it will slow back down to my normal molasses pace with nonfiction.

I expect I’ll finish Thinking Fast and Slow tomorrow.  It’s a magnificent book— and also laugh out loud funny in many places.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to read it, and I expect to read it again. 

With luck, the next reading won’t take four years.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]

“Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them— Updated!

I first wrote about the suite of applications, services, products and gadgets I use to keep my head above water almost three years ago.  In the intervening time things have changed (Smartr/Xobni, for example, has gone away), hence this fresh list.

Here are my 14 “Change Your Life” apps and how I use them. Please share yours in the comments.

Artefact Cards: Not all productivity apps are digital.  The Artefact Cards are a new entry on this list, one developed by my friend John V. Willshire of Smithery.  These cards are deceptively simple: small, blank playing cards with a bright color on one side and white on the other.  Add a fine-point Sharpie and you have a playful, tactile medium for ideation, iteration and collaboration.  The physicality of the cards is what makes them so useful: I have the sense that when you touch something you own it, at least in part.  When John and I met for coffee in London a few weeks ago, he brought me a couple boxes.  When we opened them up and started writing and drawing the ideas came flying fast.  The cards are different than Post-Its at least in part because of the slide-around quality… it’s easier to ideate, rearrange and juxtapose.  Use these cards, and you’ll find that group think-it-out sessions become more interactive— I keep a few with me in my pocket Moleskine notebook all the time, and just ordered a Desk Set because I’m almost out!  John is eloquent on how these things came to be here.

(Smithery has created a companion app for scanning and organizing the written-upon cards, but I haven’t used it yet.) 

Blank Index cards: I’m a fan of writing things down on pieces of paper rather than just taking digital notes, although I’m also a passionate scanner and tagger (see Evernote section, below).  The Artefact Cards are great for taxonomy and exploration, with one idea per card in atomic style.  But when I need more space to write down or organize more information, I use blank 5 x 8 index cards like these.  These are always in my backpack, and they also make handy entertainment for kids when trapped in boring grownup environments (my kids both love to draw).

Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities in columns by family member, so, for example, if my wife and son are doing something together it’s easy for me to see that I’ll be the one to pick up our daughter.  Cozi is my least favorite daily productivity app because the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky).  Another ding is that Cozi has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for either me or my wife to update and keeps the different strands of family activity separate but juxtaposed.  The ads are intrusive on the free version, so I pay $5 per month.  Wayne Yamamoto, the CEO of Charity Blossom, once quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.

Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web.  It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video.  It’s a better interface and user experience than Google Drive (see below).

Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  Evernote isn’t an app, it’s a movement.  It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable.  The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $45 per year for premium because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices– rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is necessary.

Evernote is for asset management rather than task management: its focus is on nouns (information to keep track of) rather than on verbs (actions to be performed).  If I had one wish for Evernote, it would be that it should acquire ToodleDo (see below) and integrate it.

Guy Kawasaki is a fantastic apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.

My love for Evernote became even more profound (hard though that was) when I added…

ScanSnap Evernote Edition Scanner (by Fujitsu):  Small, fast and powerful, this scanner integrates seamlessly with Evernote: I shove all business cards, receipts, PDFs, notecards, Artefact cards and the like into Evernote.  If you buy this, then get in the habit of sorting and tagging things daily: it will only take a couple of minutes, but when you later need to find that thing that happened that time, you’ll be glad you did.  Evernote released the Scannable app a few months ago for on-the-fly scanning via a smart phone.  It also integrates with the ScanSnap.

Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea.  When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simply BCC this service with when you want the reminder and it will send you a message at that time.  So, if I ask a client or colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “tuesday@followupthen.com” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back.  You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera.  The free version is robust, and at $2 per month the lowest level of the premium service is probably all you’ll ever need.  From my friend Adam Boettiger.

Google Drive: Formerly Google Docs, Second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  While the capabilities of the word processor and spreadsheets aren’t as good as Microsoft’s, Google gets collaboration better than anybody.  For example, their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employee’s time a few years ago, and the ever-better integration with Gmail and Google+ make this a killer.  Google is trying to eat Dropbox’s lunch, but I still use them both: sometimes I don’t want everything to go through Google.  On the other hand… 

Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired.  Call me and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work) and I can pick up the one want.  Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number.  Google Voice now integrates nicely with Google+ and Gmail.  During my time in Norway, I only wish that it would forward to my Norwegian mobile number, but at least it goes to my Vonage VOIP number, which is virtually in the USA.

Instapaper:  A Niagara of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (I sometimes think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing.  Often I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption.  If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably looking at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are must buys.  I also recommend upgrading to Premium, as it gives you quicker and better access to the archive of things you read once and are now trying to remember.

Moleskine Volant Mini:  I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times.  It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard a slow process.  Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the other person is saying.  The detachable sheets at the back also make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over.  Find these in a lot of bookstores, art supply stores and online.

Rory’s Story Cubes: These are more of an insight pump than a productivity app.  Nine six-sided dice have pictograms on each side.  Roll the dice and see what combination of icons and images come up.  The dice are handy for changing your perspective on a situation that might have become sclerotic, or help you break through a barrier in your thinking.  Along these lines, just yesterday I saw a real copy of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards, and I may buy a set since the iPhone app I’ve tried is unsatisfying.

The Story Cubes have helped my son in a regular battle with his Daily Journal assignment from school.  He’s a talented writer, but sometimes has trouble coming up with something to write about.  Tossing the cubes and then selecting a few of them helps him get started.

Randomness has its uses.  Way back in college, I stumbled across my friend Karen Schiff throwing Tarot Cards and nearly passed out in judgmental shock.  Karen, serene, then explained that she didn’t think the cards had mystical properties, but that throwing them made her think in directions that she wouldn’t think natively.  It was a powerful moment that stuck with me, so I look for implements of controlled chaos like the Story Cubes.

Toodle Do: This member of my daily web services was introduced to me separately by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman.  Don’t let the stupid name fool you, this is a robust to-do-lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization.  The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t Scrooge out and neglect to buy the smart phone and tablet apps: that’s $5.98 that will accelerate your use and organization.  Fans of GTD will love this.

As I mentioned above, Evernote should buy Toodle Do and integrate it.

Trello:  Another from my friend Adam Boettiger: it’s a digital index card bulletin board of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is great for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work.  I think of it as a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Inside the Trello space, it’s easy to absorb and prioritize tasks and manage assets. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished.

So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Please leave comments!

Vonage = a Practical Tip when Moving Abroad (Notes from Bergen)

From the “Department of Things I Wish I’d Taken Care of Faster” Department…

Executive Summary of this post: if you’re moving out of your home country, then get a VOIP line that lets your relatives call as if you’re down the street.

The Story: Before we left Oregon at the end of last summer for our school year in Norway, I asked Vonage — I’ve been a customer for years — to upgrade our ancient box to the new model that has a more nimble power source that can work just about anywhere in the world.  They did.

Then we got to Bergen and the wifi in our rental house sucked.  I worked with our landlord over the next few months, raising the bandwidth, replacing the physical modem/router, adding a repeater, and eventually more than one person could be online at a time.

During those months, we used Skype to stay in touch with family, colleagues and friends, and I love Skype.  As a Skype Premium subscriber, I can use Skype to call any telephone in the USA as part of my membership… all for just $7 per month.  It’s wonderful.

But it’s hard for my parents and in-laws to use Skype to call us.  It’s also hard to pass a computer around the way you can pass a cordless phone around.

A “figure out the Vonage line” reminder kept popping up in my To Do list, and eventually I dragged out the wireless phones that our landlord had abandoned using years ago.

Early experiments yielded a dial tone but only for a few seconds.  I deduced that the rechargeable batteries inside the handsets were fried, trotted off to Clas Ohlson (the everything store here in Bergen), switched out the batteries, and SHAZAM! we had a phone with an Oregon number with a handset in the kitchen just like at our home in the USA.

It’s a slight exaggeration to call the impact of this phone “transformative,” but only slight.

My parents and in-laws are now just a quick call away, and we’re not tethered to the laptop when we talk with them.  Chatting is now more casual, and we feel closer.  My niece’s 91-year-old grandmother will never figure out Skype, so it’s great for her to be able to call directly, too.

Moreover, the base of the Vonage box is wired directly into the modem, and then the phone base is wired directly into the Vonage box, and then the phone base uses a different set of frequencies.  The result is that if I’m talking on the Vonage phone then another person can stream a video or talk via Skype or Facebook Messenger without the bandwidth battle screwing up everything.

If you have super-strong wifi in your home (we don’t here in our 400-year-old retrofitted and extremely vertical house), then there are other options than Vonage.  Skype has a series of phones, for example, and my friend Shelly Palmer just profiled a coming-real-soon service from Cablevision called “Freewheel” that combines wifi and smartphones in a cheap way that might work just as well.

If you’re moving abroad for more than a month, Vonage is a great solution for bring home just a little closer.

Applications vs. Appliances

Although this post is mostly a how and why exercise, on the more theoretical side the physical presence of a phone in the kitchen has taken up a nice little slice of cognitive space for the family.

When all activities go through the same screens or suite of screens (phones, tablets, laptops), then no particular activity rises to the surface of consciousness.  Having a dedicated device for voice communications focuses our attention on voice communications because the appliance extrudes into our meat-space environment.

For example (and hilariously), when I was at the supermarket and had a question about something on the list and couldn’t raise anybody on Instant Messenger, I used Skype Out to call the Vonage line.  In other words, standing just blocks from a fjord I used a Skype number virtually in Beverly Hills to call a Vonage number virtually in Portland.  My not-virtual family members flipped out because they’d never heard that phone ring before, but they answered the phone when they’d ignored all the screens.

There’s a growing body of thought about “the voice as app” over the last few months (Shelly talks about it eloquently), but I’m talking about something different: having an appliance for an activity rather than an application.

Applications sink below the surface of awareness in everything-devices.  Appliances remind us of their existence simply by taking up space.

Daniel J. Levitin — in the “Organizing our Homes” chapter of his remarkable book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload — talks about how in an ideal world we’d have one computer for work, one for hobbies, one for taxes and the like.

In other words, we’d sort activities by appliances rather than by programs because as we move from appliance to appliance (rather than from application to application on one device) our brains refocus, recharge and reengage.

In our ever more-virtual, more-digital world, there is a powerful efficacy in dumb old matter: taking notes on paper, talking on a phone, reading a pulp-and-ink book (a “book book” as my friend Peter Horan says).

Turns out, the old AT&T “reach out and touch someone” commercials were right.

Thanks to the Kindest of Strangers

Dear Reader, please help me get this post to Charlie, my hat rescuer, so that he knows how grateful I am.

The Story: If you’ve seen me or photos of me the last few years, then chances are you’ve seen me wearing this cap:

MenWithHatsThe cap is from the Goorin Bros shop on NW23rd Street  in Portland, and I loved mine so much I got one for my boy so that we could be hat twins.

Then, last week, as I was getting onto the Tube in London, I looked around and realized that my beloved cap was gone!*  I thought I’d dropped it before I’d stepped onto the train, so I stepped off. Then the doors closed and a man with a distressed expressed knocked on the glass from inside… holding my cap.  I dropped it inside the now-departing train.

A mime dance ensued in which, I hoped, I realized that the man was going to stop at the very next tube stop with my hat.

The train bearing my hat disappeared. Two minutes later another train appeared.  When I got to the next stop and the sea of embarking and departing bodies settled to a trickle, there he was with my cap in hand.

When I thanked him, offered to pay him, asked him if I could do anything in recompense, Charlie’s answer was a bold-faced lie: “anybody would do the same,” he said.

Not so.

Most people wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t notice when another person dropped the cap in the first place, wouldn’t pick up the cap and signal to the hat dropper, and certainly wouldn’t take 15 minutes out of their days to return the hat to the dropper.

I managed to snap a picture with Charlie:

HatRescuer

(What do you call a selfie with two people? An “Us”ie?)

And I gave Charlie my card and the promise of dinner if he ever makes it to Oregon.

Now I’d like to get him my repeated thanks, so let’s play the Six Degrees of Separation game.  If you would please be so kind as to share this post on your Twitter or Facebook feeds, I’m confident that my thanks will reach Charlie soon.

And the Good Samaritan award goes to…

 

* By the way, the moral of this story is, “don’t try to scan a picture of a receipt into Evernote while you’re boarding a train or risk losing your beloved cap.”  Sigh.

 

Notes from Bergen 3: Paternal Victories

“Dad,” my teenager daughter asked one recent morning as she picked her way through over-easy eggs, seedy toast and Earl Grey tea. “What have you eaten for breakfast?”

At a quick scan it’s an innocuous question, but down, deep down, subterranean with stalactites, a parenting victory glints in dim light.

Here’s what I mean.

This year in Norway is a steep climb for both H, my 13 year old daughter, and W, my 9 year old son. The mountain is rockier for the teenager.  At 9, you still orbit Mom and Dad, so if they’re around and happy (and we are) then you’re pretty much OK. But at 13, particularly for girls, your identity foundation is your friends.

H’s friends are back Stateside.  Sure, she has made new friends, but it’s not the same.  The temporariness of our 10-month stay here in Bergen makes it hard to set fresh intimacies in concrete.

One unplanned but happy product of this for me and for K (my wife) is that H is closer to us than she would have been back home.  At a moment when she’d pull away it turns out that she doesn’t have that far she can go.  So even though sometimes it’s like living with a werewolf, at least this is a werewolf I know.

Both kids are busy.  They do Norwegian immersion school from 8:30 until early afternoon, then come home to do Math and English from an American home school curriculum.  Even though it’s about the same number of hours of schooling and homework as they’d have back home in Oregon, the daily rupture from one learning environment to another rubs at them, but if we put them in Norwegian school they’d be learning material they’d already learned back home— and they’d be bored.  School in Norway is slower than in the US.  That’s both bad and good, but if they’re going to be up to speed when they get back to Oregon then the home schooling is critical.

Take a generous helping of busy, add it to a heap of lonely for the BFFs who get her, toss in a language barrier, short days and a lot of different cultural presumptions and that equals a steep climb.  Add puberty to that mix where the daily baseline of her body swerves and bobs like a New Delhi taxi driver fighting post-work traffic… and that’s why it’s harder for the 13 year old.

So back to breakfast and when H asked me if I’d eaten.  What prompted the question was when I made a move to filch W’s second piece toast— mostly as a way of motivating him to stop reading and finish breakfast already, okay, sheesh — before I walked him to school.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I had a scrambled egg, coffee and I’m now eating this banana.”

“Okay,” H said, and went back to to her own toast.

This is a paternal victory because it shows two things.  First, and less importantly, a thought about somebody else (in this case dear old Dad) send ripples across the pond of adolescent narcissism.  H noticed — while I was making over-easy eggs, toast and tea for her and making scrambled eggs with cheese, toast and coffee for W, plus lunches — that she hadn’t seen me eat anything myself. Huzzah!

I now have dim hopes that one day she’ll realize that clean laundry doesn’t magically waddle into her room, scale her bed like a mountaineer and then fold itself into neat piles.  But I’m not calling my bookie on this one.

The second, more important, thing is that the message about eating a good breakfast because it fuels you for the rest of the day has seeped through the skeptical, plastic wrap outer layer of the teen brain and tinted the reflexive reptilian core.  If H is giving me a hard time about eating breakfast, then that means she has internalized the lesson enough to throw it back in my face.

When I realized this an hour later, I nearly cried with happiness.

There are no “one and done” conversations with kids. You keep having the same conversation over and over, keep suppressing the audible sighs (again? I have to talk you through this again???) and finding the tiny tree-lined place of inner calm before starting over.

Here’s the other paternal victory of this morning.

W has mild A.D.D., and so progress from bed into clothes to breakfast to teeth brushing and then jacket zipped and shoes on and out the door can be challenging before the coffee hits his bloodstream (caffeine helps A.D.D. kids focus).  I was juggling stuff in the kitchen and so K (also known as Mom) was helping him with the teeth and hair brushing. 

As I came down with his lunch and backpack, I said, “Okay, big guy. It’s isn’t raining so put your Nikes on—”

“No—” K interrupted from the other room.

“—And if it’s raining when it’s time for me to pick you up I’ll bring your boots with me,” I continued smoothly as if K had said nothing.

But my face registered that her interruption bugged me.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t just my face. My two itchy middle fingers might also have given me away.

“Dad?” W said. “Why’d you—”

“Later,” I said.  “On our walk.”

We zipped up, put our reflectors on our arms and headed out into the pre-dawn morning. 10 steps later he turns to me with a “fess up” expression.

I explained that when I told him to put the Nikes on I had the situation under control: I didn’t need input from Mom at that moment.  Plus, the way she had said, “no” irked me.  There were nicer ways she could have said what she was going to say, which was that it could rain at any moment and that she didn’t want W’s feet to be wet and cold.

“Are you still mad?” he asked.

“Nah, I’m over it.”

I explained that before I told W to put his Nikes on I’d looked outside and seen that it wasn’t raining.  Since he woke up with aching feet (at 9 his feet are nearly as big as mine: he’s going to tower over me before he can drive) I thought he’d be more comfortable walking to school in the sneakers that give his feet better support.  And if it’s wet then I’m happy to lug his boots with me to school when I collect him after school, or when he meets me at Chaos, our Tuesday afternoon hangout.  My morning kid footwear strategy, to use lingo I didn’t share with W, had already taken potential precipitation into account.

So here’s the victory.

After I’d explained my rationale to W as we walked he thought about it for a moment and said, “Huh.  Actually that was really smart.”

“Thanks,” I replied without a hint of dryness.

Unlike the breakfast question from H, having my 9 year old see the benefits of thinking ahead — and also understanding that Dad isn’t just the guy who fetches breakfast but also has a brain — didn’t make me cry.

But it sure made me smile.