A reminder how to use a semicolon

How to use a semicolon by The Oatmeal
How to use a semicolon by The Oatmeal

Now and then I feel like I need a refresher on how to use certain forms of punctuation. Today it was the semicolon, which I have abused on multiple occasions.

The most feared punctuation on earth.

I did a little Googling and found this awesome guide on The Oatmeal titled “How to use a semicolon“. Not only is this guide really useful and worth bookmarking, it is a reminder of just how awesome The Oatmeal is, generally.

Other terrific grammar guides include:

Even people who write for a living could use a reminder now and then. I certainly do.

Source: How to use a semicolon – The Oatmeal

Tips for capturing screenshots on your Mac

Capturing screenshots on your Mac may be old hat for most Mac users. If, like me, you are a little unsure about how to do this on your Mac, definitely read Macworld’s article titled “How to take screenshots on your Mac“. It is really useful.

I usually use Evernote’s Skitch to capture them because it’s easy to annotate them and drag them into whichever app I am working in.

Lately, though, it is frustrating to use it. Something changed and I often need to restart the app to get it to recognise the keyboard hotkeys to launch the clipping windows.

I knew that Mac OS had a built-in capability to take screenshots but I didn’t take the time to learn the various options so I just stuck with Skitch.

Article link: How to take screenshots on your Mac

Photo credit: Pixabay

Rethinking strong passwords

Here is a great xkcd comic about strong passwords. I have tended to go for the longer, random passwords which I store in LastPass. I usually pick 20 random characters with text, numbers and special characters. I then update them now and then to keep things interesting.

xkcd's recommendation for strong passwords
Password Strength by xkcd

If I understand this comic, it looks like I may be safer with a couple random words instead. Or, a couple random words with mixed characters within them!

Remembering strong passwords is challenging because they need to be considerably more complex than “1234” (if you are using that as your password, you really need to change it). Like I said earlier, I use LastPass to manage my passwords.

There are other options if LastPass isn’t for you and you should investigate if you aren’t already using a password manager. I don’t know how people manage multiple passwords securely without a password manager these days.

Is Medium just a RSS reader?

medium-rss-iftttThe general consensus on Medium seems to be that Medium is a publishing platform, essentially. Rian van der Merwe has a different take on Medium which he explains in his post “Medium as RSS reader”:

But then it dawned on me… Indie publishers have been thinking about Medium all wrong. We’ve been thinking about Medium as a thing that eats all the world’s content with zero regard for publishers. But Medium is, in fact, nothing more than a next-generation RSS reader.

It is an interesting idea and I’m not sure I agree or would want Medium to become a fancy RSS reader. That said, his IFTTT recipe for automatically publishing his blog posts to Medium offers an alternative to the buggy Medium plugin for WordPress which I stopped using on my site.

View profile at Medium.com

Looking at Rian’s Medium profile, the IFTTT recipe seems to be working pretty well although I’m curious whether Rian needs to do any post-publication editing to fix formatting issues? I usually have to delete extra line spaces and fix quotes when I import my blog posts into Medium. If not, this is a good option for, at the very least, republishing blog posts to Medium.

How Instapaper could be an even better research tool

Instapaper has become so much more than a reading app to me. It has become a fantastic research tool too. As good as it is, it could be better (or, at least, it could do one thing better). Bear with me, I’ll explain.

As you may know, Instapaper introduced highlighting and commenting (or Notes) some time back. If you are using the “free” service you are limited to just 5 notes a month but if you become a Premium user for a mere $29.99 for a year (or $2.99 for a month), you have all the awesomeness that is Instapaper available to you.

My work involves a fair amount of writing. I typically write around 3,000 to 4,000 words a week in the form of blog posts for my employer’s blog. I also write guest posts for industry websites now and then and edit blog posts that my colleagues have written. My writing tool is Byword and I am a big fan. Reaching the point where I write those articles usually means doing a fair amount of research. That involves finding useful materials, saving them to Instapaper where possible and later going through my saved items in Instapaper to review them more closely.

Comments and highlights in Instapaper
Comments and highlights in Instapaper

At that point I use the highlighting and commenting tools a lot to pick out phrases and ideas that I want to incorporate into my articles. I created IFTTT recipes (here and here) that take highlights and comments and add them to running Evernote notes for each article.

The results are nicely laid out Evernote notes with all my highlighted texts and comments. It’s a useful way to aggregate all those highlights and comments in a central reference that I can go back to when it is time to write my article.

Comments from Instapaper collated in an Evernote note
Comments from Instapaper collated in an Evernote note

Instapaper has a Notes tab which has a list of all your highlights and comments but I haven’t used that. I’ve been using Evernote for years so it seemed like a good idea to just send my highlights and comments there rather than use the Instapaper option.

Instapaper's Notes view
Instapaper’s Notes view

I was home sick for a few days last week and my idea of rest was to research and start writing a mini-thesis about ad blocking and different perspectives on it and solutions for the challenges it creates. At one point I was highlighting and commenting so much I received a rate limiting warning from IFTTT telling me that I was about to hit an hourly limit on items sent to Evernote (I didn’t know such a limit even existed).

At the end of my research phase I had a dozen or two Evernote notes with dozens of items in each which I thought would be useful in my article. What hit me is how relatively unproductive this workflow is where I have a lot of material to review after the initial research. Making all those notes and highlights practically useful requires me to go through my Evernote notes and manually extract all of those items into some sort of outline of my article. My favourite outliner is OmniOutliner but any OPML-based outliner would work just about as well.

Usually I don’t use an outliner too because my articles aren’t generally as complex as this ad blocking piece. In this case, an outliner became essential. I was working on my outline and I realised that as terrific Instapaper is as a research tool, being able to automatically export all those highlights and notes into an outline that I could manipulate afterwards would be far more effective than flat Evernote notes.

The benefit of an outliner is that I can drag lines around and re-order the outline pretty easily. I could possibly even create an initial draft of the article in the outliner and finish it off in Byword or another word processor. It would really depend on how I structured my outline and how much of the article I’d want to write in it. In this case, I still did my writing in Byword but I split my screen and placed my outline on one side of my screen as a reference and wrote in the Byword window.

My split screen OmniOutliner-Byword perspective
My split screen OmniOutliner-Byword perspective

An alternative to this option is to just use Scrivener which is an excellent writing app. I started my article in Scrivener because it has an outlier function and the capacity to collect research materials in the app itself but I switched back to my Byword/OmniOutliner combo option – I just felt this strong need to stick with plain text in a simpler writing window.

Because my outline was more of a secondary outline after I finished my initial research, I still had to go back to Evernote to find individual quotes and arguments and combine material from both sources into my article. If I had been able to automatically send highlights and comments straight into an outliner, it would have placed all my reference materials into one outline from the start and made it a lot easier to structure that data for reference when I started writing.

So, my wish list for 2016 (I’m putting this out into the ether in case it is possible to make this a reality) is for some option to automatically export highlights and comments into coherent outlines just as I can create a similar workflow for Evernote. One possible solution is to create an integration with Dave Winer’s Fargo.io outliner. It should be something simple and create an OPML file that you can manipulate later to create the basis of an article or similar document.

Image credit: Writing by Unsplash, released under a CC0 dedication

Lunchtime project: a primitive cardboard projector

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Our son is home sick so we came up with the idea of making a cardboard projector during lunch today. We used an old Jungle Oats cereal box, a toilet roll core and cling wrap for a basic lens.

We secured the cling wrap using an elastic band (hair elastic in our case) and we stuck a small piece of paper in the shape of a tree on the lens.

It is really primitive and we worked out that the LED on an iPhone projects a very clear silhouette through the projector.

Our son is working on a rocket shape to project on his cupboard door which has glow in the dark shapes and he is going to create a sort of shadow movie for his sister.

Tip: get your LinkedIn Network updates in your feedreader

I am on a mission to reduce the amount of email I receive each day. I’ve noticed that a significant majority of my daily email comprises updates from various social services (many of which I set not to send me emails). I don’t really see much value in most of that email so I sat down this morning to work through about 25 emails from one day and unsubscribe from as much of it as I can.

One of the emails I receive is a daily email with updates from my LinkedIn network. I am interested in what people in my network are doing but I really don’t want email about it all the time. I was messing around in my settings the one day and noticed a cool option – Network updates by RSS!! I use RSS daily and get most of my news and content through my feeds (I use Feedly either in the Web app or through Reeder on my iOS devices). This appeals to me because it doesn’t clutter my inbox and I can scan through updates when I check my feeds.

Here is how you can enable your Network updates in a feed:

Step 1

2013-10-13_LinkedIn_RSS_option_1

Step 2

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Step 3

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Step 4

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Celebrate!

Once you have done that, go through all your email settings and edit those email frequency settings to suit your preferences. Here is a handy help article that will explain how to do it. Check through all the options. It will take a little time but it will be worth it!