My Writing Workflow

Writers tend to obsess about their writing tools and routines. I do, at least. I probably spend way too much time futzing around with pens and pencils and notebooks and text editors and document styles. Although I don’t really have a routine. But I enjoy the tools of writing as much as I love actually putting words on the page. Besides, I need something to do when the words aren’t coming.

Despite my constant tinkering, my writing workflow has been fairly consistent for the last few years. Here are the tools I use and what I do with them.

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Camping in the Boundary Waters, February 2014

I have gone camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness almost every February since I moved to Minnesota, fourteen years ago. With knee-deep snow and unrelenting wind gusting to 30 miles per hour, this year’s trip was by far the most challenging (even considering the year it got down to -30°F (that is the ambient temperature; the wind chill was more like -50°F).

After about a mile and a half of slogging through the snow, we finally gave up and made camp right in the wind by digging ourselves into a drift and building a wind wall with blocks of snow. Here is our campsite:

There are more pictures from this year’s trip, and I’ve collected most of the pictures from my previous trips on Flickr.

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Barbarian Movie Review: Deathstalker

Deathstalker (1983) is a movie I remember seeing every time I went to the video rental store when I was a kid. I loved fantasy, so I always wanted to watch it. Unfortunately, it was rated R, and both Erol’s and Blockbuster scrupulously observed the ratings back then. Now, 30 years after it was released, I finally got to stream it on Netflix .

It was a bit more disappointing than I thought it would be.

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New Calling Card

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For a while now, I have used a personal calling card instead of a business card. Otherwise, I am always juggling several business cards for the various businesses I work with. It is easier to just consolidate all my information in one place — here — from which I can point people in the right direction. Whether people want to contact me at Lawyerist, Estate Map, or to hire me for web design or lawyering, they can just start here.

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Roll Your Own Dropbox with BitTorrent Sync on Amazon EC2

File sync is awesome. Without the ability to get at my files on all my computers (4, currently), I don’t know how I would function. That said, I’m not super-fired-up about Dropbox’s security and privacy practices (or Google Drive’s, for that matter), particularly in light of recent news.

So I got pretty excited when I learned about BitTorrent Sync, software that syncs your files without requiring you to give the key to those files to a company like Dropbox or Google. Like its namesake, BitTorrent Sync is decentralized. It syncs files between the computers you install it on, and does not rely on any central server.

Unfortunately, the lack of a central server is also a downside. If you have a desktop and laptop, for example, BitTorrent Sync will only sync up your files when both of your computers are turned on and connected to the Internet. That’s not a problem with Dropbox, because Dropbox’s servers keep your files synced up all the time, even if your computers are never connected to the Internet at the same time. But if you got BitTorrent Sync running on your own server, you could get this same functionality.

That’s why I figured out how to install BitTorrent Sync on an Amazon EC2 server. Here’s how I did it (with crucial help from the friendly folks on #ubuntu-server at freenode).

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Sherpak Go 15 roof bag review

Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughters (almost two and almost four) camping. It was the first camping trip for all four of us, and we needed to fit four people, a dog, and all our gear into our little Jetta Wagon. The morning we planned to leave, we finally realized we were never going to fit everything inside the car.

I have wanted a great big Yakima roof box for years, but I have had trouble selling Jess on a $500+ box that will take up the entire roof of her car. So we started looking at roof bags. In the short time available to us, we decided to get the Sherpak Go 15 based on the reviews. Then we drove about two hours through a torrential downpour to our campsite, just to make sure we gave our new roof bag a good workout.

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Put your dog on a damn leash

That’s my dog, Josie. Josie is awesome. She is big and furry and looks kind of like a wolf. And she makes Chewbacca sounds. We probably should have called her Chewie. She can run all day and hold her bladder all night, and she loves to stay outside all day in the winter. Josie is obsessed with squirrels, and she even catches them sometimes.

She loves people — except mail carriers. Josie is also an excellent guard dog, because who would break into a house with a big wolf-looking dog hanging out on the front porch? And when my daughters stick their fingers in her eyes or nose, she just wags her tail and flops over on her back so they can rub her belly.

Yep, unless you are a mail carrier, a squirrel, or another dog, my dog is awesome.

It’s those other dogs that present the real problem. People seem to think that because their dog is well-behaved and friendly, they can just walk around without putting their dog on a leash. In the city. Where there are tons of other dogs. In particular, my dog.

Josie hates other dogs. She responds to other dogs with a scary levels of violence, and she is big enough and strong enough to do serious damage.

That is not actually the problem, though. I can control my dog. Within the circle of her leash, I reign supreme. The problem is your dog, the one you think is fine running around off leash. My dog has a talent for provoking dogs like yours.

You know what fighting words are? They are words so offensive that even reasonable, rational people are likely to respond to them with violence. Dogs have a lot of fighting words. Dogs will fight at the sniff of an insult, and my dog is the master of fighting words. She knows she is on a leash, and she knows she can’t get to your dog; she has to make your dog come to her. And she will. She will do anything, and say anything, to get your dog to enter the circle of her leash so she can bite its face off. No subject is off limits. Not your dog’s missing reproductive organs, the height of its pee, the consistency of its poop, the appearance of its owner. Nothing. No matter where your dog’s goat is, Josie will get it.

Your dog may be well-behaved around children and dogs who like other dogs, but in the presence of my dog’s taunting, you will not recognize your dog. It will come for Josie in a fury, and she will bite your dog’s ear off and stuff its tail through its nostril before it can sniff her butthole, leash or no leash. Once your dog has entered the circle of my dog’s leash, it’s game over.

So keep your dog on its leash. There are many dogs like mine. I cannot do anything about my dog’s obsessive hatred of other dogs, but I can control her. You, however, will not be able to control your dog in the presence of my dog, no matter how hard you try. Not without a leash, anyway.

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Use IFTTT + Buffer to update all your social media profiles

There are a bunch of options for updating multiple social media profiles at the same time. Many of the best ones cost money, and many of the free ones don’t work all that well.

I need a way to update Lawyerist‘s Twitter feed, Facebook page, LinkedIn group, and Google+ page with each new post. I was using a hodgepodge of options for a long time, including FeedBurner for Twitter, Twitterfeed for the Facebook page, and updating the LinkedIn group and Google+ page manually. This worked, but not well. I couldn’t always get LinkedIn and Google+ updated on time, and Twitterfeed recently stopped updating our Facebook page altogether. Plus, our analytics were spread all over the place.

The other day, I was poking around in my IFTTT and Buffer accounts, and I think I finally found a pretty-close-to-perfect solution.

If you don’t know, IFTTT (If This, Then That) is sort of like the missing API for the Internet. It connects dozens of services to each other. For example, IFTTT keeps an eye on my Flickr account and updates Twitter (and, formerly, Facebook) whenever I post a new public photo on Flickr. Or you could set it to send you a text message whenever it is going to rain. There are 60 “channels” you can plug into IFTTT “recipes” as of this writing, so there are a lot of possibilities.

Buffer is a tool for updating your social media profiles. You can tie it into Twitter, Facebook (including Facebook pages), LinkedIn (including LinkedIn groups), Google+ pages, and App.net. There is a convenient Chrome extension and a secret email address for adding to your Buffer on the fly. Buffer makes it easy to schedule updates. You just fill up your Buffer queue, and it takes care of spreading out your updates through the day. With the free version of Buffer, you can have up to three accounts, and your Buffer can contain up to 10 items. Or, you can have Buffer post right away.

Among the channels in IFTTT is Buffer, but that’s not actually how I do it. That’s because the Buffer channel only lets you post to one of your Buffer accounts. I wanted to update all of them at once. To do that, I use Gmail.

Here is how to set it up:

  1. In Buffer, make sure all the social media profiles you want updated are set to update by default. To do this, just make sure there is a check next to each one in your Buffer dashboard.
  2. In IFTT, make sure your Gmail and Feed channels are turned on.
  3. Now, create a new recipe.
  4. For this, select the Feed Channel, and choose the New feed item box. Then, enter your blog’s RSS feed.
  5. Click the Create Trigger button.
  6. For that, select the Gmail Channel, and choose the Send an email box.
  7. For the To: address, use your secret Buffer email address.
  8. For the subject, use {{EntryTitle}}. (You can copy and paste from here, or you can customize each field using the + button.)
  9. For the body, use {{EntryUrl}}<br>@now (the <br> creates a new line in the email, and the @now signal tells Buffer to send updates immediately, instead of adding them to your Buffer queue).
  10. Click the Create Action button, give your recipe a description, and click the Create Recipe button.

You’re done! Now, whenever a new item appears in your RSS feed, IFTTT will update Buffer, which will update all your default social media profiles.

2014-02-26 Updated to reflect Buffer’s support for Google+ pages.

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Quitting Facebook

Today, Aaron Street and I made a pact to deactivate our Facebook accounts through the end of April.

Ditching Facebook is something I have been thinking about for a little while. When Aaron mentioned he had been thinking the same thing while we were working together at a coffee shop, I guess that was all the excuse I needed. I created a dummy account for Lawyerist to manage its Facebook page, and we both turned out the lights on our personal accounts.

I don’t hate Facebook or anything; I actually like staying in touch with people I don’t get to see very often otherwise. But scrolling through my newsfeed usually feels like twiddling my thumbs, not hanging out with friends. Plus, my Facebook profile is, at best, an incomplete picture. Someone recently posted a picture of me sitting next to a woman who is not my wife, and a friend asked if everything was okay at home. I wouldn’t be surprised if others assumed she was my wife.

Facebook encourages us to draw conclusions about our Facebook friends based on insufficient data. I don’t post many pictures of my family because Jess likes her privacy, and we have agreed not to post pictures of the girls in public (or on Facebook, where the privacy settings never seem to stay put). I wonder how many of my Facebook friends don’t realize I have two smart, beautiful little girls and an amazing wife to whom I cannot do justice in Facebook updates. If you don’t see pictures of them or updates about them, how would you know?

That said, I deactivated my Facebook account mostly just because I wondered if I would miss it. I’m predicting I won’t. Or not much, anyway.

If you miss me on Facebook, you can see my pictures and read my thoughts elsewhere. None are as personal as Facebook, but that’s kind of the point of this experiment. If you miss my company, call me up and let’s get together.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boltron/4461019149)