Why Pros Don’t Always Upgrade

The last few days have seen the inter webs awash with a flurry of angst, as Apple users rush to download the new iOS8. It’s fascinating so many consumers, year after year, jump on the latest software updates, then proceed to spend the next day or more complaining about every little problem they encounter. This is such a contrast with the way professionals who depend on software for creative work approach the same problem.

Professionals Are Cautious About Software Updates

Visit online forums or check the Twitter feed of professional musicians or designers in the days and weeks after a new software patch or major version is released and you’ll see a similar question – is it safe? Professionals are loathe up upgrade, at least until there is verifiable proof the new software is not going to break their existing, reliable system.

Everyone has a horror story, of some small, innocuous upgrade that rendered an essential piece of software or hardware unusable. Mine came back during the OS10.4 years, when a minor update was released and for more than a month, my main Audio Interface was turned into an expensive paperweight. I couldn’t record or listen to music, lost money and vowed never to make the same mistake again.

The Freedom Of Outdated Systems

The first time I noticed this tendency amongst creatives, to be slow to upgrade, was visiting a graphic designer’s home studio in London. This was 2001 and my friend was working for some well known clients, but using software that was at least 3 years old, on a computer that was more than five years old. I asked her why she didn’t upgrade, half expecting the answer to be something about budgets, cost or accounting. But, her answer was simply that the computer and software worked, was reliable and go the job done.

It was clear that upgrading the software, simply because there was a newer version available, made about as much sense to her as upgrading the desk the computer sat on.

Computers As Tools And Machines

Professionals are slow to upgrade because they often see their computers as tools. It doesn’t necessarily matter if your tool lacks the latest bells and whistles, as long as it gets the job done. bear in the mind that the core of many guitarist’s sound is the electronics in their guitar and amplifier, which has it’s roots in Victorian era technology and has remained virtually unchanged since the 50s.

Today I’m running my music studio on 2008 Mac Pro, running OS10.8.5. There is no compelling reason to upgrade from that and assuming the computer doesn’t fail, I could easily be running the same configuration in five years time. I don’t see the computer as a needy, stand alone device that requires constant feeding with the latest updates and upgrades, but as a powerful machine at the heart of an integrated system. I don’t need that Mac to be current and new, I need it to be stable and reliable.

Yes, eventually Apple (or someone else) will release software that won’t run on this setup. But, when that day comes, I won’t have to upgrade to keep making the music I make.

Writing With Scrivener

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I’m deep in the second draft phase of my book, massaging the 45,000 or so words I have into a second draft. I’m not using a word processor, like Word or Pages and instead, writing this with Scrivener. Released in 2006, Scrivener was created to overcome many of the issues writers had with trying to use programmes like Word to write long documents, like books or PhDs.

Scrivener allows you to write in small chunks (or sections) – individual documents actually – which you can organise an move around once the structure of the project takes shape. It’s easy to clearly see metrics (like the size of each document, the last time it was edited) and even set writing goals for each day, connected to a target size for the project. As things progress, you can painlessly compile the full manuscript (or sections) for printing, or sharing with other readers.

Writing Process

For this project I’m following the same basic writing process I’ve used for years. In Scrivener the status tab is customised to track which stage each chunk (really, each section within a chapter) is in. Here’s the stages,

Notes – Around 50-80 words, in short phrases, expressing ideas, thoughts and the questions that section will try to answer.
First Draft – Expanding the notes into full sentences and paragraphs without worrying too much about typos or minor grammatical flaws.
Second Draft – Rewriting the first draft to improve the organisation and flow of ideas and ensure all key points are explained well.
Final Draft – Editing the work for spelling mistakes, correct punctation, grammar and consistent style.
Done – As the name implies, this is the completed version, edited, copy corrected, and ready to print.

Working With Scrivener

For this book I decided to make each chunk around 300-500 words. This is about half the length of a normal blogpost on here and corresponds to around 1-2 pages in a printed book. Working with smaller chunks encourages you as a writer to pay more attention to the details in each section. It’s all too tempting, in any long writing process, to skim over your work and not notice small errors, inconstancies and lapses in style or form.

You may be wondering why not just write in one single document (in Pages or Word). Well I used to do that years ago; I still have the emotional scars to prove it!

Navigating a really long document can be cumbersome. And, long documents can become memory hungry and unstable. Scrivener actually creates a lot of small, resource friendly files and organises them like an album. This makes it very easy to move a chunk of writing from one place to another in your outline. Instead working with one, unwieldy 200+ page book, I’m actually working with 220 small chunks, little .txt files that Scrivener effortlessly organises into one database style manuscript.

Also, Scrivener allows you to see, at a glance, what stage every chunk is at in the process, when it was last edited, or how many words have been written. Often I’ve started work, in the morning or after lunch, simply by looking over the outline and asking myself, “which chunk have I not touched for a while?”

I started using Scrivener back in 2007 and since then, it has been behind all my writing, from this blog to columns and reviews I’ve had published elsewhere. I’m not sure I would have been able to progress this book project so far and so fast without it.

One Thousand Words (about photography)

What Is A Photographer
I’m glad to announce one of my essays, What Is A Photographer Anyway, has been published in One Thousand Words (about photography) a journal put out by the Ballarat International Foto Beinnale. You can read the edition and my article here. My thanks to Mike Lim, the editor of One Thousand Words, for the opportunity to be part of this publication.

This is the second time my thoughts on photography have been featured in print (or at least e-print) this year, following on from the case study in Piet Van den Eydne’s Pushing Light, back in February.

My upcoming book, while not specifically about photography, certainly draws from my photographic experience, particularly with regard to learning about photographic techniques and finding creative inspiration. I’m really looking forward to sharing more information about that soon.

Apple Everywhere

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Apple have, in characteristic style, launched some new products to much fanfare and a generous amount of online commentary. As usual, we find a mix of Apple fans lauding the latest products, Apple haters trying to find flaws in the new offerings and the rest of us, trying to decide how much we care.

Personally, I feel like there is a lot to be intrigued, if not downright excited about. I felt the last World Wide Developers Conference was the most forward-thinking presentation Apple had staged in years, with a clear roadmap for where the software is going (here’s my summary of the highlights from the last WWDC). And, this week’s showcase is in my view, the most exciting since Apple launched the iPhone and potentially, this will shift Apple’s business as much as the move into mobile devices did.

Apple Watch – Apple At Its Best

The idea of a smart watch is not new. But no one has really done it well yet, or managed to integrate it thoroughly into our existing digital lives. This the kind of problem Apple solve more effectively than anyone else. This is Apple’s genius.

The Apple Watch looks good and does everything smart watch hopefuls want. More importantly, it shows Apple are trying to understand what a watch is and how it functions, not just as a potential vehicle for their software but as a cultural object.

I remember hearing someone say a watch was an outdated idea, because it is a single function device. However, anyone who thinks I only wear a watch to tell the time clearly doesn’t understand the world of watches. Apple’s head of design, Jony Ive, in his earnestly restrained introduction to the Apple Watch, talks about how Apple worked with Horologists (watch experts) to understand watches from not just a design and technology perspective, but as cultural objects.

Apple Watch could well be every bit as important as the iPod and iPhone. This isn’t just about putting a computer on your wrist. Apple watch puts a lot of existing, but under-utilised technologies, from health and fitness monitoring, haptic feedback and proximity based sharing and puts them in a neat, well designed package.

Bigger iPhones

Apple’s new iPhones are larger, quite a bit larger, which might not sit well with all mobile phone users. For me personally, the current iPhone 5S is already bigger than what I would like to be carrying and I’ve heard the same from other users as well.

Of the new features, I am a little intrigued by the new camera (8MP) and the move to phase detection focus, which may well make the camera easier to use when shooting video. But, the camera has never been a sufficient reason to update iPhones in the past and won’t be this time either.

pple Pay – The Real Big Story

While Apple Watch and the new iPhones are attracting everyone’s attention, the big story is perhaps being missed – Apple Pay. This is Apple’s foray into touch and go digital payments. In theory you will be able to use devices like Apple Watch and iPhone to pay anywhere debit and credit cards are accepted. The technology, from banks and in stores, is already in place in many countries. But, again, no-one has really integrated it in an easy to use way, into a digital device.

If Apple Pay works and is reliable (and safe from hackers) then the potential rewards for Apple are huge. This will move Apple into the Banking and Retail world in the same way iTunes moved Apple into the Music and Film industry and iPhone moved Apple into the centre of the Mobile Communications business.

Apple Everywhere

Earlier this year, Apple highlighted the way intra-device continuity will feature in the next generation of software. You’ll be able to answer iPhone calls on your computer, start a document on one device then hand it off seamlessly to another. This is Apple trying to really bring the idea of Cloud Computing to life. You simply do your work with whatever device is at hand.

But, tasks that depend on a phone will still need you to have an iPhone nearby. It’a bulky compromise when one thinks of how big the new iPhone is. One wonders if the logical step for Apple is to produce an iPhone Nano, a really small iPhone that largely serves as a mobile router for use with Apple Watch, iPad, or Macbook Pro.

Or maybe one day, the categories the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch categories will one day disappear and we will just have the same kind of device, in a range of sizes (from four inches to 12 inches), with similar capabilities, so you just pick the size that suits your needs?

Music – The Afterthought In It All

I had hoped that, hidden in the announcements, might be further improvements to iTunes. After buying Beats and bringing Jimmy Iovine onboard, I had hoped Apple would revamp its tired looking iTunes beyond just cosmetic improvements and the long overdue ability to share your library with your family. While the iTunes store has gone through subtle changes (like Mastered for iTunes music and iTunes Extras for films), the experience of using iTunes in iOS or worse, in OSX is a distinctly frustrating one.

We didn’t get any iTunes news and instead, we got U2 playing a four minute ode to their musical heroes, including Joey Ramone (the irony in that is almost too much). Apparently the song and the album it comes from are now available for all iTunes user to download for free. Musicians everywhere will be wondering what this means for their future.

The Sci-Fi Future Of Pop Music

Korg recently released the Miku stomp box effect (which promptly got CreateDigital Music to write WTF? KORG Miku Stomp Box Sings Along With You, Vocaloid Style). Plug your guitar into this effects pedal and you can play a computer generated voice that sings along with you, in high-pitched Japanese tones.

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The pedal is based on Hatsune Miku, a character developed to take advantage of Yamaha’s Vocaloid technology, built to allow real vocal samples to be turned into realistic computer generated singing voices. Hatsune Miku, whose name means voice of the future, was developed by Crypton Future Media, using samples from Anime voice actor Saki Fujita and visual style from Manga artist Kei Gar?. Hatsune is only one of the virtual singers available from Crypton, but easily the most well known.

Once you but the software, you input melody and lyrics and Hatsune sings the tune for you. This, to me, is the most fascinating part of the whole process. Hatsune Miku rose to prominence thanks to the (massive) Japanese online gaming and social media site, Nico Nico, where users started posting songs they wrote and commenting on their favourite tunes. Reports suggest there are over 50,000 user generated songs out there!

Not only did individuals write songs, but songwriting collaborations developed and artists started to contribute visuals as well. There is a fascinating participatory element to all this, which is only compounded when we consider how popular Hatsune Miku has become among the growing Cosplay community worldwide. Hatsune Miku might be a virtual singer, but her image and sound feels very connected to our game and comic oriented zeitgeist.

It might be tempting to dismiss this as just another “weird Japan” story, but I’m not so sure this is just a local fad that will die out. Music has always had manufactured pop stars, so doesn’t it logically follow that one day virtual pop stars might be a possibility? After all, Hatsune Miku has already opened shows for Lady Gaga! And, we’ve already had Gorillaz live virtual show and of course, Tupac’s Hologram.

It pains me to admit it sometimes, but music is just not as central to popular culture as it was in my youth. Social media, online video and gaming have crowded out music in the minds of most youth around the world. Where music still has a stronghold in youth culture, it is often at the big, fantastical end of pop music, which in so many ways, is stuck in the past. What if pop really aimed for the future? Might it not look like this?

Clean

In October, I’ll be celebrating the tenth anniversary of this blog, which began back when I lived in Delhi, in 2004. As part of my book project, I’ve gone through a lot of old posts, re-visiting my thoughts and experiences. Reading through ten years of blogging has been a very mixed experience.

At the risk of blowing my own horn, there are a few good articles in there, some things I’ve written that I’m still very satisfied with and that manage to express meaningful ideas in a useful way.

But, as you can imagine, in ten years of personal blogging, there’s some pretty dull pieces as well. Perhaps more alarming, the blog has over 1,200 broken links, plenty of images that no longer load and quite a few posts that don’t make any sense (like updates referring to site redesigns that are no long visible or available anywhere).

And, WordPress has evolved so much in these ten years that I keep finding workarounds that are no longer relevant. When I started WordPress didn’t have tags, handled media in only the most basic of ways and our working assumptions about themes, page sizes and styling text were very different.

So, over the next month I’m going to clean up the site. First, I will backup and archive the blog as it is, just in case I ever feel tempted to revisit this current version. Then I will prune some old posts that are simply no longer relevant. After that I’ll address the broken links and some of the most glaring typos I find along the way. Then, I will move all the images stored in older file systems and transfer them to WordPress’ current media storage database (which is so much better than the way we used to manage images back in 2004). Finally, I will clean up the tags and navigation a little.

Why do all this work? Well, I see this blog as tremendously valuable in a lot of ways, but the problems created by blogging for so long in one place have made the blog less useful than it should be and a little hard to navigate. Redesigning the site without addressing these issues feels like papering over the cracks. And, deleting the site and starting afresh doesn’t sit right with me.

Right now, in a new city, with the projects I’m currently working on in music, photography and writing, this clean up really feels like the right thing to do. A fresh start that honours the journey that brought me to this place.

Decision-Free Mondays

Any creative process involves lots of decision-making. Over time we hopefully find ways to make better decisions and even create a working environment that helps us make good decisions in a timely fashion. But, we often assume that decisions are an unlimited resource. We like to think we can make a decision every time we need to do so. But, what if decisions are a limited resource? What if we only have a fixed number of good decisions in us, every day or every week?

Like most people I struggle with Mondays. Not struggle in the “I hate Mondays and I hate my life” sort of way. No, I struggle in the more mundane, getting back into a working routine sort of way. I have a pretty clear idea what I like my Sundays to look like, as a day of rest, recovery and relaxation and I know my Mondays should feel like a productive start to the week. But, switching gears, from one to another, always seems hard.

The problem is Mondays have no flow to them. Often what I’m doing on a Wednesday or Thursday has a certain flow to it. The work is a continuation of what came before it. But, Mondays are like restarting a factory, or turning around a large ship; slower and more difficult than one would imagine.

This starting again dynamic encourages us to make more decisions and every decision feels a little harder. So, I started to wonder, what we took more of the decisions out of Monday, put more of the day on auto-pilot, so to speak. Would it make Mondays more fluid, less painful and maybe a tiny bit more creative if I made fewer decisions? Could making fewer mundane, draining decisions free up energy for more creative tasks?

What if Mondays were decision-free?

I started with some of the obvious things like what will I wear and what will eat, deciding those on Sunday evening. I also planned out my day at the end of my work the week before, either Friday evening or Saturday morning. I then try to leave things as ready as possible, so I don’t have to make decisions about materials, tools etc during my Monday. I try to imagine all those stalled moments I have on a Monday, staring at my email, choosing a coffee, wondering whether to catch a taxi or train to a meeting. Then I make those decisions ahead of time and lock them into my schedule.

Of course, we can’t really have a decision-free day in an absolute sense. Even zombies make decisions (seriously, watch a zombie film, they still ahem to choose whom to attack!). But, when our mental engine is not firing well, we can lighten the load by giving ourselves a smaller pallet of decisions to make.

And, it doesn’t really have to last the whole day – just long enough to help us get into the flow of work. I find my “decision-free” routine needs to take me to at least lunch-time. Even on the worst Mondays, if I’m into a more liberated mental space by about 11am or so and if I can swing back into work fluidly after lunch, it’s likely to be a great day. Those moments feel like breaking free; like rolling on a bicycle, down a big hill on a sunny day, or opening up the big sail on yacht and leaning with the wind into the ocean at high speed.

If you struggle with Mondays, then this decision-free approach might work for you. Pick five moments in your typical Monday that you could automate. Try leaving your working space ready, when you finish the week, for whatever you intend to do at the start of the next week. And, try to identify what it feels like when you open the big sails or feel yourself gathering momentum and look for that feeling.

Twitter Analytics

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Today Twitter opened up its analytics dashboard (Twitter users can find it here). Previously, the dashboard was only available to selected advertisers and marketers, but now all Twitter users can pour over the statistical details of their tweets, to their heart’s content.

The photo above was from a tweet I shared today, about an hour after I posted it, showing some of the key data tracked by Twitter Analytics. To be honest, the responses to an iPhone snapshot of a 15 year old photo are not really all that important to me and, I suspect in the same way, Twitter Analytics will not be all that interesting to most Twitter users.

But, if you are using Twitter to try and share something with intent, maybe notifying your followers of new blogposts, or drawing attention to upcoming events (like shows, or album or book launches), then the figures might well be helpful and worth exploring (Twitter have a guide to the analytics here).

The immediate thing that jumped out to me was how spiky my stats were. There’s some pretty consistent numbers for most of my tweets, in terms of impressions, retweets and engagement. But, when a tweet attracts more attention, it isn’t a case of a little more, or even double the traffic, it’s massively more, ten, twenty times more. It’s a trend I see with this blog as well. Most days and most posts, the traffic is the same. But, when an article starts to get noticed, the spike in traffic is huge.

I guess this is something most of us have known for some time; on the internet growth is seldom, if ever, incremental.

Adelaide Instagram

Last week I came back from Adelaide and have been meaning to share some of the photos I took on the trip, especially some of my iPhone images. I love taking photos in Adelaide and because I tend to walk and cycle a lot while I’m there, I’m always taking iPhone snapshots and sharing them on Instagram (yes, I never did delete my account).

Below are some of my favourites from the six weeks I spent down under.

My Cookbook Confessions

I have 127 cookbooks. I was tempted to count them today, when two new cookbooks arrived from Amazon (The Banh Mi Handbook and Asian Pickles).

For those who don’t cook this might sound like a crazy number of books to have on the same topic. But, fans of cooking will probably not be surprised to see so many cookbooks on my shelf. Quite a few folk I know have a lot more than I do and even a quick visit to many bookstores today will show that cookbooks are one of the largest sectors in the modern book publishing business.

I like to say all those cookbooks, which I’ve collected over about 20 years, represent a research library of sorts. That all these books allow me to study, in depth the recipes and techniques for any of the dishes I make, or might want to make.

This is party true. It is also partly bullshit.

The far more honest I could, but seldom do give, is that all these books are a manifestation of the insecurities I have about cooking. Despite all the compliments I get, either in person, or from the relentless parade of pictures I post on social media, I’m not very sure of myself in the kitchen.

It’s not a childhood thing. My mother often jokes that she never set out to teach me to cook. Yet, I learnt so much from her. She was always patient with me in the kitchen as a kid, always answered my questions and shared stories. My childhood memories of trying to cook are all good ones.

But, once I started to cook for myself, I had many spectacular failures. I also encountered more than a few people who loved to parade their knowledge, limited as it now seems to me, in bossy and bully-ish ways. Funnily enough, none of those experiences, or the people who drove them, represent the life I have in the kitchen today.

I found solace, as I often have, in books. Carefully following recipes and studiously understanding the origins of recipes became a way to navigate what I often felt was a lack of natural ability in the kitchen.

Yet, what is natural ability anyway? These days I cook a lot of fairly difficult, or at least difficult-looking dishes from memory. I know it often looks natural, easy even, but it didn’t come easy.

And, I keep buying cookbooks, even though I don’t need them. The honest truth is I lost all my cookbooks, I would probably only need 4-5 of them to get back to cooking every dish I regularly make in a year.

Cookbooks are not bad, of course, but like so much else, they can be something we bring into our lives to make up for a limitation we feel, or to cover over a bad experience we had. There’s always an element of emotional need in the way we shop and we owe it to ourselves to honest about that – deeply and truly honest.