All posts by Jamie Todd Rubin

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer, blogger, and Evernote Ambassador for paperless lifestyle. His stories have appeared in Analog, Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and 40K Books. He vacations frequently in the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Jamie lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two children.

My Google Docs Writing Tracker Can Now Be Used with Text-Based Files

I pushed an update this afternoon to my Google Docs Writing Tracker that allows text-based files to be used with the system.

For those who aren’t familiar: my Google Docs Writing Trackers is a system I created that automates the process of tracking my writing word counts and time spent each day, stores the data in a Google Spreadsheet, and produces neat daily summary emails. Until now, it required people to use Google Docs to do their writing. But not anymore.

Over the last few days, I tested an update that allows you to use any plain-text form of document. That is, any document stored as a plain-text file. In addition to plain text, this includes markdown files, (.md), and HTML files. This frees folks from having to use Google Docs for the writing. You can use whatever program or editor can produce plain text files. I’ve been using Sublime Text for the last several days with great success. But even Notepad would work for this purpose.

You must still store the files in your Sandbox folder on Google Drive. I use the Google Drive app on my MacBook and iMac which produces a Google Drive folder on my computer that synchronizes with Google Drive in much the same way that your Dropbox folder syncs with Dropbox.

I write my story in a text editor and make sure that it is saved in the Sandbox folder in my Google Drive folder. That’s it. The Google Drive folder syncs things up with the server, and the Google Docs Writing Tracker scripts run automatically each night, the same way they always have, and read both the Google Docs files and plain text files.

Here is a data flow diagram that I put together to illustrate how the overall system works. It looks complicated, but really, once you’ve installed and configured the scripts, all you do is write, and the scripts do all the rest.

Google Docs Writing Tracker DFD
Click to enlarge

I’ve pushed these changes to GitHub. All of the code and instructions for installing it and using it are available in the public repository.

And just a reminder of the usual caveat: while I am happy to make these scripts available to anyone else who wants to use them, I really designed them to make my life easier, and I don’t have time to support them for others. Use them at your own risk. They work great for me and have worked well for others. But bugs occasionally pop up. And it is highly tailored to my work-style, which may not work well for you. So if you are wondering why it was designe for Google Docs, or why it doesn’t work with [fill in your favorite editor], it’s because I use Google Docs, and it works for me.

I will say one thing: my success at getting the script to work for text files makes me hopeful that I (or someone else) can get it to work for Scrivener files sometime in the future.

5 Tips for #NaNoWriMo I’ve Learned from My 464-Day Writing Streak

As of today, my writing streak has hit 464 consecutive days. Overall, I’ve written for 607 out of the last 609 days. (I missed two days in the summer of 2013 while attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie Wyoming.) But I haven’t missed a day since July 21, 2013. I have also successfully completely NaNoWriMo twice in the past. During the streak, I’ve learned a few things that may help out folks attempting NaNoWriMo this year. Keep in mind that these are things that work for me, given how I work. Your style and word counts may vary.

1. Baseline your metrics and understand what they mean

National Novel Writing Month is like a marathon for writers. It’s designed to be hard, and designed to push you to write every day. That isn’t an easy thing. Like anyone training for a marathon, it helps to know how fast you can run a mile, and how long you can sustain that pace. The same is true for writing in NaNoWriMo.

I have a full-time day job, two little kids, volunteer activities at my kids’ school, and all of the other commitments that come with life. One thing my writing streak taught me early on is that is useful to throw out your assumptions about what you can and can’t do, try new things and measure them. For instance, I always thought I needed to write at a set time of day for a set period of time, say from 5 am – 7 am. But things happen. Schedules change. Life intervenes. So I decided I would write whenever I had time, even if it was only 10 minute here and there–but I would write every day.

What I’ve learned:

Continue reading

How I Use ThinkUp for a Better Quantified Social Self

Something about social media metrics makes me antsy. How many followers do you have on Twitter? How many friends on Facebook? How many likes did you get for that post? How many times was that clever tweet retweeted? Perhaps these are useful measurements for a brand or business, but for the average person–me for instance–they aren’t particularly meaningful.

Of course, I like the data. It’s the approach that makes me uncomfortable. To better understand my quantified social self, I use a service called ThinkUp. ThinkUp is the brainchild of Gina Trapani and Anil Dash and touts itself as “analytics for humans.” It takes the bland numbers out of social media metrics and provides fun, useful insights that help to tell a story about my social media behavior. I’ve been using ThinkUp ever since it first appeared, and based on my experience so far, the insights ThinkUp provides fall into four categories.

1. Personal insights

A perfect example of a personal insight is one I received one morning back in August, when ThinkUp let me know it was my 6th Twitter birthday:

ThinkUp Twitter Birthday

ThinkUp also looks at how frequently people interact with your tweets and posts, and provides interesting metrics on the ones that do particularly well:

ThinkUp Twitter Favorites

These insights are personal. Unlike some services which compare you to others, this is simply comparing me to myself. In this same way, ThinkUp will provide you with a summary of your week:

ThinkUp Week

2. Fun insights

ThinkUp has a growing collection of fun insights that pop up from time-to-time. I recently encountered this one:

ThinkUp Exclaim

Trust me when I say that seeing that insight made me more sensitive to the frequency with which I use! exclamation! marks! in my tweets. I have also seen insights for how frequently I’ve used the term “LOL” in a tweet or Facebook post.

3. Paying it forward

Social media often seems like a race to the highest number of followers–or likes, or retweets–as possible. The number is the end as opposed to the content. One of my favorite parts of ThinkUp is what I call its “pay-it-forward” insights which take those numbers and puts them to good use. Here is one example:

ThinkUp Thank You

Seeing this insight encourages me to thank people more often, because it’s nice to be nice. Then, too, while I don’t have an audience as large as Neil Gaiman or John Scalzi, I do my best to signal boost things that I find interesting besides my own stuff. ThinkUp acknowledges these kinds of activities as well:

ThinkUp Boost

I like this because it emphasizes that the number of followers you have is not just about how popular you are, but expresses the degree to which you can help boost the signal on other people’s messages.

4. Improving my social media behavior

For me, the most useful insights that ThinkUp provides are those that help me be a better person on social media. Here is one example where ThinkUp finds plenty of room for improvement in my behavior:

ThinkUp Me

While worded in a perfectly friendly manner, the message is clear: I talk about myself quite a bit, as opposed to pointing folks to other interesting people and thinks. Some of this comes from the fact that I write articles from my perspective, but the insight is still telling. And while my behavior hasn’t changed overnight, I use this insight as a benchmark for my behavior, and have been gradually trying to reduce the percentage–with mixed success so far.

Being efficient with tweets and posts is also important. You can reach more people if you know when more people are listening, and ThinkUp helps with that by looking at when your friends and followers are posting, and suggesting those times as ideal for posting and tweeting yourself:

ThinkUp Time

As ThinkUp is providing new insights every day, the times may vary and can be adjusted accordingly. Using a tool like Buffer, I can schedule my most important tweets and posts during the suggested time window.

Finally, ThinkUp will occasionally remind me how long it has been since I last updated my profile on Facebook or Twitter. Things change fast on the Internet, and I often forget to update my profile when something new comes along. Now, ThinkUp helps remind me of this:

ThinkUp Profile


ThinkUp currently provides insights for Twitter and Facebook. It is an evolving service with new insights being introduced all the time. You can elect to receive a daily email message summarizing your insights for the previous day. I like this feature. I can review the insights in the morning, and immediately make adjustment that day based on what I find. If I’m talking about myself too much again, I’ll dedicate the day to focus on others.

It is also worth noting ThinkUp’s data philosophy. As they say upfront on their home page, they don’t have ads and they don’t sell your data. They have a clear, simple, and refreshing values page that goes into more detail into the overall philosophy behind the service.

I was an early-bird user of ThinkUp. The service costs $60/year (that’s $5 month, and remember, no ads!), but a 14-day free trial is available for folks who want to see what the service is like. ThinkUp recently introduced an option for $5/month, for those who want to go month-to-month. Finally, ThinkUp is also available on GitHub for those who want to run the service on their own, or contribute to its open source development.

Since I started using ThinkUp, it has become my primary tool for gauging my social media behavior, benchmarking that behavior, and using the insights to improve my behavior. I find the unique insights an invaluable way to more closely examine my quantified social self.

An Index to My FitBit Posts

My FitBit posts seem to be quite popular. Indeed, 2 of the top 3 posts for 2014 today are posts about FitBit. So I thought I’d collect links to all of the FitBit posts I’d written in one place for easy access. Here they are:

Happy walking!

Revisiting Digital Magazines

Way back when I first got my iPad 2, I began the long-awaited transition from paper-to-digital magazines. At the time, the only magazine that I read that really had a decent digital edition was New Scientist. I used the Zinio app to access my magazine, and at first, Ioved it. Later, Scientific American became available in digital form and my subscription afforded me access to a PDF copy of the magazine each month. This, too, was pretty cool. Eventually, I read other magazines using Zinio as well. Over time, however, my excitement waned.

There were a few problems. Most notably, was the fact that my iPad screen was smaller than the typical magazine. Since both Zinio and the Scientific American PDF essentially rendered the magazine as-is, it meant a lot of zooming and moving around in order to read articles. In Zinio, I could change to “article” mode, but when I did that, it no longer felt like reading a magazine. Here, for instance, is what a page of the Scientific American PDF looks like on my iPad:

Sciam PDF
PDF version of the Scientific American article.

In order to be able to read it, I need to pinch-and-zoom, and then move the page around. The same was true of my subscriptions in Zinio. While the magazine looked exactly as it did in print, it was harder to read on the smaller screen. It seemed to me that the experience of reading the magazine was lost somewhat, and my magazine reading scaled back because of this.

A magazine interface for iPads

Recently, my desire to read magazines has increased, but when I thought about reading them on the iPad, I balked. I considered returning to paper subscriptions because for me, unlike with books, there is a certain interaction with magazines that was absent from the simple Zinio and PDF versions that I was looking at. With a book, I typically read straight through, and so e-books have never seemed any different to me than paper books. But with magazines, I jump around quite a bit, and the interfaces I’d encountered thus far, were not conducive to that.

I was almost ready to pull the trigger on paper magazine subscriptions, when I remembered that in the time since I started reading magazines electronically, Apple had introduced their Newsstand app. I’d never tried it out, and since many of my subscriptions were available electronically through the Newsstand, I figured I’d give it a try.

It was an eye-opening experience.

Unlike Zinio and PDF copies of magazines, which reproduce the magazine exactly as it appears on newsstands, the Newsstand versions are adapted for iPad use. Navigation of the magazine is easy. You swipe left or right to move from article to article. Within an article, you scroll up or down to read or move from page-to-page within the article. It’s very simple, easy to use, and best of all, the articles are rendered for an iPad screen. So no zooming is necessary. That same Scientific American article I illustrated above in its PDF incarnation looks like this on my iPad:

iPad Mag 1
iPad version of the Scientific American article. Scrolling up or down scrolls through the article.

What’s more, while the Newsstand version is designed for the iPad interface, it still maintains much of the look and feel of the magazine. Many Scientific American articles make use of sidebars, and those sidebars are carried over neatly into the iPad format:

Continue reading

Thoughts on The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Yesterday, I finished read Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. I loved it. It is an excellent overview of the history of the digital age, from Ada Lovelace, right up through Google and Wikipedia.

The book took a logical progression through the history of computer hardware and software innovation, which was a great way to see how technology evolves over time, each big discovery informing the next one. Two things in particular stood out about the book.

First, there was a familiar feel to the style in which it was written. It didn’t take long for me to recognize it. The book reads like an Isaac Asimov science history book. There are clear descriptions of technology that make it accessible to the lay person. There are also gripping, inviting biographies of the players involved. These combine to make for a fascinating narrative that reminded me of books like Asimov’s Guide to Science.

Second, in reading the book, I was moved to want to do the kind of innovating things that the people in the book were doing. This often happens to me when reading nonfiction. Reading a book on, say, Richard Feynman, will draw out a desire in me to be a physicist. Reading a book on Winston Churchill draws out similar feelings on being a statesman. The Innovators was no different. Except that I have been living in the technology world since I first played with a computer at the age of 10 or 11 years old. And I’ve been working in that world as my profession for the last 20 years. That profession, like any, can grind on you after a while. But Isaacson’s book did something remarkable. It rekindled my joy in information technology. It made me realize that I am already working in this industry, and unlike the other biographies I’ve read whose subject I envy from afar, I live this one. It’s pretty rare for a book to do that.

The book covered the evolution of Windows and Mac, and also covered the birth of Linux. If it was light on any one area that I would have wanted to read more about, it was the birth and evolution of UNIX. UNIX wasn’t mentioned in the book until the chapter on Linux, in which casual mention was made that Linux was based on UNIX, an operating system developed in 1970. That was about it. But overall, the scope of the book was broad, and fascinating, and I raced through it, enjoying every minute of it.

This was my second Walter Isaacson book. I read Einstein: His Life and Universe back in 2008 and I really enjoyed that one as well. It’s difficult to say which one I enjoyed more, but I’ll give the edge to The Innovators since it helped rekindle my joy and fascination in information technology.

My New Obsession: Simplicity and Automation in Technology

I have spent the past two and a half years going paperless. During that time, I wrote more than 120 posts about my process and the tools I used. I knew I was approaching the end of those posts when I began to find it difficult to come up with new topics to write about. I’d written about everything I had done, and I hesitated to write about those things that I had no direct experience with.

But my urge to write about technology hasn’t waned. Indeed, it has grown over time. And so, you can expect more from me on technology subject, centering around what is my new obsession: simplicity and automation in technology. While I’ll have much more to say on the subject, my basic thinking goes something like this:

There are tons of tools out there that are supposed to make us more productive. In my experience, however, the tools accumulate and the accumulation of tools lends itself to a decrease in production because we’re stymied by the question: which tool do I use for this job?

Consider the word processor/text editor. There are countless varieties of these beasts that all do about the same basic task: they allows to write and store our writing. But which one is the best tool for the job? That will vary by person, but there are probably some elements that you could look at to narrow the scope. Part of it involves what that job is. Are you writing code, or a novel? Email or poetry? There is a balance between functionality and simplicity. You don’t want to have to learn more tools than you need to do the job, but each tool you use needs to be simple enough, but broad enough to do that job effectively.

Then there is the complexity of the tool. A tool like Microsoft Word can do a heck of a lot, but it also can be cumbersome to use, maintain, and because it isn’t focused on a specific task, it can be awkward for some things. On the hand, a basic text editor, like Notepad or TextEdit may be too barebones. Where is the balance?

Automation is another consideration. On a computer, at least, it should be possible to automate any repeatable task. But operating systems tend to muddy the waters. They abstract the interfaces to the point where automation can become difficult, or require intermediary tools that complicate the process. For the best possible automation, it seems to me that the simplest possible tools are required.

I’ve been thinking about these things quite a bit lately, in part because I am trying to simply and automate as much as I can. Automation has the benefit of freeing up time to pursue passions, time that might otherwise be occupied by drudgery, and repeated tasks. Going paperless allows for some automation that I would not have otherwise had. But I think there is more than can be done.

So, I’ll be writing more here about my pursuit at technological simplicity and increased automation, two things that might seem mutually exclusive, but which I think can lead to less time spent in drudgery and more time spent doing the things I really enjoy. Like any experiment, I may end up proving myself wrong. But knowing what I know today, I don’t think so. So if you’re interested in this type of thing, stick around. I’ll be writing more. I don’t have a set schedule right now because I’m still coming up with a framework of how simplicity and automation might work for me. But as I try things out, as I experiment, I’ll write about it, and I encourage and look forward to discussion on what works and what doesn’t.

Going Paperless: Using Evernote at Home and with Family

This is part 4 of my set of categorization posts which collects my Going Paperless articles into various categories to make them easier to find in the context of a given topic. And today’s topic is using Evernote to go paperless at home and with the family. As before, there may be some overlap with other categories, as some articles don’t fit neatly into just one box. They are listed beginning with the most recent articles.

Fall Day, Soup Day

Yesterday was the first really fall-like day we’ve had this year. Sunny but cool and windy. It was a day off for me. I’ve been working hard on a software rollout project at the day job. This weekend was supposed to be a rollout weekend, but it was postponed thank in large part to flaws in the software that we uncovered and that the vendor now has to go and fix.

So I spent my day yesterday trying to relax and not be frustrated over the fact that our hard work is now delayed. Kelly took the kids out for the day, and I lazed around the house. I watched a movie. And I made soup.

The cold weather, coupled by a scene of cold weather in the movie, made me crave soup. I decided to make my Apple, Ale & Cheddar soup, but knowing that Kelly prefers a healthier soup, I also made a sweet potato soup for her. I went to the grocery store to stock up on what I needed, and then spent an hour or so in the afternoon preparing and cooking the soups.

Soups

They both came out really good. I had 3 bowls of my Apple, Ale & Cheddar soup after I made it, and I brought some for lunch with me today. I picked up a loaf of sourdough bread at the store and had that with the soup. It was fantastic. When Kelly and the kids got home last night, I had their soup all warmed up for them.

It was chilly again this morning, and the house was cold, so I finally turned on the heat this morning. I tend to see how far we go into fall before the heat gets turned on.  This year, we made it a month.

Going Paperless: 14 Productivity Articles for Evernote

In part 3 of my set of categorization posts, I collect 14 Going Paperless articles I’ve written that relate directly to productivity. As with the other index posts, this one lists the articles beginning with the most recent. There may be some overlap as some of the articles fall into more than one category.

Next, I’ll have an index of posts for using Evernote around the house and family.

Response Times, Rejectomancy, and Other Excuses to Avoid Writing

Back in my early days as a writer, I used to spend waste time poring over entries in the Writer’s Marketplace (this was before the Internet) to see how long it took a magazine to respond. I would carefully track all of my submissions, and then spend time calculating average response times. And when I got rejection slips, I’d ponder over the meaning of every word trying to find some hint of meaning in an otherwise bland form letter.

I don’t do this any more. Part of the reason is that I now better understand the markets to which I submit today. Part of the reason is because the majority of my writing these days is solicited. And part of the reason is that if I want to spend my time writing, I can’t afford to spend it pondering over the meaning of a word on a rejection slip.

Response times

As a data junkie, and quantified selfer, you’d think I’d be really into the measurements that surround the submission and publication process. And perhaps, in a loose way, I am. I track all of my submissions in a Google Spreadsheet (a template of which is freely available to anyone who wants to use it). But I find that these day, I don’t spend much time looking at the data, or putting it to significant use. In part, I think that’s because I’ve learned there really isn’t much that I can control in the process, and data is most helpful for things which we have control over.

Some of this comes from experience. Let’s say that a magazine’s average response time, according to my data, is 33 days. I submit a story to them. What is the point of checking on the story any time before 33 days? Given that the average response is 33 days, I’m kind of wasting my time expecting something before then. If I get a response sooner, great. But instead of checking and worrying and wondering if my story has been received and read, I feel like my energy is better spent working the next story.

After 33 days has past, then what? Well, what can I really do about it? An editor will get to my story when they get to it. That 33 days is just an average. Trying to guess when the response will come in seems needlessly worrisome to me today. What if the story hits 66 days? Well, I’ve probably written two or three other items during that time, maybe more if I’m not constantly worrying about the ones out on submission.

Then, too, my 33 days average is based on a pretty small sample. I’ve never been into the crowd-sourcing tools for submissions, like Duotrope, not because they charge money, but because I’m dubious of the data quality. My idea of a high data-quality service would be one where the magazines are supplying realtime response rates to the service. You’d get much more granular and probably more accurate response rates that way. Then, too, whether or not we like to admit it, editors jump around in their reading piles. I’ve had stories accepted at magazines 4 hours after submitting, that normally take 2-3 months to respond. Context plays a role in the response time process.

The bottom line, for me, is that the bulk of my enjoyment is in writing stories and articles. And nothing prevents me from writing more of them once others have been submitted–unless I get bogged down into constantly checking the status of my submissions. Thankfully, I’ve grown out of this phase.

Rejectomancy

Rejectomancy is another time-killer in a writer’s life. “Rejectomancy,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is the fine art of reading into rejection slips. That is, pondering over every word and trying to decide what it says about your story. Consider this:

Continue reading