Restoring Classic iPods, Part II. (plus scrobbling to Last.FM with LastPod!)

Last year I finally pulled together a post for a project that I had begun years ago, but never written up: Restoring a 3rd Generation iPod Classic. In that, I outlined my various mis-adventures upgrading the battery, hard drive, replacing the clickwheel electronics, the case, and… well. Everything.

ipod 3rd gen restore

Seeing this, a friend shared an article with me about someone who had taken things a step further, and basically rebuilt his entire 4th Gen iPod to stream from Spotify. While looking into how they had managed it, I fell down the rabbit hole of what has apparently become a fairly active iPod modification/restoration community. There’s even someone called DankPods who has racked up 600k subscribers in only a year. Damn. Maybe I should have made more of an effort to document things back in 2016 when I started working on these old iPods. I could have found YouTube fame.

Nah, probably not.

Anyway, what I did find was that there were now a whole host of resources for modifying and restoring these old iPods which weren’t necessarily available, or as clear as they were when I first started looking into them – and it’s piqued my intrigue for how I could expand on, or revisit this project.

Scrobbling to Last.FM

It might sound ridiculous, but one of the things I really missed when using my beloved 3rd Gen iPod was the ability to log all of the music I listen to using Last.FM, as I use that data to help discover new artists, and a bunch of other things. There were some tools available, but none of them really worked… and come on, I even scrobble my LPs with Vinyl Scrobbler, so it seemed ridiculous that I couldn’t do that with the iPod.

As luck would have it, I came across a little Java application called LastPod which solves this problem. I’m not sure how I never found this before, but I thought I would share as it’s the only solution that I’ve found which does the job. Essentially, you listen to tracks on your iPod (making sure the date and time are set correctly), plug it in to your computer, open up LastPod, make sure it knows where your iPod database is (a quick config that persists after the first time), and then… you can scrobble your tracks! There are a couple of caveats, including the limitation of only being able to scrobble each song once (so it can’t track multiple listens), and that you need to synch your iPod with iTunes or whatever after you Scrobble to reset the counters… but! It works, and I am unreasonably happy about this.

Don’t judge.
Last.FM.

Flash Modification

Back when I was looking at options for increased storage in the iPod, there was talk of being able to use Compact Flash cards to store the songs, instead of the bulky hard drives they were designed to work with. However, this was reportedly flakey, and so it’s not a route I went down in the end. However… now, there are a bunch of different options for using the much cheaper and higher capacity SD/MicroSD cards in old iPods. As well as kind of cheap standard CF to IDE adaptors, there’s a brand called iFlash which makes specific adaptors to allow you to use up to 4 SD cards in one iPod. Wild!

USB Charging

As I mentioned in my last post, despite being arguably the most beautiful of all the iPods, the big issue with the 3rd Gen Classic is that it only charges over Firewire. This means that you need a specific cable and plug to charge the bloody thing, or a dock. These are bulky, getting harder to come buy, and increasingly pricey. If you’re travelling, that means no USB power bank to juice up the thing easily.

It appears that some enterprising folks have found a way to address this problem though, using a MICRO USB 1A Battery Charging Module TP4056. This is essentially just a small PCB which lets you charge up batteries over USB. In theory, if you have already modified your iPod to use a flash drive, then there is space inside the case to install the board, and you can then avoid the firewire problem completely.

This is probably the most tricky of all the modifications though. I’m not 100% on the best way to wire this together, and lithium ion batteries are a bit of a fire risk if you cock things up. You also need to find a place to put the USB port (or pull the power from the usual 40 pin connector), and that means making a new hole in the case. Definitely not for the faint hearted… or if you are crap at DIY like myself.

Rockbox

After reading my last post, someone helpfully left a comment pointing me towards the existence of Rockbox – a free, open source bit of software that replaces the OEM music management functions on a whole variety of different portable players, including the iPod.

This allows you to bypass iTunes completely, and just load music up in disk mode, which could be pretttty useful. In theory it could also make Last.FM scrobbling a bit easier, though now I’ve found LastPod I’m less concerned about that.

Customised Shells

Such is the growing popularity of restoring these classic devices that you can now pick up drop-in replacement shells to customise the look, with some really cool colour combinations available. Here’s a look at some options from Aliexpress.

This reminds me of what happened with Game Boy modifications. Early on it was pretty difficult and hacky to do… and then people started getting better at it, and putting out better tutorials and kits. Now, there are full shops dedicated to selling brand new parts with an almost mind boggling variety of customisation options.

The caveat here is that most of the shells are for the 4th Gen iPod and up. The plucky 3rd gen is still a bit of a weirdo, and so there aren’t really any drop-in options if you want what I maintain is the best iPod design ever.

Built in OSX Support

One thing that surprised me when I plugged my 3rd Gen iPod into my newest Mac (running Catalina) was that it appeared to be picked up and detected better than in previous OSX versions. It turns out that when Apple started phasing out iTunes, they actually integrated the iPod directly into MacOS, so you can access and synch it from Finder itself. The feature set is limited, but it’s pretty cool to see an ‘obsolete’ piece of hardware still being supported by a major developer. Respect where it’s due!

My Restoration Plans

So… now that the modding community has caught up, and there’s all these new options available, I feel like I’m going to have to at least attempt to experiment with a few of them. I’m a bit torn at the moment between further modifying my current 3rd gen, and leaving it be… getting a separate 4th or 5th gen iPod to work on. So here’s my thoughts/plans:

  1. FlashMod. If I restore any other iPods, I’ll definitely be using a FlashMod. There are cheap CF to IDE alternatives, but they can be a bit buggy, so I’ll need to decide whether to use them or just go straight for the iFlash devices which are the creme de la creme. In particular, I like the ability to use multiple SD cards internally.
  2. USB charging mod for 3rd gen. This out of all of the modifications is the one I would love to be able to implement, as it would free up my iPod from the shackles of Firewire. However, I don’t want to risk mucking up the case, and I suspect that I would never fully trust the safety of the Lithium battery with my modification. Probably not smart to take it on a plane and charge… so perhaps this will need to remain a pipe dream.
  3. USB charging alternative. I dug out a pile of dongles and various adaptors that I have (I knew keeping that box of random connectors was a good idea!!), and tried going from the Apple split Firewire/USB Y-cable through a Firewire converter, to Thunderbolt, to USB… plugging into my Mac. Miraculously, the iPod appeared to be charging (!). However… it wouldn’t initialise on OSX. I wouldn’t want to leave it like that, as the disk kept clicking to try spin up, but it does suggest that I could plug directly into a USB port and just draw power with the right adaptor. Potentially it might also work better with a flash mod. I’ve ordered some different adaptors to test out, and I’m hoping I can find a solution…
  4. Rockbox. I am really curious about Rockbox, and if I have trouble updating the iPod again in future with iTunes I’ll seriously consider it. However, part of the reason I like the 3rd gen iPod is for its UI, and I think that replacing the OS would kind of ruin that experience. There are apparently themes available to get you close to the original, but I’m not entirely sure how legit that would be. If I got a different gen iPod I would definitely try it out though.
  5. Customisation. This is where I could get in trouble, as I’d want ALL the colour combinations. If I’m not careful I could end up with 15 iPods.

Unsurprisingly the Classic iPods have been going up in price gradually as folks realise what you can do with them, so finding a bargain is getting tougher – again similar to Game Boys. Ultimately I suspect that if I do modify any other iPods I’ll look at something like the 5th Gen, as they can charge over USB. Currently though, the combined cost of the various parts would be around £120 all in, and I’m not quite prepared to spend that on another iPod project just yet. Watch this space.

Book Review: Atomic Habits

As a fellow productivity geek, my pal Pazy recommended I check out ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear. You can read his write-up on his blog here. The book takes a look at different ways you can improve different elements of your life by shifting your perspective from solely looking at outcomes or goals, to change at a smaller scale. To do that, Clear provides a variety of practical tips that help you to adopt and cement new habits which over time lead to larger benefits.

Looking at tracking habits is something that I only really started thinking about in the past few months, after I began to use Notion, and started thinking about my repeating tasks as habits rather than to do list items. This turned out to be transformative, as there is something far more satisfying about maintaining a streak than there is checking off a task, only to immediately re-add it to your To Do list for the next day.

There were lots of compelling ideas in the book that merit further exploration, and I suspect I will have to go back over them a few times to make the most of it. A few in particular stuck out for me though:

Habit Stacking

One of the ideas that I liked in particular was the concept of ‘habit stacking’, which involves taking something that you do on a recurring basis, and connecting it to another habit (or series of habits) that you want to adopt. In other words, if you are struggling to remember to do a particular task regularly, tie that in with a specific recurring task that you know you’ll do whatever happens. For example: If you have a cup of coffee every day, but want to get better at listening to a podcast, conjoin the two. If you find that your desk is constantly getting cluttered, resolve to tidy up one piece every time you get up to go to the bathroom, or grab a drink.

Similarly, you can chain or cascade different habits together, so if you are chucking some bit of rubbish from your desk every time you get up, and are already in the kitchen, tie that action to another habit – like washing one plate or cup. This is something that we already do in many ways, such as brushing our teeth after we take a shower in the morning, so it’s a matter of adapting these chains to include the habits that we want to improve upon.

Gradual Improvement

The whole idea of habit stacking is rooted in the idea that by adopting habits which make changes – irrespective of how small they might be – that incrementally they lead to much larger change over time. Even just improving something by 1% each day will eventually lead to significant development. In some ways, the argument is that the act of repetition alone is more important than the quality of the action – at least in the start. Once a habit is formed, you can then increase or adapt the quality or intensity of the action. In other words – if you are trying to learn a new language, simply sticking with it and doing five minutes of practice a day over a long period of time will ultimately provide a greater basis than erratic periods of concentrated effort. This will sound familiar to anybody who has seen DuoLingo’s sales pitch.

This idea is something I’ve come across before – particularly in relation to learning guitar – where authors recommend starting out by just strumming the guitar for 30 seconds a day at first, then building that time up once the habit is formed.

As someone who goes through periods of fixation on particular past-times, such as becoming very intensely interested and inspired to make music, write, or take photographs, I find the idea of using habits to balance out those waves somewhat; and as a means to maintain some level of interest even through periods of relative lack of inspiration quite compelling. However, I do also think that on its own, dedicating very small amounts of time to a particular task will not – in the long term – lead to the kind of growth that I am interested in. For example, you could do 5 minutes of Japanese on DuoLingo for years and probably pick up a decent amount, but if you are serious about fluency, at some point you need to make sure you develop your habits. I need to reflect a bit more on how to do that in a sustainable way with multiple competing interests which could ostensibly take up a significant amount of time.

Improvement isn’t linear

Another thing that stuck out for me from the book was that improvement follows an exponential curve, rather than a linear one. By that, I mean that often it can seem like you are getting absolutely nowhere, until you reach a certain point – and then lots of things click into place at once. This is something that I have definitely experienced – both with playing guitar, and with learning another language, and I am sure lots of other people will have as well. The book’s contention is that we expect improvement to be gradual, obvious, consistent, and visible, but that that isn’t how it happens in reality. If we recognise and accept that, then it helps maintain momentum.

Summary

Because every blog needs a conclusion. If you want to take up something new, get better at tidying up, or just gain a new perspective on how we manage daily tasks, I’d say this is worth a read. If nothing else, gradual small bits of work feel like much less of an obstacle than letting things build up into one single large task – and the strategies here help with that.

You can buy a copy of the book here.

NB: If you click through on Amazon via the link above and purchase something, I may get a (miniscule) referral fee. Thanks in advance!

Books 2020

Growing up, I loved to read, and would gladly spend hours demolishing stacks of books of all kinds from the library. As the years went by and the afflictions of adulthood responsibility mounted, I found that I was giving over less and less time to reading, and that twenty minutes before I fell asleep just wasn’t cutting it.

Last year I decided to make a concerted effort to dedicate a good chunk of time to recapture some of what I used to love, and in 2019 managed to get through a respectable total of 23 books. I wasn’t sure if I would top that this year. However, after discovering that my colleague Andrew Spittle had read 72 (!), I doubled down, even upgrading my old Kindle to a fancy new one with a warm backlight that has been much easier on my ageing eyeballs.

Below is a list of all the books that I’ve finished in the year gone by. Not included are those that I started but discarded through lack of interest, or any kind of academic-only reading, as that falls into something of a different category. The last time I did this, some folks asked for more specifics on what books I liked best, so for this year I’ve added some notes at the end, which might be rough as I jotted them down as I went. Click through for those.

I was aiming to read 50 books this year, but only managed to complete 40 in the end. While that is 8 more than last year (you can find the 2019 list here), I’m pretty sure I could have managed 50 if I had pushed for it. That said, I did take up learning Japanese, and re-discovered both music and film photography in force during lockdown, which probably accounts for the gradual slowdown over the year. If you’re on Goodreads, you’ll find me as clickysteve.

  1. Severance – Ling Ma (2018)
  2. Golden State – Ben H. Winters (2019)
  3. The Paper Menagerie – Ken Liu (2016)
  4. Welcome to the Heady Heights – David F. Ross (2019)
  5. Skin – Liam Brown (2019)
  6. OddJobs – Heide Goody (2016)
  7. Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries – Tim Anderson (2010)
  8. For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan – Sam Baldwin (2011)
  9. Range: The Key to Success, Performance and Education – David Epstein (2019)
  10. A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy – Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum (2019)
  11. Photographing People – A Guide for Shy Photographers – Kevin Landwer-Johan (2020)
  12. Dark Matter – Blake Crouch (2016)
  13. Recursion – Blake Crouch (2019)
  14. Mohammed Maguire – Colin Bateman (2002)
  15. The Wall – John Lanchester (2019)
  16. The Photographer’s Playbook – J. Fulford (2014)
  17. PRACTICE LESS, PLAY MORE: The simple, three-step system to play songs you love on your guitar from day 1 –  Steve Mastroianni (2019)
  18. Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers – Dennis DeSantis (2015)
  19. Recording Unhinged – Sylvia Massy (2016)
  20. Unlocking Japanese – Cure Dolly (2016)
  21. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
  22. Revenge – Yoko Ogawa (2013)
  23. One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking – D Trott (2015)
  24. Three Japanese Short Stories (Penguin Modern) – K. Uno et al (2018)
  25. Striptease – Carl Hiaasen (1993)
  26. The Guest List – Lucy Foley (2020)
  27. The Parade – Dave Eggers (2019)
  28. Not the end of the World – Christopher Brookmyre (1998)
  29. Hardcore Self Help: Fk Anxiety – Robert Duff (2014)**
  30. Photographers on Photography: How the Masters See, Think & Shoot – Gerry Carroll (2018)
  31. Double Whammy – Carl Hiaasen (2005)
  32. The Alcohol Experiment: A 30-Day, Alcohol-Free Challenge to Interrupt Your Habits and Help You Take Control – Annie Grace (2018)
  33. Native Tongue – Carl Hiaasen (2005)
  34. In Your Defence – Sarah Langford (2020)
  35. Exit – Laura Waddell (2020)
  36. The Courage to be Disliked – Ichiro Kishimi (2019)
  37. Cult of the Dead Cow – Joseph Menn (2019)
  38. How to Ikigai – Tim Tamashiro (2019)
  39. Lockdown – Peter May (2020)
  40. Love Means Love: Same-sex Relationships and the Bible – David Runcorn (2020)
Continue reading “Books 2020”

Thoughts on the DMCA Reform Draft Proposal

The DMCA is one of the most significant laws on the Internet, as it is the de-facto standard process which governs the removal of content which allegedly infringes on copyright. That might sound mind-numbingly boring, but it’s a topic which has increasingly come into the cultural spotlight, as automated takedown mechanisms have impacted folks on Twitch, YouTube, etc – for a whole variety of arguably spurious reasons.

It’s no secret that the DMCA has significant problems (it’s a topic I’ve written about at length) – and there has been an ongoing review of the statute to try bring it up to date. Earlier this year we saw the US Copyright Office publish their recommendations on the future for the DMCA, and just this last week, a draft proposal for change was put forward for comments by Senator Tillis. The full thing is pretty long and complicated, especially if you aren’t familiar with the statute, but the accompanying summary doesn’t really give a full picture of the changes.

I’ve had a look through the proposals (specifically in relation to the notice and takedown process), and noted some specific areas of interest below. Note that this is nowhere near exhaustive, and based on first impressions. Caveat Emptor.

  1. s.512(b) – Qualifications added to the notice requirements. Here we see a bunch of different language added to the section detailing the requirements of a notice. This in of itself is not a bad thing, but the changes here make the statute much more difficult to both interpret and apply. The law is already vague and unclear in a number of areas, and this makes that worse. See s.512(b)(1)(C)(i)-(ii) specifically.
  2. s.512(a)(2)(C)(ii)Notice and Stay Down. This section introduces a requirement that material which is the subject of a DMCA takedown ‘stays down’ when a ‘complete or near complete copy’ is identified. In essence, this means that platforms will have to implement some kind of filtering technology to ensure that content is not re-uploaded. This comes despite the warnings from the USCO and others that this approach (following the European Copyright Directive) would be problematic (to say the least). It also isn’t clear at all whether this would apply retrospectively to content which has already been uploaded, or what a ‘near complete copy’ would entail. Again, this opens up issues of interpretation around the threshold for removal, and platforms would inevitably need to err on the side of caution to avoid liability. The impact of this would be that far more content would be taken down than users would expect. It also doesn’t address the question of fair use, in any way. In other words… not all unauthorised uses of copyrighted material constitute infringement (or where they do, there can be a fair use rebuttal).
  3. s.512(b)(1)(E)Good Faith Belief now subjective. The requirement for the copyright holder to make a statement that they have a good faith belief that the material is not authorised for use […] has been updated to include a ‘subjective’ qualifier. This will make it much more difficult for any claims to be brought against those who submit bogus takedown notices on the basis of their good faith statement. This directly relates to the hard-fought concession in the Dancing Baby case (Lenz v. Universal).
  4. s.512(b)(5)Anonymous Notices. This section allows for complainants to have their personal information redacted from notices, based on as-of-yet non-existent guidance from the Register of Copyrights. On the face of it this seems sensible. However, the DMCA already allows various ways for complainants to remain largely anonymous, or to have their details protected – something which is not afforded to users when submitting counter notices. Complainants can simply provide an e-mail address as the minimum contact information required, or submit through a third party agent. There is no similar provision or update given for counter notices. This is something which we have seen abused by abusive complainants to gain information on those who are critical of them.
  5. Counter Notification Challenges – Again on counter notices, this section essentially gives the complainant the final right to reply on the statutory process, before resorting to legal action. In other words, if a counter notice is submitted, complainants would be able to challenge this within the statute, and not have to show evidence that they have pursued the matter in court (as they do under the current provisions). This adds another step to the ‘complicated game of tennis’ which is the back-and-forth of the notice and takedown system, and one which benefits the complainants massively. The burden of proof is essentially reversed, and means that any users who have the right to use material will be forced to take legal action to show that the material was wrongfully removed – rather than the rights holders taking action against the infringement.
  6. s.512(f)(2)List of Abusive Complainants – This is the one positive from the list of changes. Essentially, this updates the penalties section of the DMCA to allow for those that consistently send invalid notices to be placed on a list which would allow service providers to disregard these notices for a set period of time. However, there are no real details about what the threshold for abuse would be, or about what the appeal process (if any) would be if someone was included on this list. Without these details, one suspects that the threshold would be set so high, and be subject to so much legal challenge, that it would in effect be worthless.

General Thoughts

This draft proposal is disappointing (at least with regards to the notice and takedown provisions), as it seems to ignore many of the key issues that have been consistently raised about the DMCA. Rather than correcting the imbalances that exist, the proposed changes further strengthen and entrench the position of rights holders, as well as the statute’s utility as a powerful unilateral censorship tool.

The provisions relating to counter notification are particularly troubling, as the data collected over the 20-odd year life-span of the DMCA shows that the number of counter notices which are actually filed is miniscule. There are already so many barriers and disincentives for people to challenge takedown notices (on valid grounds) that adding in more hurdles seems to be completely at odds with all of the established literature on the topic.

Despite its many flaws and criticisms, the DMCA has become a system which at least provided consistent results. These proposals bring some of the worst parts of the statute, and combine them with the very worst parts of the European Copyright Directive to give far greater takedown powers to rights holders, with seemingly no consideration of users, or the cultural importance of online expression.

This is just a draft proposal, and open for stakeholder comments. If we are going to avoid a similar disaster to the approach taken in Europe, major changes need to be made.

Keeb build log: BM40hsrgb

I am a big fan of colourful lights… whether they are neon, fairy, or ambi. I am also a big fan of custom mechanical keyboards. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to bring those two interests together, as the boards that I’ve built were too fiddly or didn’t quite bring enough LEDs to the party. However, last month I came across an amazing keyboard build from /u/_GEIST_ on Reddit, which inspired me to have another go.

Digging into the specs of that build, I discovered that the relatively cheap BM40 PCB not only supported RGB underglow, but had the holy grail of individual LEDs per key… and that in the latest versions of the QMK keyboard software, you could get some really cool animations that would be triggered on each keypress (or release).

An unassuming beastie.

The parts

One of the big challenges of building custom mechanical keyboards is finding suitable parts for the project you want to build. Often, getting affordable cases can be tricky, and when you do find them, they are often of poor quality. There’s also the additional challenge of putting together the PCB with the required components. I have reasonable soldering skills, but having to connect up all of the resistors, diodes, and switches is an exercise in patience which I do not have… especially when you start to add in all of the LEDs. There’s also always the danger that you mess something up, and ruin the PCB, which is quite possible if you aren’t overly familiar with building keyboards. This is something I had managed to do fairly recently, and so I didn’t fancy experiencing another failure so soon after.

PCB + Case

Enter the BM40 board. Not only did this have all of the LEDs, and came with the components pre-soldered, it was also hot-swappable, which means that you can just click the switches into place, without having to solder them in. Brilliant. I picked up this, along with a case which had a diffused bottom panel to let the RGB lights shine through from KPRepublic on Aliexpress. The PCB connects via USB C, which is a nice touch.

Switches + Caps

When it comes to switches, I prefer really clicky keys. The clickier the better. However, that doesn’t always win you many popularity contents, and since my main keyboard has Cherry Blues in it, I decided to go for a more tacticle switch. I had read good things about the Holy Panda tactile switches, and found the Everglide Oreos, which claimed to be similar. If you aren’t familiar with keyboard nomenclature, this means that they wouldn’t be obviously ‘clicky’ to press, but would have some kind of a bump to them on the way down (as opposed to being ‘linear’, and therefore smooth). The other reason I went with these is because they had a smokey black casing, which would let the LEDs shine through.

For the keycaps, I went with my trusty flat DSA profile (rather than other profiles which are curved, or which have a shape change depending on the row and position of the key). I also selected the same kind of smokey black translucent colour to match the switches, and let the LEDs do their thing. I often use blank DSA caps as they are cheaper, and it means I can move them around my boards without having to worry about what is printed on them.

Annoyingly, I didn’t realise that the board was not made up of individual 1u keys like the Planck or Preonic… in the sense that it has a 2u space bar key. This meant that my 1u DSA caps wouldn’t fit. I found a temporary solid white 2u cap that I’ve put in place for now, but it’s not the correct profile, so I’ll need to revisit that. Finding a 2u translucent keycap in the DSA profile is proving easier said than done unfortunately.

Links + Cost

  1. BM40 PCB (Kit 1 with 2u stabilizers for the spacebar) – $37.52.
  2. Anodized aluminium JJ40 case (black version 2.0) – $70.90.
  3. Everglide Oreo tactile switches x70 – $45.60.
  4. Translucent black DSA keycaps x60 – £12.84.

The build

Putting the kit together was pretty easy. All you have to do is unscrew the bottom plate, hold the PCB in place and then connect the switches through the holes in the top of the case. However, there were a couple of stumbling blocks:

  1. There was no screws included to attach the PCB to the case, so the keys hold it in place. This makes getting it into position and not damaging the first few keys you attach a bit tricky.
  2. You need to install the keyboard spacer onto the PCB before you start attaching the keys. This means assembling it, which isn’t all that clear if you haven’t put one together before. After some frantic YouTubing I managed to figure it out, and had to take all the switches off again.

Flashing the software

The BM40 comes with its own software, but I immediately ditched it in favour of the de-facto standard QMK. There is no hardware reset button on the PCB to allow you to put it into DFU mode to flash the firmware, but there are two exposed points marked ‘RES’ which you can bridge with tweezers. This isn’t especially accessible given that the case is sealed up afterwards, so I made sure to include a soft RESET key on one of my custom layers.

I did run into a bit of an issue initially, where I couldn’t get some of the QMK functions to work, such as the all-important custom LED animations. With help from the aforementioned _GEIST_, who kindly sent me his config files, I realised that I had flashed the software with the QMK version provided by the keyboard manufacturer, which was out of date. Re-flashing with the bm40hsrgb settings provided with the latest QMK build (which I then customised), got everything to work as it should.

The Keymap

I already have a keymap set up which I have refined over time for my Planck – which is similar to the BM40, in that it has about the same number of keys, so I stuck with an evolution of that, which makes it easier to switch between the boards. I touch type, and don’t really use the bumps on the keys to indicate finger position, so having blank keycaps isn’t really an issue for me unless there are special characters or macros which I need to remember.

One of the cool things about having under-key LEDs is that theoretically I could code up a layout which maps certain colours to certain keys that I want to stand out. This isn’t something I’ve bothered looking into yet as I don’t feel like I need it, but it does make me think that I could build one of these boards as a dedicated MIDI controller, and change the keys depending on the notes of the scale. That’s probably a project for another day… but something I’m considering. Watch this space.

Anyway, here is how my keys are laid out at the time of writing. There are four layers. The first layer is the base layer. The other layers are accessed via a combination of keypresses, just like you would use the shift key to access capital letters on a ‘regular’ keyboard.

As well as the usual keys and media shortcuts, I have a bunch of custom shortcuts set up. For example, Alfred’s search has its own dedicated key on the base layer since I use it so often, as do my clipboard and bookmark managers. I also have keys specifically for copying, pasting, cutting; keys to copy the active URL in Chrome, and to strip down a long URL to its root (managed via Keyboard Maestro); and keys to perform tasks which become a bit trickier when you have a smaller board… like taking a screenshot.

I’ve uploaded my keymap to GitHub for those of you who want to see the actual code.

https://github.com/clickysteve/qmk_keyboard_layouts/blob/master/bm40hsrgb/keymap.c

I’ve managed to configure things to change the colour of the keys temporarily when I activate layer 1 or 2, which is pretty useful. I can’t quite get it to work for the ‘adjust’ layer though, so if anybody has any tips on how to imrove the code, please let me know. I have a couple of ideas, but my brain is begining to melt looking at it, so I’ve given up for now.

RGB Animations

QMK’s built in RGB animations are awesome. Below I’ve uploaded a video running through some of the effects:

Note that I deliberately didn’t record sound, as there’s far too many people who will over-analyse the sound of the switches, and that’s one can of worms I didn’t want to open.

The Judgement

This is my fifth mechanical keyboard, and the third one that I’ve built (successfully) myself. It does feel a bit like cheating to say I built it, since it is hot-swappable and so couldn’t get much easier. However, it’s also probably my favourite. The case has a wonderful heft to it that the aluminium frame I have for my Planck doesn’t, and I love the LEDs. I had considered getting different coloured translucent keycaps, but the all-black colour scheme is so unassuming that it adds to their effect, and they are so bright that the cap colour doesn’t really matter when they are on. I’m really pleased with it overall, and glad _GEIST_ didn’t mind that I shamefully copied their idea. It is a bit of a shame that the underglow isn’t quite as prominent due to the solid black sides of the case, so as a minor point it would be great if there was a slight cutaway round the edges, but that’s just being petty.

The one thing that I’m not wild about is the choice of switches. While the Oreos are fine, they are very light, and not as tactile as I would like, at least not compared to the Outemu sky switches in my Planck. I end up bottoming out on them to such an extent that I may as well just have clicky keys in there, so I might end up changing them out at some point to find a better option… though they are growing on me. At the end of the day, having the option is the beauty of a hot-swappable board! Whatever happens, I definitely need to find a translucent 2u DSA keycap though, as the current one is driving me nuts. Even though the white looks pretty cool, it feels and sounds different to the rest of the board, and not in a good way.

Perhaps one other thing I should mention is that the LEDs run fairly hot. I guess that might be expected given how bright they are, but it does make me wonder about what their lifespan will be. On top of that, I will probably be making use of the auto LED off feature built into QMK to avoid any… accidental fires. Better safe than sorry. Of course, I could just run them at something less than maximum brightness, but where would the fun be in that?!

How I replaced everything with Notion: Recurring Tasks and Wishlists

Things: To Do items and other projects

I’ve written before about how much I love Things, and that hasn’t changed. When it comes to organising and tracking daily tasks, Things is still my go-to. However, there were a couple of issues that I had begun to run into which were becoming counter-productive:

  1. Too many tasks, not enough organisation: Similar to what I had experienced with Evernote, while I was quick to dump all sorts of things I wanted to do into Things, it seemed like the ‘Someday’ and ‘Anytime’ pile were growing and growing into a huge, unmanageable mass. Piles of articles to read, videos to watch, and miscellaneous tasks. Even using tags, it was becoming a strange source of low-level anxiety, as I knew I would never get round to doing anything there.
  2. Recurring tasks never ‘completed’: Lots of the things I want to do are daily tasks, such as practicing Japanese, or making music. The problem with this was that most of my To Do list never really changed. I would tick off the checkbox, only to… immediately re-create it for the next day. It felt like a pointless exercise, and didn’t provide any of the satisfaction that I should feel upon completing a task.
Things Organisation
Eugh, what a mess.

What I realised was… neither recurring tasks or lists of videos to watch, articles to read, or music to listen to are actually To Do list items at all, but something quite different.

What I thought of as daily tasks are actually habits, rather than ‘to do’ items.

This was an important one. Realising this was liberating, as I could approach the issue differently – with a Habit Tracker.

My habit tracker within Notion.

There are various different kinds of habit tracker templates available, and I customised one that I found online (I can’t remember where now, sorry!). Each week I create a new table, and adjust the habits I want to focus on as appropriate. This not only allows me to more easily track and report on my progress – but also frees up my To Do list in Things for one-off, immediate tasks that need to be completed on a specific day.

Things to Read, Watch, and Listen to

As I mentioned, my Things ‘Anytime’ lists were filled with different articles I wanted to read, or videos I wanted to watch at some point, and it simply wasn’t working. Instead, I created different databases in Notion to gather and organise this stuff.

For example, here is my list of films to watch…

an excerpt from my Reading List (don’t judge)…

and my trimmed down YouTube list (filtering out the Japanese learning videos, as there’s so many of them).

The beauty of this is that I can organise them in a much deeper way with Notion, assigning tags, related URLs, authors, etc – and then sort/display them on that basis. Rather than facing a huge list of items to get through like when they were chucked into Things, I can now dive in to the specific database and find exactly what I want when I have some spare time. I can also add notes and ratings when I’ve actually read or watched them, which are also reportable/sortable.

Blog Post Ideas

Ideas for blog posts were another thing that I used to store in Things, which didn’t really work out all that well. The reality with blog posts is that they all exist at different stages – and are more like mini-projects than To Do list items to be checked off.

Now, I organise them as documents within Notion, like so:

Each entry acts as its own ‘page’, which can contain notes, images, etc, and I can assign tags depending on the status of any particular post (from idea, to ‘in progress’, to completion).

Again, doing this means that my To Do list is freed up and reserved for items which require action and completion in the short term – which brings added focus and clarity.

Visibility

Aside from the deeper meta-data capabilities that come with Notion’s database approach, there’s also something else which has proven to be invaluable, but also really simple… and that’s the visibility of the tasks.

While hard to capture in a screenshot, all of my different lists or projects can be displayed on my home dashboard in a neat, logical, organised way.. with a custom view as appropriate. This means that instead of dumping things into ‘Anytime’ or ‘Some Day’ in Things and forgetting about them, I can keep certain projects or items on my radar – without them becoming too intrusive or overwhelming.

Summary

Things is great, but trying to use it as a master tracking utility for everything simply wasn’t working for me. Offloading the larger and longer term projects to Notion, and having Things focus on specific things I need to get done on a day to day basis has made a huge difference. Give it a bash. 

Gherkin 40% – (Failed) Keyboard Build Log

In the past I’ve posted about some of my DIY mechanical keyboard builds, including the first I attempted, the Commodore 64 homage. Around about the same time as that build, I had been seeing these ludicrously tiny keyboards online which were 40% the size of a standard setup… with just 30 keys total. Naturally, curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to have a bash at building one.

The specific design I went for is known as the ‘Gherkin’, apparently because originally they were small and green. I wanted to stay close to this idea, and opted for a yellow colour scheme… Yellow PCB, yellow glow, yellow case… the works. There may or may not have been a splash of green in there. I wasn’t quite sure yet.

The Parts

I needed the following bits and pieces:

  • PCB
  • Switches
  • Keycaps
  • Diodes and resistors
  • A case
  • LEDs (for under the keys as well as to light up the case)
  • A microcontroller
  • IC Socket

I couldn’t face soldering in all of the diodes and resistors by hand, so I got a PCB with them already in place from /u/MrMontgomery on Reddit. He also sent over the LEDs, and the microcontroller that I would need.

For the case, I got a handmade yellow acrylic case from someone called /u/qlavier in Belgium. They make some beautiful things on their website, qlavier.com. I wanted an all acrylic case so the LEDs would really shine.

The keycaps were standard DSA profiled that I got dirt cheap on eBay from Hong Kong. Sticking with the Gherkin theme, I decided to do an alternating green and yellow pattern.

The Switches

The switches, of course, deserve a special mention, due to how important they are when building a custom mechanical keyboard. In the last build I went with Cherry MX Whites (Milky), which are pretty ‘clicky’, but not as loud as most others of that type. For this build, I had in mind that the Gherkin might end up as a travel keyboard due to its size… and I wanted the switches to be quiet, but also have a really good tactile feel to them. On top of that, I wanted them to support under-key LEDs, and to have a clear top to diffuse the light as much as possible. So eh, not too specific.

In the end I went with Kailh Pro Purple switches, which tick all of the boxes. They have a 50g actuation force, and aren’t quite as tactile as I might usually like, but they still feel pretty good. Plus, for some reason, in my head the purple colour seems to fit with the Gherkin theme. Don’t ask me why.

The Build

When I began the build, the guides available online were scant at best, and it was bit more complicated than the others I had taken on before. With advice from the folks at /r/mechanicalkeyboards I managed to figure things out in the end. However, ultimately it all became a nightmare, and I have shelved the project for now. Some specifics…

LEDs

First of all, you need to install the LEDs in place. This (perhaps obviously) is because they sit underneath the switches. The problem I immediately ran into was that I couldn’t find a schematic for the Gherkin PCB, and was unsure of what way the LEDs should go. MrMontgomery helped me out, in that the long leg of the LEDs goes into the hole with the round pad… and the shorter leg goes into the hole with the square shaped pad.

Gherkin LED build log

Switches

These were pretty straightforward. Put the switches through the acrylic top panel, through the holes in the PCB, and then solder them in place. At this point I really wished I had paid more attention to getting the LEDs straight, as they didn’t all immediately fit in the hole in the switches casing. I had to carefully bend them a bit, but they worked in the end.

Gherkin keyboard build log

Reset Button

This was another annoying bit. In order to flash the software onto the microcontroller, you have to create a connection between two of its pins to reset it into the required DFU mode. That’s fairly simple in theory… you can just solder two bits of wire to the necessary pins and then touch the ends together. In practice though, it’s a bit more of a pain. The reset function is something I found myself using a lot with my other custom keyboards, while you customise the layouts to something that works for you. This meant that I would have to find a way to easily trip the reset. In the end, I settled on a mini, yellow push button switch that just kinda flopped about. I toyed with the idea of an arcade button, but that would have been ridiculous, and wouldn’t have fitted in the case anywhere – at least not neatly. Of course, nothing runs smoothly… and the reset button didn’t work at all. For a while I had to resort to just manually shorting the pins, which was less than ideal.

IC Socket

Because of the design of the Gherkin, you need to install the Microcontroller after the switches have been soldered in. That causes some problems if you have a plate mounted case… or if you have any problems with the soldering that need fixed later. Why? Well, if you’ve soldered in the microcontroller directly to the PCB, you can’t get underneath it to de-solder the switches easily. For that reason, I was advised to use a (low profile) IC socket which the microcontroller just clicks into, so if needs came to it, I could just pop it out.

Gherkin MCU

With that in mind, I bought a 24 pin IC socket, trimmed it down to size (12 pins) and installed that. Unfortunately I immediately ran into some issues, as it appears the IC socket had gotten damaged somehow (probably when I trimmed it down) and the Pro Micro controller wouldn’t slot in properly. This turned into a bit of a saga, as it took me a bit of troubleshooting to realise that this was the problem.

De-soldering the socket was a nightmare for the reasons above, so in the end I clipped it off and soldered the controller directly onto the board, at which point I managed to get everything working, aside from a few keys. After rummaging around online, I found this incredibly helpful image which helped identify which pin was the problem:

Gherkin troubleshooting

Unfortunately, by this point my Pro Micro had been so abused by soldering and de-soldering that it couldn’t be trusted. I had to remove it, and try another. In true grand idiot style, I then ended up going through a few different Pro Micros as I soldered the header pins in wrongly… lost the microcontroller in a house move, and various other mishaps.

To top things off, I tried to remove a few of the switches to clean up the top side of the board a bit, and ended up breaking them. I put a new microcontroller on, and got things mostly working… (after realising I had forgotten to put the switches back on first… eugh).

Ultimately though, I was defeated. A couple of the switches just weren’t working, even when I shorted the pins on the board directly. The only thing I could figure was that I had damaged the traces on the PCB somehow, and that would mean essentially starting from scratch, soldering in a whole new set of keys… etc.

I’m pretty disappointed, as the Gherkin was shaping up to look pretty cool. However, it was a learning experience. I now understand what is and isn’t critical when building these boards, and have come to understand a lot more about how they actually work, which has been helpful. At the end of the day, the Gherkin was going to be more of a novelty board than anything especially practical, so I can probably live without it.

That said… I’m not really good at giving up on things completely, and since I still have the custom case etc, I’ll probably return to this one at a later date. Watch this space.

How I replaced everything with Notion

Knowing my penchant for a productivity tool, my good friend Pazy suggested I investigate one that I hadn’t heard of before: Notion. From what I could gather, it was a central place to store a whole manner of different kinds of notes.

I was initially a bit wary of diving head-first into Notion, as I have both used and built up a significant amount of content in Evernote over the years. However, the temptation was too much to resist, and I gave it a whirl. After just a short time, I was convinced. Notion is the promised land.

Notion logo

Coming from Evernote

While Evernote has been touted as the single place that you can quickly grab and throw all of your various ideas, links, clippings, and files that you come across on a daily basis – Notion takes that idea a step further. Rather than just acting as a huge repository with search capabilities, Notion encourages you to store information in a far more organised way, making heavy use of its own databases. At first, I found this a bit confusing, as my Evernote ‘save it all’ approach didn’t quite fit neatly… but once I realised that Notion involved a fundamentally different approach to data organisation, it made much more sense.

Databases versus Notes

I can already hear people turning off at the sound of databases. I was the same. Pazy is a database guru as part of his day job, so I just assumed he was naturally inclined to gravitate towards databases in his personal life too. However, Notion utilises and presents databases in a way that you wouldn’t even realise they were there unless you stopped to think about it. Essentially, rather than storing information in a text-note, you are gently prodded to put it into tables, with tags – all of which is presented in a logical hierarchical structure. Before you know what’s happened, you suddenly have the ability to organise, filter, and display your notes in a much more powerful and diverse way than would have been possible with the alternative.

To give a concrete example, as a musician I keep a note of tracks I have started working on, but which might not be finished. In Evernote, that looked something like this:

Notion for song tracking

and here is an excerpt of how it looks in Notion…

Song List Notion

Of course, Evernote can also present data in tables… but with Notion the key point is that the information is treated as a searchable database, rather than just text presented in a different way. With Notion, I can now quickly and easily see which projects are at which stage, and filter them depending on the different variables that I want to display.

For another example, I used to collect recipes to give me ideas for what I could eat on days where I lacked inspiration. In Evernote I would collect these by meal type, but in practice I found that the limited ways to filter these outside of just a plain search meant that I almost never referred to them. Now, they are stored in a dedicated database in Notion:

Recipe List - Notion

Looking for a vegetarian dinner? What about an egg-based breakfast? Maybe just a gluten-free snack… It’s as simple as combining the tags and filtering for desired results.

Recipes - Notion filtered

So much easier than sifting through a huge pile of text-note clippings.

Personal Workspace and Linked Databases

One of the other most useful features of the database storage model over using text notes, files, or simple tables is that you can create ‘linked database views’ in different places. In other words, you can have one central database for a particular purpose, and then filter that database to display the relevant data for the appropriate section you are working in. That sounds a bit convoluted, but here’s a practical example. If I want to compile a Reading List of different blog posts, books, journal articles etc that I want to read… rather than having different databases for each area of my life (work, personal, music, language learning, etc), I can have the main database like so:

Notion Reading List

and then under a specific page, I can have a dedicated ‘view’ of that same database, presenting only the relevant entries. For example, here is how I have the Reading List set up to display on my dedicated Japanese learning page:

Japanese Reading List

Note that it isn’t just displaying a particular sub-set of the data (filtered by those articles tagged ‘Japanese’), but I can also choose how it appears on the page. There’s a bunch of different options including simplified lists, full tables, galleries, etc.

As you can see, rather than creating a typical file structure where you collect pages and files or notes within a hierarchy of folders, Notion encourages you to put together what are essentially ‘dashboards’ of data. This means that on the top level you can display the data from the various collections underneath it – not just act as a blank ‘storage box’. This is an incredibly useful feature, which means you can set up different workspaces for different projects, or for different areas of your life… even if just to separate out work and personal items.

Web Clipper

Evernote’s Web Clipper tool is known for its ability to grab almost anything from the web and squirrel it away for reference – whether it’s screenshots, selections of text, full web-pages, or whatever else – so Notion has a tough act to follow in that regard. In practice, it isn’t as configurable on the surface, which is a bit of a shame. However, it is deceivingly powerful. Here is how it looks when saving an article from a site:

Notion Web Clipper

As you can see, there aren’t all that many options. On the bottom right you can click and search for the page you wish to import the clipping to – but not much else. What isn’t obvious though, is that Notion will grab various fields, and import them into the appropriate tables of a pre-existing database. That means, that it will save the URL into the ‘URL’ column of your Reading List table. This is really handy, as it means you have to do less leg-work when it comes to getting different kinds of info into your custom databases. Unfortunately, the extent to which you can modify this is fairly limited… (as in, to tell the clipper to save the URL to a different table field, etc) but hopefully that will come in a future update.

UI and Page Formatting

The UI of the Notion block-style editor is particularly nice. Emojis are littered everywhere, acting as icons or nice little visual indicators, and you can customise pages with images pulled from around the web. There’s even an Unsplash integration, which is a pretty great way to directly get access to high quality images for free.

Unsplash Integration - Notion

There is also a wealth of different ways to format the information on your pages and organise them as you see fit, including collapsible sections, different headings, etc.

rich text editor Notion

Anyway, you’ve all seen rich text editors before… but it’s worth saying that the options here are far more fully-featured than I would have expected.

File Handling and Embeds

It should go without saying, but embedding content from other parts of the web like YouTube is really easy. However, at first I thought that file handling in terms of uploads might not be so great, based on various reviews talking about how great Evernote was at handling all kinds of different file types. In practice though, this wasn’t really the case. While you have to purposefully create an ’embed’ block first and then upload your file to Notion for it to display inline (if you just drag and drop, it will create a download link instead) – it is still perfectly functional, handling PDFs, MP3s, etc.

File handling Notion

The one caveat here is that while Notion is free for personal use, uploading files larger than 5mb requires a paid account – which starts at 4USD per month for an annual subscription (or 5USD on a monthly basis).

How I use Notion

Years ago I helped create a Wiki style ‘portal’ for a company that I worked for. The idea being to serve as a central Intranet dashboard full of links, news, and other resources that folks might need. The software we used wasn’t exactly up to scratch, but it got the job done. If Notion had been available back then, it would have fitted the bill perfectly – and that’s one of its major strengths.

Instead of having all different kinds of data stored in different services that I inevitably forget about (Pocket, Evernote, Google Spreadsheets, etc), I now have a single personal ‘portal’ which displays a whole bunch of stuff that I need and use on a daily basis – or simply want to be reminded of. Links to commonly used sites, goals for the year, habits I want to track, articles I want to read, etc. There’s so much information collected and organised in the one place that it’s hard to show just what I mean, but here’s something of an insight…

Notion homepage

Having everything I need organised and presented in this way, where I can see the status of a bunch of different ongoing projects at a glance, and dig in deeper into the sub-pages for more information as required has been really liberating. Instead of just chucking every little thing I find on the web which might be useful one day into vaguely defined categories in Evernote (which never really worked very well), I now have things much more neatly defined, and feel so much more organised. It has lifted some kind of low-level mental pressure around accumulating so much data that I would never be able to find again because of its haphazard nature.

Conclusion

I really didn’t expect to take to Notion in the way that I have. While it did initially take some adjustment to understand its core kind of usage philosophy, and a bit of time to set up and input my data in a way that made sense for me, it has replaced and improved on so many different areas of my daily workflows that I can’t imagine going back to Evernote.

Ultimately, the data that I save is now far more organised, far easier to access, and much more useful than it ever has been before as a result. I would definitely recommend it to anybody interested in keeping track of their digital knowledge base.

There is so much more to the app than I can squeeze into a single post, including the ability to manipulate or query the databases via scripts, etc… and so I’ll post a few follow-ups with specific use cases for more details.

Remaining Productive with Things: The Pandemic Edition

Back in March I wrote about how I managed my time using the task manager app, ‘Things’. The gist of that post was that rather than struggling to remember or stay on top of all of the various activities you want to complete (no matter how small) – you chuck them all into Things, and free up the mental energy that would otherwise be expended in tracking them.

For a while, this approach worked really well, but over time I found that I was confronted every day with a huge list of tasks that needed completed, and there wasn’t any kind of tangible satisfaction in completing them, as I knew at midnight the next day’s tasks would appear on cue. Rather than helping to alleviate stress, Things began to contribute to the overwhelming pressure of everyday life, which had come sharply into focus thanks to national COVID lockdowns and varying restrictions. Things I was ment to enjoy (like making music) were reduced to yet another tickbox to be churned through.

What made the above worse was that there were recurring tasks that I wanted to complete, but often failed to find time for. I didn’t want to take them off my daily list, but I didn’t want them to have the same mental load as other tasks.

Taking inspiration from this blog post, I followed Andrea’s lead, and changed the way I approach task management with Things. Rather than having one large daily list of jobs to get through, I now have them separated into their respective categories. The tasks that I definitely want to complete that day come in at the top, under ‘Daily Tasks’, and I try to keep this to a manageable load, so that I can always clear them out. Other things that I want to get done, but don’t necessarily have to get done that specific day are then available for me to work through, based on how I feel/what energy I have that day.

How my Things to do list is organised now.

This new approach has made a huge difference to my relationship with the daily to do list. Rather than feeling like I am endlessly fighting a losing battle to keep ticking off checkboxes, I can now see at a glance exactly what tasks need to be done that day. By keeping those separate, deliberately chosen, and manageable, I no longer feel like the other bits and pieces that I want to do are a chore. If something isn’t in the Daily Tasks list – it can be done another day… and ironically, since adopting this method, I’ve gotten even more done than usual, because I don’t feel the same pressure to complete everything.

Pomodoro

One other thing that I have adopted which is worth mentioning is the Pomodoro technique. The general idea here is that you split up your time into chunks of about 20 minutes, and deliberately focus on a particular task for that period of time, before taking a break and either moving on to something else, or committing to another 20 minute period of focus.

This notion isn’t anything new. I am sure I’m not the only one who sat in maths and thought ‘Okay just get through the next five minutes and then it’ll be another five minutes after that’. Plenty of people have written about this extensively elsewhere… but it’s not an approach that I’ve ever really come to use in any disciplined way. Breaking up my tasks at work was always too difficult, and concentrating for 20 minutes to then have a break and return to the same tasks felt too artificially scheduled for my liking.

However… since I switched up my approach in Things, I’ve had success using the Pomodoro model for my own personal projects – particularly those that I want to get done but struggle to get the motivation to start. For example, I am currently learning Japanese, but sometimes (often) the prospect of firing up the flashcard app for an indeterminate amount of time seems like too much of a chore, and I put it off. Before I know it, I haven’t done it in days.

Now, I sit down and say – okay, I’ll just do it for 20 minutes just now, and then go off and do something else. Knowing that it’s such a short amount of time means I can focus much more than I normally would, and I have been rattling through tasks like never before. This also helps me work out just how much time I actually spend or need to spend on certain activities to complete them, and it can be much less than I expected.

We’ll see how this mutates and modifies as time goes on, but for now… this is the approach.

Becoming a Coffee Snob

Breaking ranks with the rest of the tech industry, I must admit that I have never been a huge coffee fan. I know. Sacrilege. The truth is that hot drinks in general have never really been my cup of tea (pun very much intended). Sure, I was partial to an iced latte, and the elaborate glass Chemex contraptions of the faithful were intriguing, but I just never really got it. I could easily have dismissed such geekery, but in actuality I was always a bit jealous. As someone partial to a wee dram, I know how amazing it is when you get past the initial stages of “this all tastes the same”, and can discover the variety and depth involved in something new.

Recently, I had come across a local hipster coffee shop which clearly took themselves very seriously, but for the first time I got a glimpse of the promised land. Much like the first time I actually tasted cherries in a red wine (no, not the Tonic), the coffee that these folks were serving tasted incredible. Rather than just being another cup of burned dirt water, it somehow tasted of caramel and raspberries – without any addition of sugar or syrups.

This damascus moment led to an insatiable craving, desperate to relive that delirious caffeinated experience time and again. It wasn’t long until I bankrupted myself and was in the process of selling all of my worldly possessions to return to that cafe every day and get my fix… until I realised that if they could serve something that good, perhaps I should do a bit of investigation into recreating it at home.

What I learned

In a very short space of time, I not only discovered the price of a semi-decent espresso machine, but I also realised that almost everything I thought I knew about coffee was wrong. I still know basically nothing, but here is what I’ve gleaned over the past wee while:

1. Buying ‘better’ coffee isn’t the answer

In my previous attempts to have better tasting coffee, I just assumed I could pick up a more expensive bag from the supermarket (you know, the ‘taste the difference’ stuff that comes in that tempting black bag), and that would be half the battle. However, that isn’t the case. Of course the way you brew it matters, but there’s far more to it than that. Wayyyy more than I expected.

2. Coffee goes stale. Quickly.

Coffee basically never goes out of date, right? Of course not. They’re just beans. Well… yes… but apparently to really get the most out of it, you have to drink it within about 30 days of when it was roasted. If you pick up a fancy bag of beans from a local roaster but don’t get round to drinking them for a month or two, you’re far less likely to taste all of the exciting flavours that the coffee has to offer. Note that supermarket coffee almost never has a roasting date, and you can begin to piece together why it all might just taste the same – even if you do buy the fancy black bags.

3. Different ages of coffee are better for different types

Not only does the date that the coffee was roasted matter, but the type of drink you make with it at what stage of its life-cycle within the 30 day golden period also makes a difference. I won’t claim to know the reasons behind why, but an espresso will supposedly taste better made with beans that were roasted between 12 and 30 days prior – whereas beans which were roasted between 6 and 12 days will be more suited for filter coffee.

4. Storage is important

What do you mean I can’t just fold the bag over and stick a peg on it?! Oxygen, light, and moisture all contribute to coffee losing their freshness quicker. If you want to get the best out of that expensive bag you picked up from the floppy haired barista who told you the beans were foraged in the foothills of Botswana by a rare breed of hogs… you need to put a bit of effort into storing them properly. That means using some kind of contraption that will keep oxygen out, but also allow the CO2 that the beans give off to escape. The protips I’ve found involve using specially designed vacum sealed coffee boxes, along with oxygen absorber pads.

5. Freezing is fine

This is a controversial one, but if you buy a whole pile of coffee at once without realising that you would need to drink it within 30 days (ahem), then freezing the beans will help keep them fresher for longer. The caveat here is that you need to ensure that they are stored in an airtight container before freezing. Using some kind of vacuum sealed bag with an oxygen absorption pad should do the trick. If you are taking beans out from the freezer to use immediately, give the bag 10-15 minutes to acclimatise to room temperature before opening it and re-sealing once done to help prevent moisture building up.

6. Not all grinders were created equal

I had a coffee grinder. A good one, so I thought. It cost me £20 damnit! But, apparently it’s pish. Totally worthless. Why? Because it doesn’t allow you to properly control the size of the grind, or manage the consistency. That matters as you will want a different consistency of coffee depending on what kind you are brewing. For espresso, a fine grind is desirable, whereas French press requires a coarser grind.

7. You’ll need a new kettle

Okay, maybe this isn’t strictly the case, but if you want to get into the world of fancy pour-over coffee (and at this stage I’m fully committed to this madness), you will probably need to use one of those gooseneck kettles that looks like something out of a Wes Anderson film. To be honest, they look so cool that I would want one even if I never drank coffee again.

The road ahead

Even from a brief foray into this highly caffeinated world, I can see why so many people are so religious about it. For me, I’m not sure what the future holds. It’s been a while since I had an entirely new area to get excited learning about though, and I’ll hopefully be able to at least enjoy the journey. At least until I get addicted to caffeine and curse this entire experience.