Since 2019, I have compiled an annual list of books that I have read throughout that year – excluding any academic or reference texts. Documenting things in this way has been both motivational and useful, but also humbling.
As somebody that has long considered myself an avid reader, it can be a bit of a shock to realise the number of books that you can or do actually ‘consume’ in reality. Reading is a commitment, and working your way through a book takes a significant amount of time and focus, both things which I feel I increasingly lack.
What I’ve discovered is that reading even what I would consider to be a relatively small number of books can be a challenge, particularly with the myriad of ways in which we can now fritter away our time, and I’ve come to appreciate the value of what we turn our attention towards. How many books can one person realistically enjoy over the course of a lifetime, and given that knowledge, how should we approach our selections? That perspective can be extrapolated and applied to other elements of our lives as well… and though I am not sure I want to meander too far down that particular path, reflecting upon what we wish to spend our limited time is perhaps something we should do more than we do.
This year, I was determined to read more than I did in 2021, where I completed what felt like an embarrassing total of just 13 books. 2022 started out slowly, but I found a rhythm while on holiday, sinking one after another. I must confess that a number of those at the end are short books, but they still count. If we get too far into the weeds of how long a book needs to be to be a book, then we’re probably over thinking things.
According to GoodReads, the total page count for 2022 was 8,110.
Frank – Jon Ronson (2014)
Dune Messiah (Dune #2) – Frank Herbert (1969)
Blindness – Jose Saramango (1995)
Seeing – Jose Saramango (2004)
Binge: 60 stories to make your brain feel different – Douglas Coupland (2021)
Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars – Nick Duerden (2022)
The Every – Dave Eggers (2021)
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2003)
The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood (2009)
Sex with Lepers – Chris Dire (2022)
Leading from Anywhere – David Burkus (2021)
Meantime – Frankie Boyle (2022)
The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds – John Higgs (2013)
How to Write One Song – Jeff Tweedy (2020)
Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games (2020)
What I do – Jon Ronson (2007)
The Ultimate Introduction to NLP – Richard Bandler (2013)
Let’s Go So We Can Get Back – Jeff Tweedy (2018)
Bodies: Life and Death in Music – Ian Winwood (2022)
NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories – Jeff Alulis (2016)
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami (1987)
Fake Law – the Secret Barrister (2020)
Nothing But The Truth: A Memoir – The Secret Barrister (2022)
Songs in the Key of Z – Irwin Chusid (2000)
Upgrade – Blake Crouch (2022)
Run – Blake Crouch (2011)
Summer Frost – Blake Crouch (2019)
You Have Arrived at Your Destination – Amor Towles (2019)
The Last Conversation – Paul Tremblay (2019)
Emergency Skin – NK Jemisin (2019)
Randomize – Andy Weir (2019)
Ark – Veronica Roth (2019)
The full list with commentary that I wrote immediately after completing each book can be found after the jump, but on reflection, some of my highlights were:
Blindness – Jose Saramango (1995) – A particularly dark tale centred around a pandemic of blindness which felt chillingly prescient, particularly as I read it while we were still enduring COVID-19 restrictions here at the time. It speaks of humanity and hopelessness in a way that I would recommend anybody read, but which you should probably approach with caution. It can be graphic.
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami (1987) – I had tried to read Murakami books in the past and never quite managed to complete them. This particular novel came recommended by a colleague, and it found me at a particularly emotional time. Its themes spoke to me in a way that – while I’m not sure I would say that I enjoyed it – it definitely made me think, acting like a mirror to much of what I felt at the time.
Upgrade – Blake Crouch (2022) – Crouch is steadily becoming one of my favourite authors. His dystopian novels are compelling, and I find myself flying through the pages. This is his latest, and worth a read for anybody who is a fan of that genre.
For 2023 I’m aiming for 50 books. We’ll see if I manage to get that far… You can find me over on Goodreads, if that’s a thing you do.
Ahh ScotRail. Scotland’s national train operator. Previously, I felt like it was unfairly maligned. It can’t be easy running a rail network after all. I like the train. It’s far more civilised than getting the bus with all of the ruffians. I’m middle class don’t you know. However, over the past few years, ScotRail’s services have been woefully, terribly bad. This has especially been the case for those of us ‘fortunate’ enough to live in what is apparently ‘one of the best places to live in Scotland‘, as the frequency of our train services has been reduced to just one an hour.
Now I could go on about all of the reasons that this is particularly galling, such as the sheer hypocrisy of hosting COP26 in Glasgow while local train services had been reduced to a smouldering heap – or the fact that towns outside of the city enjoy much more frequent services to the centre than us – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll give you a brief history of the situation, and then get on to the real meaty part of this blog: the Freedom of Information Act Request
COVID + Nationalisation
Yes, the C word. When we realised that apparently the COVID thing was actually a problem we would have to contend with seriously, ScotRail cut services drastically. This made sense. People couldn’t travel unless it was for essential purposes, so there was absolutely no need to continue as before. No problem.
However. When restrictions eased, and people were moving around as before (going to restaurants, pubs, and even clubs of all things), ScotRail didn’t seem to be in a hurry to help those folks get to where they needed to be (one would have thought more frequent services would have resulted in less crowding and so more possibility to socially distance, but still) – staggering the timetable revisions for months after each round of change. Most importantly for my purposes though – the provision of trains through my local stations never recovered.
Now we come onto the N word. Nationalisation. For in all of this we also have to understand that the rail service was being brought into public ownership as of the 1st of April 2022 – and no – that isn’t a joke (or at least, it wasn’t intended to be). One might suggest that perhaps the previous operator was more interested in squeezing all they could out of the network by using the pandemic as cover to reduce services prior to this taking place, but I am sure that wasn’t the case.
Back in August of 2021 I emailed my SNP MSP James Dornan to raise my concerns that any service restrictions that took place prior to nationalisation under the guise of being a direct result of the pandemic would carry over to the new ownership, and never be restored. I didn’t receive any response to that. Reassuring.
Fast forward to the 15th of July 2022, and ScotRail announce that timetables were returning to ‘normal’, after they had been further cut due to a union dispute. Huzzah! I thought. Finally, the Cathcart Circle will return to its former glory. Alas, it wasn’t to be the case.
Ah yes. What a shock. I pressed them on this, only to receive a rather condescending reply:
They didn’t reply to my query about the Freedom of Information Act request (naughty naughty), but since they are now nationalised, then they have an obligation to respond to them, so I hunted down the information (available here for those who want to do similar), and submitted a request.
Freedom of Information Act Request + Response
Just after midnight on the 20th of July, I submitted my FOIA request. This was the contents:
I am submitting a request for information relating to the provision of service to Pollokshaws East Train Station.
Specifically I am seeking information on:
* The reasoning for the reduction of service to/from Pollokshaws East in 2020.
* The reasoning and for any subsequent decisions or discussions relating to service provision to Pollokshaws East, namely why the service has not been reinstated since that time.
* Information on timetable reviews relating to Pollokshaws East over the past two years, including any conclusions drawn on the basis of balancing ‘demand’ and ‘value for the taxpayer’.
The two main reasons for not restoring what ScotRail call the ‘South Electrics’ routes are listed as follows: Firstly, COVID meant that ScotRail were unable to train new drivers.
Secondly, well. Err, see if you can work out what this means.
If you grope around in amongst the cryptic language of ‘pre-pandemic transport mode share’, and travel further down the FOIA response, it seems like what they are really saying is that the routes are too expensive. Specifically, that the operating costs are circa £26 million, whereas revenue from those routes is only circa £10 million.
Now I’m no mathematician, but there’s a few weird numbers in there. For example, I’m not sure that the difference between 13.4 passengers and 16.2 passengers is big enough to justify cutting provision to a community in half. Although apparently that’s how ScotRail treat passengers in terms of raw numbers. I wish I knew what constituted the 0.2 passenger. I guess I have seen some folks on the line at night that weren’t all there, but still.
Secondly, it is a bit cheeky of ScotRail to say that each journey only brings in an average of £1.31 per journey, without giving any kind of recognition that many people will buy a return ticket at £2.60 for a single journey, because it is cheaper to do that than buy two singles. I am sure that isn’t relevant to these calculations. Not at all.
Public Transport is so good that we don’t need trains
Okay, so maybe they have a point. Maybe the service is too expensive to run. Maybe the people just don’t want to use the train. Maybe, just maybe, COVID actually did pose logistical challenges outside of asset stripping from previous operators, and that less utilised routes needed to be paused until they could be addressed. Hey, that all makes perfect sense. The reason I submitted the FOIA request was to get a better understanding of the rationale and logic behind the decision, rather than clap along jubilantly with the press releases suggesting that we are back to business as normal, when I still can’t get a bloody train into town more than once an hour.
The weirdest justification for the decision to leave those of us on the ‘South Electrics’ routes bereft of an adequate service though came in the next paragraph. It is so absurd that I’ve had to highlight it.
That’s right. Apparently the reason that public transport services in the South Side of Glasgow were not restored to their pre-pandemic levels was because the public transport services are just so damn good. People don’t need to get the train; they can get the bus instead! And what’s more, about 30-40% of them won’t even pay for the bus! Interestingly enough, there was no breakdown of the age of the users of the services on ScotRail versus the bus, but I am sure that’s not relevant.
ScotRail can’t spell the names of their own stations
By far the funniest part of this whole thing though is that ScotRail consistently spelled the names of Pollokshaws and Pollokshields incorrectly. I get it. We’ve all been confused about whether or not there’s a ‘c’ in there before, but come onnnnn. In response to a FOIA request, specifically about those stations… that you operate? Yeesh.
Dear oh dear.
Look, I know that COVID has thrown up a huge number of challenges for all parts of society (as well as Brexit, but apparently that never gets mentioned). I am keenly aware of the problems that organisations face as a result. However, at a time where we are being told that improving public services is essential to reduce the number of car journeys being taken so that we can save the planet (this isn’t me as some kind of green activist speaking btw – it’s the rhetoric that we were faced with from the Scottish Government during the obscene spectacle of COP26) – then we have to actually improve those services – and the decisions around provision have to be as open and transparent as possible.
In their response to the Freedom of Information Act Request, ScotRail frequently mention their public consultations. However, they specifically note that they received only 393 responses from passengers.
The irony here is that not only did they not propose making any real changes to the provision, but also that of the 393 responses, 83% of them brought up the frequency of the trains – presumably not in a complimentary fashion. Thus lieth one of the main reasons that so few people actually respond to these things. Firstly, they are buried deep in corporate websites, laden with pages of text and overly grand, visionary language (‘Fit for the Future’? Are they having an actual laugh? A more accurate title would be: ‘Stemming the tide of shit’) – and secondly – it doesn’t appear that ScotRail will change their planned course of action, irrespective of what people say in response to a consultation.
Retaining a reduced timetable in major parts of the city for an elongated period based on ‘uncertainty over how demand will recover’ is really derisory.
Unfortunately, this was entirely predictable. The pandemic was used as cover for essential services to be reduced, and justifications made for that to be permanent after the fact. It’s pathetic.
I’ve asked ScotRail a few follow up questions:
When the timetable review is actually planned for. They told me December on Twitter. The FOIA response is much more vague.
What on earth ‘most mature rail market’ and ‘our pre-pandemic transport mode share was greater than in other reasons’ means.
What the ‘historical demand’ they speak about used to make the decision was.
Finally, whether they realise the stations are not spelled PolloCkshields and PolloCkshaws.
I am not holding my breath for their response, but if they do reply, I’ll share anything interesting here. In the meantime, I’ve bought a bike.
For the past few years I have posted with a list of the books I’ve read over the past twelve months, but this year I almost didn’t bother, because my total has been so pitiful. In stark contrast to 2020 (where I read a total of forty books), 2021 only saw me complete thirteen. Ouch. Anyway, in the interests of transparency, I wanted to share anyway, as there’s no point in only publishing when things are going well – and it’s probably worth reflecting on a bit deeper.
Why did I read less in 2021?
I suspect there’s a variety of reasons why I didn’t read quite as many books in 2021 as I have in some time. Ultimately what it probably boils down to though is that the pandemic changed a lot of things – more so by entering its second year than anything else. Things were constantly reopening and closing, and general stress levels were much higher than usual. I had far less time and patience to sit and read anything, never mind a lot of the kind of political, business, or legal books I would have before. Instead, I devoted a lot of time and creative energy into making music, as well as building up a very wittily named YouTube channel around that. In many ways that was my escape, and so everything else took a bit of a back seat.
I did try to find books that were relevant to my all consuming interest in music, and when I did (such as with ‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne, I tore through them like a fire. However, I was unable to source many which really hit home properly, and some of them were so unnecessarily long (like ‘Mars by 1980’), that it put me off reading for a good while afterwards.
Why does it matter anyway?
Who cares if I’ve read 13 books instead of 40 anyway? I’m not convinced that there is necessarily really anything inherently better about reading greater numbers of novels than say – creating something. The figure is subject to so many variables that it is fairly meaningless as a strict comparator. Perhaps pages read would be more accurate. There is probably an unhealthy obsession with stats and numbers generally, but then again… I do think that an annual review can help give the chance to look back, reflect, and identify patterns – whatever they may be… which I guess is what I’ve done here, so maybe the exercise has proved its usefulness, irrespective of the total.
Let’s see how 2022 goes.
Show Your Work! – Austin Kleon (2014)
Atomic Habits – James Clear (2018)
Anything you want – Derek Sivers (2011)
Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music – David Stubbs (2018)
Surrounded by Idiots – Thomas Erikson (2019)
How Music Works – David Byrne (2012)
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1998)
Get Shit Done: How To Stop F*cking Around And Make Things Happen – Mark Maven (2014)
Them: Adventures with Extremists – Jon Ronson (2003)
Lost at Sea – Jon Ronson (2012)
The Elephant in the Room – Jon Ronson (2016)
Commodore: A Company on the Edge – Brian Bagnall (2012)
Dune – Frank Herbert (2021)
Show Your Work! – Austin Kleon (2014). This is a quick, easy read which talks about the benefits of not being afraid to put your creative work out there. Don’t get stuck in the trap of waiting until something is perfect. I read this a few years ago and thought it was okay, but this time around it resonated much more strongly. I think Austin is onto something. Finished January 2021.
Atomic Habits – James Clear (2018). A book which challenges you to shift perspective away from goals and towards gradual, incremental improvements in the form of habits. Full of useful and practical suggestions. I wrote about this at a bit more length here – https://iamsteve.in/2021/01/28/book-review-atomic-habits/Finished January 2021.
Anything you want – Derek Sivers (2011). An interesting short read talking about a novel approach to business, and wider life. Finished February 2021.
Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music – David Stubbs (2018). I picked this up as something to read while feeling musically inspired, but unfortunately didn’t enjoy it. While the book has some interesting stories, and the descriptions of the music it talks about are creative and original, it ultimately felt like it didn’t quite know what it was. In some ways it feels more like an academic textbook in how it approaches the history, as opposed to providing a narrative… but at the same time it lacks the demonstration of sources one would expect from that kind of text. I appreciate the knowledge and experience of the author, but ultimately I found this a struggle to read. If the book had spent more time telling the story of electronic music, and less meandering from one artist to another by way of seemingly random anecdotes, it would have been far more compelling. Finished February 2021.
Surrounded by Idiots – Thomas Erikson (2019). I admit that I was suckered into this book by the title, and then I realised why. Probably because I’m a red, and most likely to think I am surrounded by idiots. I don’t really buy personality typing, as I think it’s a reductivist view of the world and the complexity of interpersonal relationships. I also think it’s a bit of a cheat to say that there are four main personality types, but that there can be mixes of them. I mean…. yeah. Despite that, I found this book to resonate more than others. I was surprised at just how much some of the descriptions sounded familiar. Even if personality typing is nonsense, it helped me remember and understand that other folks see the world differently, and it’s important to recognise that when dealing with others that you can’t understand. Finished May 27th 2021.
How Music Works – David Byrne (2012). This is a rare book in that it is by a musician (David Byrne of the Talking Heads), and talks about many different areas of music and our relationship to it… from the history of music and general philosophy of sound to different approaches to music round the world, to specific industry financials. There isn’t really anything else that covers such a wide breadth of content relating to music in such an accessible way. David’s writing style is very interesting and easy to digest, and I enjoyed this book a lot. My only criticism is that perhaps it tried to take on a bit too many different areas, and it could feel a tad fragmented in places. I would read a full series of books on the included topics from the author. Finished July 30th.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1998). I am a big dystopian fan, but only got around to reading this classic in 2021. It builds around the idea of enforced ‘happiness’ and social cohesion through a kind of genetic caste system. I enjoyed it, though wasn’t as gripped by the concept as I have been with other similar novels. Maybe I need to read it again. Finished August 2021.
Get Shit Done: How To Stop F*cking Around And Make Things Happen – Mark Maven (2014) – This read like a LADS LADS LADS book of pumping yourself up. There were a few useful tips in there which could help you think about life differently, but that was about it. At one point the author says that using their system they’re now able to do what they want, when they want, in any way they want… yet then goes on to explain that the system prevents them from doing just that. It’s a bit of a strange way to approach things. Not my cup of tea. Finished August 2021.
Them: Adventures with Extremists – Jon Ronson (2003). This is a collection of short ‘stories’ detailing experiences that Jon Ronson had with various different extremist groups of the time. It was interesting and fairly easy to read, thanks to Ronson’s individual style. From neo-nazis to Islamic fundamentalists, it was a book I found myself wanting to stay up late reading, which I haven’t found in a while. Finished August 2021.
Lost at Sea – Jon Ronson (2012). I enjoyed the previous Jon Ronson books I’d read so much that I had to dig out some others. This is a collection of tales about strange and unusual situations and people, from the ICP and their bizarre conversion to Christianity to people who mysteriously disappear on cruise lines. As usual I enjoyed the writing, but I found myself wishing there was some kind of longer intro or connecting thread explicitly outlined. Finished August 2021.
The Elephant in the Room – Jon Ronson (2016). This is less a book, and more of a long article. Ronson writes at the time where Trump is building up speed in advance of the American elections. The particular slant here is that years previous, Ronson spent time with Alex Jones, which gave him a potentially interesting perspective into things given Jones’ increased popularity and proximity to Trump. It ends with the prediction that Trump won’t get into office, as otherwise it would be terrible – and I’m glad I didn’t read this back in 2018. It was interesting to see an alternative view on events such as Eric Andre jumping on stage with Jones… but with that said, it felt incomplete – and I wish that there was more. Finished August 2021.
Commodore: A Company on the Edge – Brian Bagnall (2012). This is a detailed, comprehensive history of Commodore’s first era, from the beginnings with MOS technology and the PET, up to just after the C64. As a big Commodore fan, I hadn’t heard the vast majority of this, and it was incredibly interesting. There’s lots of primary source material here, from interviews and quotes with folks who were part of things, and it forms the untold story of a company that essentially created mass micro-computing, but gets very little recognition for doing so. It is a bit repetitive in a couple of places, but that isn’t surprising given the length and in depth nature of it. Thoroughly enjoyed it! Finished November 2021.
Dune – Frank Herbert (1965). I’ve never felt compelled to read a book after watching a movie, but once I saw Dune I sought out the original. I wasn’t disappointed – though I am glad I had seen the film first, as it helped expand on the world, rather than feeling like the world was constricted by the movie. They did a decent job of the film too I thought. I plan to read the rest, and I am curious to see how they evolve the world in the films. I definitely recommend it if you are into sci-fi and mythology. Finished December 2021.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Severance – Ling Ma (2018)
Golden State – Ben H. Winters (2019)
The Paper Menagerie –Ken Liu (2016)
Welcome to the Heady Heights – David F. Ross (2019)
Skin – Liam Brown (2019)
OddJobs – Heide Goody (2016)
Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries – Tim Anderson (2010)
For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan – Sam Baldwin (2011)
Range: The Key to Success, Performance and Education – David Epstein (2019)
A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy – Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum (2019)
Photographing People – A Guide for Shy Photographers – Kevin Landwer-Johan (2020)
Dark Matter – Blake Crouch (2016)
Recursion – Blake Crouch (2019)
Mohammed Maguire – Colin Bateman (2002)
The Wall – John Lanchester (2019)
The Photographer’s Playbook – J. Fulford (2014)
PRACTICE LESS, PLAY MORE: The simple, three-step system to play songs you love on your guitar from day 1 –Steve Mastroianni (2019)
Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers – Dennis DeSantis (2015)
Recording Unhinged – Sylvia Massy (2016)
Unlocking Japanese – Cure Dolly (2016)
Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
Revenge – Yoko Ogawa (2013)
One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking – D Trott (2015)
Three Japanese Short Stories (Penguin Modern) – K. Uno et al (2018)
Striptease – Carl Hiaasen (1993)
The Guest List – Lucy Foley (2020)
The Parade – Dave Eggers (2019)
Not the end of the World – Christopher Brookmyre (1998)
Hardcore Self Help: Fk Anxiety – Robert Duff (2014)**
Photographers on Photography: How the Masters See, Think & Shoot – Gerry Carroll (2018)
Double Whammy – Carl Hiaasen (2005)
The Alcohol Experiment: A 30-Day, Alcohol-Free Challenge to Interrupt Your Habits and Help You Take Control – Annie Grace (2018)
Native Tongue – Carl Hiaasen (2005)
In Your Defence – Sarah Langford (2020)
Exit – Laura Waddell (2020)
The Courage to be Disliked – Ichiro Kishimi (2019)
Cult of the Dead Cow – Joseph Menn (2019)
How to Ikigai – Tim Tamashiro (2019)
Lockdown – Peter May (2020)
Love Means Love: Same-sex Relationships and the Bible – David Runcorn (2020)
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
BM40 PCB (Kit 1 with 2u stabilizers for the spacebar) – $37.52.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I needed the following bits and pieces:
Diodes and resistors
LEDs (for under the keys as well as to light up the case)
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, 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.