Solving a Music Workflow Problem

In the spirit of this week’s episode of Crush On Radio, wherein we discuss how we listen to music, I thought I’d write up some additional thoughts, as well as detail a new component to my musical workflow.

I keep all of my music on an external hard drive. I have 13,791 songs in my iTunes library (up from 12,170 after the great iTunes purge). This amounts to 125.85 GB of music, which I don’t want weighing down my three-year-old 15” MacBook Pro.

The downside to this setup is that I have to have my external hard drive plugged into my Mac if I want to listen to my iTunes library. Normally this isn’t a big deal because my MacBook Pro is my only computer, and it’s usually relegated to my desk anyway. I have a TwelveSouth BassJump 2 Subwoofer (which I adore), so my music sounds great when I’m working at my desk/in my room.

However, inconvenience arises when I take my MacBook Pro away from my desk. I can’t cart the BassJump around with me, so I’m left with comparatively wimpy laptop speakers. I could — and usually do — use headphones in these instances to improve sound quality, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of my iTunes library being back at my desk on my external hard drive.

Take this scenario, for example. The other night I decided I wanted to do some writing on the living room couch instead of at my desk. This is awesome because the couch is right in front of the TV, which has been newly outfitted with my dad’s gorgeous Mirage speaker towers. An ideal listening experience.

BUT. My music is still upstairs on my external hard drive.

Blast.

Previously, I’d been getting around this issue by streaming music from my iOS devices to our Apple TV, which is a decent, but less than convenient, solution. My entire library is in iCloud via iTunes Match, which is great, but it means I have to download music to my iOS device before I can listen. That means I have to go to Settings, switch on Show All Music, and navigate my entire library via my iPhone or iPad. Given the size of my library, it’s not the smoothest or fastest setup.

So, I need my iTunes library on my Mac without actually having my iTunes library on my Mac.

Conundrum.

Services like Rdio and Spotify aim to solve this problem by offering streaming music subscriptions. I never gave them much thought because I like having ownership over my library, and I didn’t like the idea of paying a monthly fee for my music.

But, as I sat on the couch with my MacBook Pro on my lap, periodically tapping around on my iPad to stream music to the Apple TV, I knew there had to be a better way. If I’m working on my Mac, controlling my music via a second device is cumbersome. I don’t want to have to take my fingers off the keyboard.

I remembered Shawn Blanc being a big Rdio fan, so I search his site for articles about the app and found this great tip. Shawn uses Rdio in conjunction with Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil to stream music to his Apple TV.

It sounded like the perfect solution, so I signed up for the $5/month Rdio subscription and downloaded the desktop app. I also bought an Airfoil license from Rogue Amoeba for $25.

This setup works flawlessly.

Rdio’s selection is very good, and the desktop app is well done. You can even match your iTunes library with Rdio’s to build up your music collection, which I wasn’t aware of. (Note: Rdio was able to match only about half of my library, but still more than enough for my needs.) Suddenly, I had access to a good chunk of my music — plus much more — on my Mac without having to overburden my hard drive or be connected to my external. Excellent.

Rdio can’t stream directly to Apple TV via Airplay like iTunes can, so that’s where Airfoil comes in. Airfoil is a simple utility that lets you send music from your Mac to a wide variety of devices. It works great.

I don’t know if I’ll move to Rdio full-time in the future. It doesn’t have every song I have in my iTunes, although I’m sure they’re expanding their selection every day.

Right now, I’m happy to pay the $5 a month to have this flexibility in my music workflow. If you keep your music on an external drive, but wish you could access it from your Mac without fiddling with iOS devices, I highly recommend Rdio + Airfoil. Special thanks to Shawn Blanc for bringing this solution to my attention.

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So Long, Lifehacker

Last week, I wrote a thing about too many inputs. One of the concerns was RSS, an area where I sometimes feel I’m just swiping “read” to process to zero as quickly as possible.

The key to RSS is being mindful of your subscriptions and only allowing those that are truly valuable to occupy your feed reader. If you’re finding more irrelevance than value, it’s time to unsubscribe.

The Culprit

One of the feeds I struggle with most is Lifehacker.

I have a love-hate relationship with Lifehacker. The site contains both a lot of great information and a lot of useless information.

Lifehacker is a high volume feed. I’d estimate they post between fifty and a hundred times a day. This frequency makes for a difficult subscribing decision.

I want to be more productive, and I want all those tips and tricks, and I want to astound people with my wealth of brilliant geek knowledge.

But do I need to know that you can use mayonnaise to clean crayon off your walls?

Or that you can use a banana peel to relieve itching from poison ivy and mosquito bites?

Or how to use a jelly pocket for a better drip-free PB&J?

Maybe I’m just biased against food hacks, but I now see where Merlin is coming from. It’s gotten to the point where whenever I see new Lifehacker posts in Reeder, I know I can just swipe, swipe, swipe them as read and knock fifteen or twenty off my unread count.

I’ve struggled to come up with a solution, because a few times a day there actually is something worth reading on Lifehacker. I’ve followed the site via RSS for years, and I’ve been following it on Twitter since I first signed up for an account.

The Lifehacker Twitter tweets every single post, so following in both places is extraneous. It comes down to the lesser of two evils: do I continue to swipe, swipe, swipe in Reeder to maintain a clean Twitter feed, or do I continue to flick past endless Lifehacker tweets to make RSS significantly more manageable?

The Twitter feed allows me to be more selective in which articles I choose to read. If a headline catches my interest, I can bookmark it or send it to Instapaper. Otherwise, I just keep scrolling. Compare this to RSS, wherein every item must be processed one way or another.

Or…

The Solution

I think it’s time for Lifehacker to go the way of Facebook for me. The percentage of relevant posts has gotten much too small, and when it comes to tech news, I prefer to read dedicated sites or real people anyway.

I’ve unsubscribed from Lifehacker on RSS and Twitter. I did, however, add it to my News list on Twitter. I only check my lists every other day or so, which allows me to keep a relaxed eye on the site while freeing myself from its information firehose.

I think Lifehacker is best treated as a database. It contains a wealth of useful information, but most of it isn’t useful either A: to me, or B: right now. Rather, if I ever find myself thinking, “Jeez, I’ve got all this mayonnaise and my walls are covered in crayon”, I’ll go look up a solution on Lifehacker.

Reading Lifehacker on a daily basis is like reading an encyclopedia from cover to cover: nonsensical. It’s more practical and efficient to look up something specific when I need it, instead of wasting my time reading about things that don’t apply to me.

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How to Win a Staring Contest with a Cupcake

Eighteen.

That’s the number of cupcakes that were left over after my niece’s christening party. Chocolate with vanilla creme filling, and red velvet. Each the size of my face. Sitting there, staring. Unblinking. Waiting for me to cave. Damn you, Stew Leonard.

It’s easy to be enthusiastic when a goal or habit is new and exciting. It’s fresh, and you’re fired up about being a better person.

But once that newness wears off — like say, when you’re 23 days into health nut month — it’s hard to maintain the enthusiasm. You’re tired, maybe a little cranky, and you’ve become complacent. You’re used to your goal. It’s no longer at the forefront of your mind, but lodged somewhere in the back. Your energy drifts elsewhere, which makes you vulnerable to slipping up.

Our enthusiasm for positive change fluctuates over time. In the case of diet and exercise, some days, we’re fired up, rarin’ to go, ready to be the healthiest person ever. Other days, the mere scent of a cupcake can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.

It’s easy to make excuses in the face of a cupcake. That sexy pastry’s right there, taunting you. Moist, sweet, delicious. Loaded with sugar. You know it’s bad for you, but the excuses start to form in your mind…

I’ve been healthy all day/week…

I had an awful day, I deserve a cupcake…

It’s not a big deal. It’s just one bite…

When staring down a cupcake, these excuses creep in and take over. They take root in your mind, and suddenly you can’t remember any of your motivation for being healthy. The brain becomes overwhelmed with temptation, and so there’s no room for discipline.

A solution I’ve been experimenting with this month is something I’m calling “The Reasons Why List”.

The Reasons Why List is self-explanatory. It’s a list of reminders about why you’re working toward your goal. For example:

  1. I want to look like Tarzan.
  2. Sugar will kill me.
  3. Bruce Lee definitely wouldn’t eat that.
  4. Gotta look good naked!
  5. I want to live for as long as possible.

And so on. You’d be surprised how many you can come up with. When staring down a cupcake, consult your Reasons Why List.

Eating a cupcake is a pleasurable experience, there’s no doubt about it. But that pleasure is fleeting. The five minutes spent eating a cupcake are wonderful, but they’re soon followed by physical and mental discomfort. An unhappy stomach, and a guilty voice inside your head. Was it worth it? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Documenting all of your reasons why can help you determine whether or not a cupcake is worth the consequences. The Reasons Why List reminds you who you are and who you want to be.

When staring down a cupcake, remember your reasons. Beat back the temptation, and move a little closer toward your goal.

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What Jerry Seinfeld Can Teach You About Productivity

I’m not a huge Seinfeld fan, but there’s a terrific productivity technique that the man himself uses when writing jokes. It’s called “Don’t Break the Chain”. Here’s the story from Brad Isaac:

[Jerry Seinfeld] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

It’s a simple idea, but I find it incredibly practical and motivating, especially if you have a tendency to forget who you are.

Say you have a goal: to write every day, or eat healthy every day, or to exercise every day. No matter how often you think about these goals, as long as they only exist in your head, they will remain abstractions. When a goal is abstract, your brain constantly has to remember what that goal is and remind you to act accordingly.

When you take a goal and get it out of your head and down on paper, it frees your mind from having to think about the goal all the time. A physical manifestation of a goal serves as a reliable, external reminder.

When faced with a batch of cookies fresh from the oven, your brain can conveniently forget that you’re trying not to eat cookies. But, if you remember that eating a cookie would break the chain, you’ll be deterred from losing your focus and motivation.

By seeing how many days in a row you can do something, you can develop extraordinary momentum and drive. It can help you get back on course when you step off the path. I’ve been having some trouble with my diet lately, so I’m going to implement Don’t Break the Chain for a while, as well as for next month’s habit.

Visualizing a goal allows you to keep the process of developing a new habit in perspective. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, “I’m going to eat healthy starting now!” Then a day goes by, and nothing’s really changed, so you say “Screw it!” and eat that cookie.

It’s hard to visualize what life will look like after a month of a new habit. But, it’s easy to visualize what your calendar will look like with thirty days crossed off. Don’t Break the Chain makes your goals tangible, and subsequently, much more attainable. Try it.

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Get Out of Your Natural Habitat

I’m writing this in the local library I used to visit when I was little. I came here to work on my thesis, and I managed to get several hours worth of work done, which wouldn’t have happened if I stayed home.

There is value in getting out of your normal habitat and doing work someplace else. At home, I’m surrounded by comforts and distractions. My bed is looking for an occupant, music wants to be listened to, websites need to be surfed, books want to be flipped through, guitars that want to be played, and so on. With all of those delights around me, how could I possibly choose to work on my thesis? Answer: I can’t.

The library is not my normal habitat. The chair I’m sitting in isn’t very comfortable; it’s not my chair. The cubicle is drab and cold; it’s not my desk. The lamp is harsh and glaring; it’s not my lamp. But, a library is quiet, and I’m surrounded by knowledge.

I always had a hard time doing homework in bed. It’s too comfortable. Too relaxing. Difficult tasks in easy places don’t mix. Desk equals work. Bed equals rest/play. You wouldn’t sleep on your desk, would you? Not on purpose, anyway. Sleeping on a desk doesn’t yield high quality rest anymore than doing work in bed yields high quality work. At least, not for me.

The utilitarian nature of this library cubicle forces me to do the work. I’m not going to surf the Internet here because I can do that in style at home, not to mention I didn’t drive here for nothing.

A new habitat forces you to see things in a different way, and subsequently to think in a different way. You’re probably so used to looking at the same things in your room, you don’t even think when you look at them. But, I’ve never sat in this library cubicle before. I’ve never looked out this window. I’ve never seen this street from this point of view. I’m surrounded by encyclopedias about the Cold War, the eighties, and names. The unfamiliarity of my surroundings puts me in a mindset different from the lazy, easily distracted one I assume every day at home. That mindset energizes me and helps me get things done. What else am I going to do in this ugly little cubicle?

Sometimes, the easiest way to fight distractions is to leave them behind.

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The Scratch Space

I bought a white legal pad from Office Depot the other day, and it’s taken up residence next to my MacBook Pro, along with a black Pilot G-2 0.38mm gel ink pen.

Despite being used to the 0.7mm, I switched to the 0.38 upon Shawn Blanc’s recommendation, thinking the finer point might help my atrocious handwriting. It doesn’t. But I like it, and while I’m not sure if it’s better than the 0.7, I think the finer point gives me slightly better control. The 0.38 has a scratchier feel to it, which is foreign, yet satisfying. Time will tell which prevails.

I bought the legal pad because I’ve been having the urge to write things down while I’m at my computer: to-dos, thoughts, ideas, outlines, etc. I try to use my iPhone and iPad to take notes and capture things because it cuts down on clutter, but sometimes it feels better to scrawl something on paper. So now I have a legal pad here on my right. I like it.

The scratch space has already proven itself to be very practical, particularly since I’ve started using it to plan out my day. I was getting depressed because I started falling into the habit of completely wasting my days off. My Mondays, for example, are twelve-hour affairs, but my Tuesdays are mostly free. Amidst the nonstop Monday action, I always found myself wishing I had time to do this and that. I’d tell myself, “Oh, I can do that tomorrow.” But when tomorrow showed up, I usually had no idea where to start or what to do first, so I ended up getting distracted by something. Suddenly it’s dinnertime, and I’ve gotten nothing accomplished. Not good for morale.

So I started planning out my day the night before, like so. It works. Instead of wondering what I should be doing with myself when I wake up, it’s right there in front of me. The list inspires me to action. At the end of the day, I can see what I accomplished. And it’s damn satisfying to cross things off with my shiny new Pilot G-2 0.38mm.

We’ll see how the scratch space evolves, but I plan on covering every inch of the page with ink before throwing the sheet out. There’s a kind of romanticism to filling a page with your brain’s miscellanea. I can write down anything I want, no matter how trivial or earth-shattering. Getting things out of your head and onto paper is good. It keeps your brain from getting overwhelmed and you from having a breakdown. That’s worth adding a third item to my desk.

What Should You Do If Someone Puts a Gun to Your Head?

Justin Freeman’s very detailed advice on what you should do if someone puts a gun to your head, including robbery, hostage, and kidnapping scenarios:

No two gunpoint situations are alike, and they will all be very dynamic situations. My advice is to remain calm, be as compliant as you can, be aware of your surroundings, and do what you need to in order to survive. But the obvious best case scenario is keeping yourself out of the situation that put you on the business end of a firearm.

Via Ben Brooks

Calendar Consolidation

Devir Kahan offers some tips on consolidating your calendars.

I switched from Google Calendar to iCloud recently, and I’d been meaning to switch to one calendar for all events. While having a different colored calendar for Fun Events, Family Events, School Events, Due Dates, Appointments, etc. is nice to look at, it just adds an extra step to event creation. For me, it also undermined the efficiency of apps like Calvetica and Agenda, which are designed to create events with as few taps as possible.

Devir’s method works flawlessly, only takes a minute, and removes considerable friction in any calendar app.

Via Shawn Blanc

Take Photos, Be Happy.

Mike Tyson reveals a tech secret to making yourself happier: take lots of photos.

As far as the types of pictures you should take? Anything. It doesn’t have to be artistic or taken with any grand purpose. But you should use photography as a way to simply document even the most slightly unique things you see in your world whether they’re visual curiosities, a funny moment, you eating somewhere new, the arrangement of clouds in the sky… anything. And what you’ll find when you start sorting through your photographs, you actually will have an opportunity to recount all of these minor fleeting moments which you may would otherwise have forgotten.

I fully endorse this advice. Any camera will do.

Ever since I got my iPhone 3G a few years ago, I’ve been snapping photos whenever the urge strikes. The quality of the iPhone 4’s camera has turned picture-taking into an easy and enjoyable hobby, and the iPhone 4S’s camera is even better. People often say, “The best device is the one you have with you”, and that’s certainly true for cameras. My iPhone 4 is always in my pocket, so I can capture a quality photo whenever and wherever I want.

But rather than make this another OMG-the-iPhone-is-so-great post, I want to emphasize Mike’s point about documenting your life. That’s exactly the way I treat the camera roll on my iPhone: it’s like one big photo album of my life. I have pictures dating back to right after I graduated college, and I have pictures of the pork and mushrooms I ate for dinner tonight. Calm down; just one. I like food photography.

The point is, I can flick through these photos and remember exactly what I was thinking or feeling when I took them, and that makes me happy. Like Mike says, these are moments I probably would have forgotten. Instead, I’ve documented in pictures the past three years of my life. The 1,814 pictures I have on my iPhone are really 1,814 memories I can revisit whenever I please.

The Atomic Powerpoint

Seth Godin explains the atomic method of creating a Powerpoint presentation:

The typical person speaks 10 or 12 sentences a minute.

The atomic method requires you to create a slide for each sentence. For a five minute talk, that’s 50 slides.

Each slide must have either a single word, a single image or a single idea.

Make all 50 slides. Force yourself to break each concept into the smallest possible atom. If it’s not worthy of a slide, don’t say it.

Really cool, and it eliminates the need for slides full of bullet points. The audience’s attention should be on you, not the slides.

Unplggd: Distraction-Free Desktop

Cerentha Harris has a great idea for creating a distraction-free desktop:

It’s all too easy to get distracted from work on the computer. But there’s a simple technique to help regain focus: create a new User account, one specifically designed for getting work done. That means creating a desktop stripped of extraneous bookmarks, applications, music and movie files, plug-ins, extensions…unless they’re designed for task management or your work related projects. Think of this desktop as your work persona. Creating a dedicated account for work related tasks is like having a work outfit compared to the comfy-cozy sweatpants of leisurely online time.

I keep my desktop pretty distraction-free at all times, but this is an awesome strategy, and one that I would recommend to my non-minimalist friends. Check the full post for step-by-step instructions.

Via Minimal Mac

Relax, Apps.

Dave Caolo’s productivity tip of the day:

Turn off the “new email” notification sound. Nothing says “stop what you’re doing and look” like that damn little beep. It can take 15 minutes to get back on task following an interruption. Multiply 15 minutes by [X] number of beeps and you’ve baked a do-nothing soufflé.

Totally. I have very few notifications enabled on my Mac and mobile devices. Most of the time, being notified is unnecessary because I look at the app on a regular basis anyway. I don’t need an alert when someone mentions me on Twitter because I’ll see it eventually when I decide it’s time to check Twitter. I don’t use unread badges on my RSS reader for the same reason.

When apps demand my attention RIGHT NOW, they disrupt my productivity, which is counter to their intended purpose. By turning off notifications, I’m telling my apps, “Relax. I’ll get to you when I’m good and ready.”

Basic Sartorial Knowledge

I don’t worry too much about fashion, but the guys over at Put This On do a terrific job.

They just posted this list of 25 fashion tips every man should know:

Only wear a tie if you’re also wearing a suit or sportcoat (or, very casually, a sweater). Shirt, tie and no jacket is the wedding uniform of a nine-year-old.

Ahem… got it.

The Great iTunes Purge

Last night, I decided to take a couple of hours and purge my iTunes library.

I started with 16,716 songs. That’s a cumulative 129.23 GB of music, which would take 64 days to listen to from start to finish.

By the time I reached the end of my library, I had whittled it down to 12,170 songs. I deleted almost 40 GBs of music. Now it would only take me 44 days to listen to my entire collection. Decent.

How’d I do it? Songs and artists I don’t like, but had some how acquired (Taylor Swift): gone. Songs I don’t mind, but would never consciously decide to listen to (Aerosmith): gone. I kept artists who I’m interested in, but haven’t gotten around to listening to yet, and I obviously kept all my favorite artists.

So, why the merciless deletion?

For one, I’m working toward being able to get all my music on my iPhone so I can stop carrying around both it and an iPod. Up to this point, the iPhone’s 32 GB hard drive has been too small for me to comfortably fit everything; my music collection was/is too big to selectively comb through every song. My library is still pretty enormous, but with the larger hard drives coming up, an iPhone-only setup is definitely doable in the near future.

Second, I keep all of my music on a 750 GB external hard drive because I like knowing that if my computer crashes, it’s all safe and sound. I don’t miss not having my music on my laptop because I either A) have my iPod with me, or B) have access to the internet and any number of music streaming solutions, Spotify and Grooveshark chief among them. These alternatives allow me to keep my computer lean and fast; I don’t have to take up valuable hard drive space with thousands of songs, many of which I don’t listen to regularly.

I want to start backing up this drive, and the more refined my music collection is, the easier that’ll be. Deleting all of my songs-I’m-never-going-to-listen-to also frees up a considerable amount of space on my external drive, thus prolonging the time when I’ll need to upgrade to something larger. Plus, I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to finally delete Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Additionally, letting go of all those never-played songs feels great. It’s easy to think that the more songs you have in your iTunes, the more sophisticated and eclectic a person you are. But the truth is, no one cares. The feeling of not having to wade through thousands of unplayed songs far outweighs the tiny bit of reassurance you might get from knowing those songs are there if you ever need them, which you probably won’t.

It was time to eliminate all of the musical clutter I’d accumulated over the years, and I recommend purging all types of files every once in a while. It feels awesome, and your computer will thank you.

Wear Sunglasses While Driving In the Rain

I knew I wasn’t making this up. Snopes:

Wearing polarized sunglasses when driving in the rain during the day will help a driver see better. Polarized sunglasses work to block horizontal components of scattered or reflected light, which means they help counteract the scattering of light that atmospheric effects like fog or rain have on daylight.

Via Lifehacker

Sweet Agony

Jonah Lehrer’s “How to Drink Gatorade” over at Wired:

There are two lessons here. The first is that Gatorade is a waste of money. If you really want to improve performance, gargle with something that actually tastes good, since it was the activation of reward areas that allowed the cyclists to exert maximum performance.

The idea is that Gatorade’s sweet flavor distracts the brain and prevents it from focusing on the pain and exertion of intense exercise, thereby yielding better performance. Pretty fascinating.

Maybe I’ll bring a pack of gum along on my next run.

Adding Signatures in Preview with Lion

One of the myriad new features in OS X Lion is the ability to digitally add a signature to a .pdf document using the Preview app.

Preview Signature

The process is very straightforward:

  1. Open the .pdf in Preview.
  2. Click the Annotate button in the toolbar.
  3. Pull down the Signature drop-down menu.
  4. You can then create a signature with your Mac’s built-in iSight camera, or add a signature you’ve used before via the “Manage Signatures…” option.
  5. If you’re creating a new signature, simply hold up a piece of paper with your signature on it so that your autograph is on the blue line. Click Accept when it looks good in the preview window.
  6. Finally, just click where you want the signature to appear. You can then move and resize it however you want.

For me, the hardest part was writing down a good version of my signature. Unfortunately, since Preview doesn’t improve one’s legibility, this took several hours. But, if you’ve already got your signature down, you’ll have your .pdf signed in a minute or two.

Farewell, hellish fax machine.