Books, Computers, Design & Usability, eBooks, iPad, Reading, Technology 3 Comments


So as pretty much everyone in the world knows, Apple announced the iPad yesterday. Unlike apparently everyone else, I actually don’t have a problem with the name. Legal pad, note pad, hockey pad, bachelor pad, launch pad…etc. etc. etc. Come on.

Anyhoo…while I’m crazily excited about the iPad (and I will be ordering one the second Apple lets me send them money), I don’t think it will be a Kindle killer for me. It could be for a lot of people, but the way I use my Kindle doesn’t really lend itself to immediate replacement by the iPad. It’s too big, for one, and too heavy. And the Kindle’s buttons are ideal — I often read my Kindle lying on my side (on the sofa or in bed) and the buttons are great. The iPad’s swipe-to-turn-the-page thing is just not going to work for that. As others have said, the LCD screen is a double-edged sword…while I desperately wish e-ink were more contrasty, I’m not sure I could spend more time staring at an LCD screen than I already do. I’m on my laptop or iMac 10-14 hours a day as it is — I use books and my Kindle as a way to rest my eyes, and the iPad won’t work for that either.

I also like that the Kindle is a single-purpose device. Like John, I’m able to read longer and more complex works on my Kindle than on my laptop, with a much better ability to focus. Reading on my laptop, I fall into the trap of responding to IM pings or just flipping over to check a quick email or jot down a note or quickly glance at my Twitterstream, at which point I get lost in the other distractions. The Kindle, on the other hand, is just for reading, a step away from the hurly burly of the internets and all the shenanigans therein. The iPad seems like it will split the difference — other apps will be available, but without background applications there won’t be IM pings and whatnot. I’m not sure what that will turn out to be like in practice.

We will see. I am going to get an iPad, and I am going to try reading some books on it. I’m very much hoping that Apple continues to allow Amazon to have their Kindle app on the iPhone and iPad because at that point they’ll have to compete on the price of content, and less expensive ebooks are something I’m Very Interested In. Once I’ve had a chance to do an actual comparison of both as an eReader device, I’ll post a review.

Honestly, this is all jetpacks and flying cars, anyhow. I like living in the future.

Firefox 3.6: Spacer trick for prettier Personas

Browsers, Firefox, Work 1 Comment

So you’ve upgraded to Firefox 3.6 and are completely enthralled by the pretty themes available through GetPersonas.com. If you’re like me, you’re going slightly crazy because there just doesn’t seem to be enough space to really show the Personas properly.

Luckily Rob taught me a trick to open up some space in my Firefox toolbar. Just right-click in the space beside your search bar, select Customize…, then add some “Spacers” where you want some extra space. Here’s a step by step guide, using the Two Little Birds persona:

1. Sad birdies, search bar in the way.


2. Right click beside the search bar and select Customize…


3. Open up the Customize menu…


4. Add some spacers, and remove some buttons to free up space…


5. Ta dah! No more sad birdies.


How to make a tasty stirfry

Cooking, Food, Recipes No Comments

I’ve developed a basic stirfry prototype that we use regularly and have tweaked over time. It includes all four of the “hot, sour, salty, sweet” flavour bases, is super simple, and never fails to produce a tasty result.

It’s a “prototype” because you can use this recipe and include whatever combination of vegetables, meat, and carb you like, but the foundation stays the same. Here it is.


  • Static
  • 1-2 tbsp peanut (or other) oil for frying
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1″ or so of fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 tsp (or more) of hot red pepper flakes
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce (the regular stuff, lower sodium is better)
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp mirin (japanese sweetened sake)
  • Variables
  • 6-8 oz meat (enough for 2 people, trimmed and thinly sliced)
  • 4-6 c sliced/chopped vegetables
  • Some sort of rice or noodles, cooked

1. Combine soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin in a small bowl and reserve.

2. Pour oil into a wok or big saute pan and heat to medium-high. Toss in garlic, ginger, and hot pepper flakes and fry for 2-3 minutes.

3. Add meat to the pan and cook through, stirring frequently.

4. Once the meat is just about done, add the vegetables. If you’re using more than one type of vegetable, add them separately and in order of how long they will take to cook. Broccoli will take a minute or so more than spinach, and so forth.

5. When the vegetables are basically done (it won’t take long), pour in the soy/vinegar/mirin mixture and fry for another minute, stirring well. If you have noodles, you can dump those in now as well so they heat through and absorb some of the sauce.

6. You probably don’t want all the sauce in your bowls, so lift the food out of the wok with tongs or a slotted spoon rather than pouring it out. If you didn’t use noodles, serve over rice. And that’s it.

Flavour Combinator
Pick two or three ingredients from cols I + II, and serve with a carb from col III.

Beef Napa cabbage Ramen noodles
Chicken Bok choy Udon noodles
Pork Shiitake/Oyster mushrooms Soba noodles
Tofu Spinach Rice noodles
Shrimp Broccoli/Rapini White rice
Scallops Snow peas Brown rice
Turkey Green onions Sticky rice

Planet Mozilla: Channels

Mozilla, Mozilla community, Planet Mozilla, Work 16 Comments

Matt Gertner posted some of his Thoughts about Planet Mozilla earlier today, and I agree completely that auto-filtered and individually-subscribable Planet topic channels would be awesome.

This is something the Planet team was discussing prior to the holidays, but we hadn’t picked it up again until prompted by Matt’s post. It turns out that we should be able to rig the existing Planet software to do more or less what Matt suggests, we’re just not currently sure how well the software will deal with a large number of channels.

I figure we may as well start by defining the ideal and work backwards from it if we run into technical limitations. I’ve expanded upon Matt’s proposed category list, and started defining a set of keywords and keyphrases that the Planet software would use to filter posts into each category.

I’ve posted that list on the Mozilla wiki, and would like your feedback and help. What categories are missing? Which could be safely consolidated? What other keywords should we filter on for each? Etc. You can edit that page directly if you like, or leave a comment on this post. Thanks!

On Personal Improvement

Focus, Goals, Habits, Motivation, Productivity 1 Comment

I’ve been working to improve myself in a bunch of ways over the past months, and the turning of the year always brings these sorts of things more sharply into focus. It also coincides with holidays where I have a few days off to sit and think about things without the ongoing distractions of day-to-day work and such.

During my week off I put together a list of what I want to accomplish in 2010. The quick (and incomplete because some are just for me) list:

  • Improve focus and execution: This is a purely work-related goal. I am far too easily distracted and thrown off track by things like IRC, Twitter, Facebook, the infinity of web feeds, etc. I need to really work on blocking stuff out, cutting things down, and improving my ability to focus. When I do — when I can hit that state of “flow” — I have a lot more fun and I get a lot more done. I would like to be able to get into that state on demand. Every day.
  • Lose another 12 lbs: I’ve lost around 15 lbs since last spring, but I’ve a ways to go to get back to where I want to be.
  • Read more: I love reading, but I don’t make enough time for it. I want to do so.
  • Write more: I love writing, but again I don’t make enough time for it. I want to do so.
  • Let crap bother me less: I tend to get annoyed more easily by things than I’m really happy with, and I sometimes have a problem letting things go. I want to fix that.

There’s some other stuff, but this is the core of it. Five goals, relatively straightforward, but each with its own challenges.

The tricky part is that these goals aren’t like “projects”. They will never be complete in any sense because they’re all ongoing, “from now ’til forever” sorts of things. I can’t just break these down GTD-style into a set of actions, then run down the list checking each off. All of these can only be accomplished by being very deliberate, conscientious, and focused on changing my personal habits over time.

So, what habits do I need to cultivate to achieve these goals? Here’s the current plan.

Improve focus and execution

  • Cut down the noise: Close all unnecessary apps and Firefox tabs while I’m working. Minimize IRC and IM sessions (I need to be available for pings, but only for direct pings).
  • Go full GTD: The old catch-as-catch-can system I’ve been using doesn’t scale. I need to adopt a (more or less) full GTD system for tracking projects and tasks. I need to assign and stick to real due dates for everything. If it doesn’t have a due date, it often just slides indefinitely.
  • Take advantage of available tools: For example, I should use an app that has a “distraction free” mode for all writing.

Lose another 12 lbs

  • Eat and cook (even more) sensibly: I’ve been working on this for quite a while, but there are things I can do to get a bigger bang for our caloric buck. Luckily I love food and cooking, so this shouldn’t be that difficult.
  • Work out regularly: I’ve been working out semi-regularly since last March, but I have to step up my game. “Regularly” is intended to become “daily” in time.
  • Keep a food and exercise diary: Tracking calories and nutrition is the only real way to understand how things are going and where things need work.

Read more and Write more
These are largely a matter of making the time and using it. This time could come from getting up earlier, staying up later, or eliminating/reducing other activities to free up time during the saner parts of the day. Right now, for example, I’ve eliminated all distractions and am simply writing. Blog posts count.

Let crap bother me less
This one’s a bit fuzzier and probably the most difficult of the bunch. Current strategies:

  • Meditate every day: It’s good for your head to just sit sometimes.
  • Better sleep: Better, more consistent sleep. I suffer from insomnia fairly often and this never helps my brain.
  • Step back: If something bothers me I have a strong impulse to react to it immediately, which is never the right thing to do. The idea here is pretty simple — if something bothers me for whatever reason, I need to use that as a trigger to step back and away from it for a few minutes or an hour or a day until I’m able to think about and react to it calmly and reasonably. I’ve been getting better at this over the past few years, but I’m hoping being deliberate about it will reinforce the habit.

I’ve started experimenting with a number of apps to help me with these things — I am a giant nerd, after all, and given that I’m in front of my computer most of the time (and within arm’s reach of my iPhone all of the time), I figured I’d take advantage of the tools at hand. Here are some of the applications I’m trying right now.


Scrivener is a bloody fantastic writing tool that, in addition to its already huge array of really useful features, has a beautiful full-screen distraction free mode. I really cannot say enough good about this app. Drawback: it’s Mac only. It’s also not free, but I’m OK with that, because it’s worth every penny. If you write — particularly if you write complex docs or have a number of different writing projects on the go at once — I strongly recommend you give the 30 day free trial a try.


OmniFocus comes in two parts — the desktop app and the iPhone app. It is not cheap, and you will spend a total of $100 for both. It took me a long time (and three tries) to really warm up to OmniFocus, but now that I’m juggling 20-odd projects and a dozen “due now” items every day, I have fallen completely in love with it. OmniFocus isn’t super intuitive, however, as it is designed to work specifically with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. If you haven’t, you should read the book and use the demo version of OmniFocus for a while before committing to buying the application, particularly at these prices.

The iPhone app does what you would expect it to do, which is provide a full-featured version of the app in iPhone format that syncs with the desktop app. My only quibble is that it seems to take an awfully long time to sync sometimes.

Lose It!

Lose It! is one of those free iPhone apps for which I would pay good money if they asked. It’s simple, easy to use, flexible, and goal oriented in a way that makes me happy.

The premise is simple: You set a weight loss goal, the app calculates (roughly) the number of calories you need per day in order to achieve your goal. I set my goal (lose 12 lbs) at a challenging-but-doable rate of one pound per week, which gives me a target of around 1600 net calories per day.

Once that’s set, all I have to do is log whatever I eat and any exercise I do. Lose It! gives me a running daily total, a running weekly total, and pretty bar charts to show me where I stand. It has some other features — nutritional info, friends (via the Lose It! website), a public humiliation option, etc), but the goal setting and exercise/food diary is the core and all you need to use.

I’ve been using Lose It! for about two weeks and it’s great. I’ve lost 2 lbs, have become very much more aware of what I eat and how exercise lets me eat more (I really like food). I highly recommend this app if you’re watching your weight.

Touch Goal

If you want to develop new habits and/or break old habits, a habit tracker like Touch Goal is a really great way to increase your personal awareness of what you do or don’t do in a day.

I’ve set up Touch Goals to track whether I:

  • Eat breakfast in the morning (rather than at noon like I tend to)
  • Do cardio exercise
  • Do strength training
  • Eat fewer than 1700 calories
  • Drink four (or more) glasses of water
  • Read for an hour or more
  • Write for an hour or more
  • Avoid snacking after 8pm

With the exception of strength training, these are things I want to do every day (strength training has a target of 4x/wk). When I do one of these things in a day, I add it to Touch Goals, and I can see pretty quickly how I’m progressing. This is another straightforward app that helps simply by making me more mindful of what I do or don’t do over the course of the day.

Ben’s Virtues

This is a mostly-for-fun app. As the story goes, Ben Franklin created this system for cultivating personal virtues whilst on an 80 day ocean voyage. He drew up a chart that lists thirteen virtues he wanted to develop, and put the days of the week across the top. Each week he would focus on a different virtue and make a mark on the chart if he failed in that virtue on a given day. With thirteen virtues, this cycle would repeat four times each year.

Naturally someone has created an iPhone app version of this chart, and I’ve been using it just for fun. The thirteen virtues are all (well, mostly) completely valid and worth cultivating, so why not?


Pzizz is an odd little iPhone app that is supposed to help you sleep. I often have a terrible time getting to sleep, or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep. I’m experimenting with Pzizz to see if it helps. So far nothing conclusive.


Meditate is sort of a Pzizz for meditation rather than for sleep. I haven’t used it much yet, so really haven’t got much to say about it. I should probably go put “meditate” on my Touch Goals list.

And there you have it. Goals, habits, and apps to help me get there. Maybe I’ll post an update in a few months to let (all three of) you know how things are progressing.

Bonus screenshots!
Since you made it all the way to the end, here are some pictures…

my iPhone

Ben’s Virtues

Lose It! daily overview

Lose It! weekly overview (oh Thursday…what the hell)

Touch Goal

Soba noodle salad with edamame and tofu

Cooking, Food, Meatless, Recipes, Vegetarian 2 Comments

Mark Bittman did something like this in his Minimalist article a while back, but his version was a little weird and involved entirely too much lime juice. I modified it for a second attempt and it was pretty tasty.


  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1.5 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1.5 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 4 oz soba noodles (uncooked)
  • 1 c edamame (out of pods)
  • 1-2 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1/2 package of firm tofu, cubed
  • 1/2 c green onions, sliced
  • 1/2 c baby carrots, sliced
  • 2 tsp white or black sesame seeds

1. Whisk together oils, vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, and ginger. This is really just a basic vinaigrette with soy and ginger. I just dump it all into a mason jar and shake like hell. Taste and adjust as necessary.1

2. Cook soba noodles until they’re at the texture you want. When done, rinse under cold water to stop them cooking any more.

3. Cook the edamame — I just cook it in boiling water (from frozen) for 2-3 minutes. Rinse under cold water until cool.

4. Put peanut oil into a shallow pan and heat. Dump in the tofu and fry ’til a bit crispy (this part is optional…you don’t have to fry the tofu, but it adds to the texture). Let cool.

5. Divide noodles into two big ol’ bowls, top each with edamame, tofu, green onions, and carrots. Pour 2-3 tbsp of the vinaigrette over each and a tsp of sesame seeds.


1 = I don’t actually remember the precise ratios for the vinaigrette, so this might not be quite right. Feel free to modify to taste.

Garam Masala

Cooking, Food, Recipes No Comments

A friend sent along a recipe for Garam Masala and I’m posting it here so I don’t lose it.

  • 1 tbsp cardamom seeds
  • 1 2″ long cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp black cumin (shahjeera)
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp dried coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp mace powder (javantari)
  • 1 piece star anise
  • 1 long bay leaf

Roast all the above spices lightly on low-flame for about 2 mins. Now powder them in a clean, dry spice grinder until smooth. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Chickpea & spinach curry

Cooking, Food, Meatless, Recipes, Vegetarian 1 Comment

Modified a recipe for chana masala and came up with this. It’s really yummy and very easy. Almost no prep work, about 15 mins to get started, and 20-30 mins to simmer.


  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 yellow onions, chopped
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp curry powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 4-5 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tins chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tin diced tomatoes, including juice
  • 5oz or so baby spinach

1. Heat oil over medium in a 4qt pot. Saute onions and garlic for a 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently.

2. Add spices and stir well. It’ll be weird and a little lumpy, but don’t worry about that. Cook for a few more minutes.

3. Add lemon juice, stir well, then add the chickpeas and tomatoes. Bring to a low simmer, and cook uncovered for 20-30 mins. Remove from heat, and stir in the baby spinach until it wilts. Serve with brown rice or a tasty grain medley.

Novel: The City & The City, by China Mieville

Books, Reading 2 Comments

citycity Was reading Stephenson’s Quicksilver but got bogged down about 25% in and switched over to Mieville’s The City & The City instead. Fantastic sci-fi detective story that I can’t really give any plot points about without spoiling something, so I’ll just leave it at that. I blew through it in two days — delightfully twisty plot, good (not great, but good) characterization, and enough sci-fi weirdness to keep it all very interesting. Highly recommended if you like sci-fi or detective stories. Doubly so if you enjoy both.

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