Let's Talk About Margins

Craig Mod writes about the power and character of well-designed books (bold emphasis mine):

“On the other hand, cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit. Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins.”

"Don’t write email that people can respond to."

NPR Creative Director Liz Danzico, being interviewed by web magazine Technical.ly:

“As far as Inbox Zero, I’ve tried a few things, and even now I use a modified GTD approach where I transfer all to-do-like email content into a to-do app. But basically those all pale in comparison to this simple approach:

Don’t write email that people can respond to.

If you ask questions in an email, people will respond. If you don’t answer their questions, they’ll ask again. If you write charming email, they will want more. Don’t do those things. Write an email that is impossible to respond to. Answer every question. Tie up every loose end. Write a complete and completely un-respondable email.”

I like her style. (h/t Patrick Rhone)

The Future of Iced Coffee

Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, got a behind-the-scenes look at the manufacturing process for Blue Bottle Coffee's New Orleans iced coffee cartons. As an iced coffee fanatic myself, it's fascinating to see how they're trying to tackle the problem of mass-production now that they've mastered the recipe.

One particularly interesting fact in the article: Blue Bottle's sterilization process requires machines that generate six times the amount of atmospheric pressure as one would find at the bottom of the Mariana Trench—you know, the one from that movie—which itself is 1,000 times more intense than what we experience here aboveground.

Talk about hardcore.

Crave

Chase Reeves, writing for The Sparkline:

“I think our buddhist friends would say something to the tune of, “all cravings will eat you up from the inside out.” Maybe they’re right.

But I have cravings.

[...]

I see [Robin Williams] sweating and manic and quick and sharp and brilliant and dynamic and feeding, feeding, feeding on the relationship with the audience… and I see a fable about myself, a hole in the center, a vacuum, always on, sucking, searching, hungry… for this moment, laughter, friends, me in the center of it… not wanting the moment to end.

The things I create come from there. That hole, that insecurity is an engine of creation.”

I love this piece. Sometimes I forget that Chase is just as great a writer as he is a web designer. For more stuff like this be sure to check out his personal blog, Ice to the Brim.

The Clues to a Great Story

Andrew Stanton of Pixar, during a 2012 TED Talk in which he shares some of the storytelling secrets he's learned over the years (timestamps included):

[6:22] “Storytelling without dialogue. It's the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It's the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal. We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.”

[12:19] “And it just went to prove that storytelling has *guidelines*, not hard, fast rules.”

[16:27] “And that's what I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce, is can you invoke wonder. Wonder is honest, it's completely innocent. It can't be artificially evoked. For me, there's no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling -- to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder.”

If there's anyone I trust when it comes to guidelines for good storytelling, it's the director of Finding Nemo and WALL•E—two of my all-time favorite films. Definitely set aside twenty minutes to watch this video.

How to be Polite

Paul Ford:

“Sometimes I’ll get a call or email from someone five years after the last contact and I’ll think, oh right, I hated that person. But they would never have known, of course. Let’s see if I still hate them. Very often I find that I don’t. Or that I hated them for a dumb reason. Or that they were having a bad day.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.”

After this past week, where most of the news stories I've read portray people treating each other horribly in one way or another, I think a little refresher on politeness is exactly what the world needs.

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Robin Williams

“You're only given a little spark of madness. And if you lose that...you're nothing.”
~ Robin Williams

I've often looked down my nose at people who get overly worked up in the wake of a celebrity's death. All too often, we place famous people on pedestals they don't deserve merely because of their fame or fortune.

This one is different.

This morning, Robin Williams was found dead of an apparent suicide. He was 63. An incredibly sad loss.

His death will touch the hearts of many, because he was more than just a comedian or an actor. He was an artist and a master of his craft, never one to hold back or shy away from taking risks. He was an integral part of our cultural fabric, someone who made us laugh and cry and laugh all over again. He used his success to help those in need. He impacted more lives than we can ever know.

The world was a better place for his talents, and it just won't be the same without him.

Rest in peace, Robin.

Relay FM

Brand-spanking-new podcast network/syndicate/collective (take your pick) started by my buddies Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett. Shows they used to do on 5by5 have been renamed and rebooted—The Prompt is now Connected; CMD+Space is now Inquisitive; etc. If you'd like to know more, Myke wrote about the changes here.

I'm looking forward to what Relay FM has in store. Congratulations to Myke and Stephen (and everyone else involved) on the launch!

A Desk of iPad

Ben Brooks shares his thoughts after spending a day working from an iPad:

“When I have my Mac in front of me I am doing a lot of things, but not focusing on a lot of things. With the iPad only I felt that was reversed—I did a bit less, a bit slower, but what I did do was more focused and therefore carefully done. [...] That’s not to say that I won’t benefit from a laptop, or that an iPad is the best tool, but that the iPad did everything exceedingly well. I loved it. Not enough for everyday just yet, but when I know I have a busy day in meetings, I’m now going to leave the laptop behind.”

I enjoy seeing other people try these sorts of experiments. As many of you may know, I don't own a Mac and thus my primary device is an iPad (4th-gen). For me it's not an experiment or something I do for giggles, but a way of life. With that said, my verdict is the same as Ben's.

Just about anything I need to accomplish on a daily basis—writing and publishing articles, editing and uploading images, etc—I can do from an iPad. I never feel hindered, creatively or otherwise, by the iPad's size or OS limitations. In fact the opposite might be true. As the saying goes, constraint breeds creativity. Because it's so light and thin, I take my iPad out of the house far more often than I ever did my clunky old Gateway laptop. And as Ben points out, having only one app on the screen at any given time helps my productivity immensely.

Are there things about my iPad-only workflow that I wish were better? Absolutely, and maybe I'll write about them sometime. But at the end of the day, I feel very satisfied having the iPad as my primary device.

If you don't think it can be done, try it out for a day or two. You might be pleasantly surprised.

My Aeropress Brewing Method

Aeropress — by Casey Klekas

Photo credit: Casey Klekas, because it's a much nicer shot than I can produce in my ugly little kitchen. I do have that same kettle though.

I don't listen to many tech podcasts these days and thus I'm not subscribed to John Chidgey's show, Pragmatic. (Sorry John. It's not you, it's me.) But when the latest episode—in which Marco Arment guest-hosts to wax scientific about coffee—came up in my Twitter feed, I couldn't add it to my Huffduffer queue fast enough.

It's a great listen if you consider yourself a coffee nerd, and quite educational if you're a newbie. I particularly liked hearing Marco discuss why he doesn't fuss over his brewing process anymore. His method is similar to my own, but mine is even simpler in some ways:

  • I add about 1 (U.S.) cup of water to my kettle and bring it up to 195°F.

  • While the water heats up, I scoop some freshly-ground coffee—the most important factor, really—into my inverted Aeropress, up to the "bottom" of the #3 circle (the plunger having been inserted just enough to touch the #4 circle). I don't have a kitchen scale to weigh my coffee, but over time I've found this amount works nicely for me.

  • When the water's ready, I pour just enough to coat the grounds and let them bloom for 45 seconds to let out all that trapped carbon dioxide. Marco derides this very practice on the podcast, and maybe it is just placebo, but I do it anyway.

  • At the :45 mark, I add water to just under the top rim of the Aeropress, stir the slurry mixture around a bit, and let it steep another 45 seconds. At this point I typically run just a little of the hot water through the Aeropress filter/cap, not because I've ever detected any paper flavor in my coffee (I haven't) but because it helps the filter adhere to the cap when the time comes to flip it over.

  • At the 1min 30sec mark, I twist the cap on, flip the Aeropress onto my trusty coffee mug, and plunge. I try to finish before my iPhone timer reaches the 2min mark, and I always stop as soon as I hear any hissing noise coming from the Aeropress. Again, this might be placebo, but I've read that plunging any further will extract the more bitter flavors into the cup.

And that's it!

If this seems like a lot of details to remember, just know that writing it all out like this is severely more complicated than the actual brewing process. It takes me about 7min from start to finish, and most of that is waiting for the kettle to heat up.

The point I want to get across here is that I don't worry much about exact measurements, and I bet you don't need to either. Like any recovering coffee nerd, I've tried experimenting and being fussy and even emulating Aeropress championship recipes, but again, the most important factor by far is using recently-roasted, freshly-ground beans. If you start with good beans and a little practice, it's hard to screw up the end product.

As for the iPhone timer, I don't use any fancy coffee apps. I've tried a lot of them and always come back to the stopwatch bundled with the built-in Clock app. It's simple and it works fine.

David Sparks' New Field Guide: Presentations [iBookstore Link]

MacSparky's 'Presentations' Field Guide

David Sparks (aka MacSparky) recently released his long-awaited new Field Guide, Presentations. Beautifully designed from beginning to end, this ebook shows you how to make your presentations not suck.

With a primary focus on Apple’s Keynote software—and filled with more than 30 screencasts, audio interviews, and other rich media assets—David shows you how to plan an exceptional presentation that will connect with and delight your audience. He stresses the importance of telling a story rather than reading off bullet points out loud, how to make stunning presentation slides, and more.

He also shares some of his hard-earned presentation day tips, such as:

  • Putting together a “presentation toolbox”, a kit with all the adapters and other miscellany a presenter might need at the last minute
  • Advice on posture and stance
  • Presentation delivery techniques

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Presentations on the iBookstore. It's only $10, and your presentations will forever be changed for the better.

"Not Your Average Bread and Butter"

Chef Dan Richer has been dubbed the "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" of bread and butter, and rightfully so. Rather than carelessly serving up some dull and forgettable form of this pre-meal staple at his New Jersey restaurant, he has poured his soul into perfecting the recipe.

His approach to food is rather similar to the editing practices of great writers:

“I'm like the anti-chef. Like, I wanna do less to something, and I wanna put less on the plate. If there's an ingredient I can take off of the plate to make it more simple and more pure so you can actually experience the essence of what it is that we're serving, that's what's special to me.”

Absolutely wonderful video. Set aside eight minutes to watch it and prepare to salivate.

Big Update to Shawn Blanc's eBook, 'Delight is in the Details'

Delight is in the Details — v2

My buddy Shawn Blanc has published a huge update to his ebook about creativity, Delight is in the Details. Everything that made the original version awesome is still there, along with a ton of new content and refinements:

  • The ebook has been upped from 75 pages to 88 thanks to the addition of two new chapters
  • Two new audio interviews (Matt Alexander and Jared Sinclair), bringing the total to 10
  • All of the audiobook and audio interview tracks have been remastered
  • There are now transcripts of all the interviews, in case you’d rather read than listen
  • A new Makers Q&A section
  • References to iOS and OS X have been updated
  • Three short videos about creativity and design, all with high production value. You can watch one of them right now: “The Creative Life”

If you already bought the first edition of Delight is in the Details, you get this update (and all future updates) for free. A Gumroad link to the new files will be emailed to you, so keep an eye out.

As for the rest of you, now is the perfect time to get in on a fantastic book that will spur your creative work and show you why sweating the details is so important.

"Cut to B-Roll of Coffee"

Zachary Carlsen of coffee blog Sprudge is steamed that Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee isn't so much about the coffee anymore:

“Gone are the episodes of destination coffee-bar stops for decent coffee. So far, this season’s episodes have Seinfeld and his guests and cameras shoot in old-timey diners. In episode three with comedian legend Robert Klein, the pair visit the Landmark Diner in Ossining, NY but don’t even drink Landmark’s coffee. As they hem and haw, they drink from their take-out Starbucks cups they got off camera. Outside food and drink? Anything for his Majesty, King Seinfeld.

Maybe he's right, but I'm not as bothered by it. The show is as entertaining as ever and still one of my favorite things on the internet. As long as the conversations are interesting and they keep that coffee b-roll footage coming, I'm happy.

In any case, Zachary's article is a fun read and I get the sense he wrote it mostly in good jest. Mostly.

* * *

In related news, the latest episode is great, and features Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. I particularly enjoyed this moment at the 8:12 mark, as they were walking through a typical-looking suburban neighborhood:

Jerry: How close is this to how you grew up?

John: Pretty close.

Jerry: Really?

John: Yeah.

Jerry: Do you wish your kids were growing up like this?

John: No, that's why I've been working so hard.

And while we're on the subject, here are all of my favorite CICGC episodes, in case you've never watched the show and need a place to start:

"Take a Talk Show and Make It Move"

I really enjoyed watching this hour-long chat between Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. They discuss the inner workings of the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee web series, why it was created in the first place, the importance of good editing, and so much more. Lots of funny moments and interesting insights.

Neil Gaiman's 2012 Commencement Speech [Video]

This link was originally published before the launch of The Spark Journal. I will be republishing (and lightly editing, in some cases) a handful of such things in the coming days, mainly because I feel they're worth seeing twice. My apologies if this annoys anyone.


Somehow I completely missed out on watching this speech until recently. It seems like the kind of thing I should have come across sooner, since my internet friends presumably would have been linking it left and right at the time. But I guess better late than never right?

Here are a few of my favorite highlights, with accompanying time markers:

[1:51] - “First of all, when you start out on a career in the arts, you have no idea what you're doing. This is great. People who know what they're doing know the rules, and they know what is possible, and what is impossible. You do not, and you should not.”


[2:10] “The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don't know it's impossible, it's easier to do. And because nobody's done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.”


[19:29] “And now, go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.”

Introducing: the Spark Journal

So, I have an announcement to make. Nothing world-shattering, but worth mentioning all the same (and those of you who visited the site over the weekend already know about it anyway).

Henceforth, this site will no longer be known as Unretrofied. Instead, I welcome you to The Spark Journal.

Let's go ahead and get the admin stuff out of the way:

  • The new domain is sparkjournal.net. Please update your bookmarks accordingly.

    (Theoretically, if you visit any old unretrofied.com links (or, say, you still have the old URL bookmarked), you should still be directed to the proper destination. At least, it's worked with all the links I've tried so far.)

  • There's also a new RSS feed. Again, subscribers to the old Unretrofed feed shouldn't have to do anything because I've switched the feed URL on my end. If you do run into any issues, try unsubscribing from the old one and resubscribing to the new one. I apologize for any inconvience.
  • New Twitter account: @thesparkjournal
  • New App.net account: @sparkjournal (for those of you still clinging to the dream, maaaaaan)
  • New contact email: chris@sparkjournal.net
  • I've created a weekly email newsletter containing all of that week's posts. If that sounds like your thing, you can find the subscribe form on the About page. Goes out every Saturday morning.
  • The site has a new look! If you're reading this in RSS, click through and check it out. I tweaked a lot of CSS this past week and finally settled on something I'm happy with.

    The most obvious changes involve updated typography, a new overall color scheme, and a slightly nicer layout (I finally figured out why the entire blog index was shifted slightly to the left rather than centered, despite having margin: auto !important; configured in CSS: I was missing one teensy little Squarespace-made selector that controls the so-called "blog list").

  • Along with the new name, The Spark Journal will exist within a different "blog" on my same Squarespace account (i.e. sparkjournal.net/journal). It will look as though the old Unretrofied content has disappeared, but you can still find it at sparkjournal.net/blog and sparkjournal.net/archive-old.

Feel free to skip the rest of this post if you don't want to read a long-winded story about the change. Enjoy the new digs! —Ed.

* * *

So why the sudden name change? Well actually, this decision has been a long time coming. I remember emailing Shawn Blanc a year ago to ask what he thought about my idea to burn Unretrofied to the ground and starting something new. I couldn't quite articulate why I wanted this, I just knew it was time for a change.

He gave me lots of good advice, particularly this:

“It's the content that matters, not where it lives.”

And he's right, a new domain and CMS won't make me a better or more dedicated writer. If I wanted to change the editorial direction of the site on a whim, I totally could. Wouldn't be the first time.

Even so, I haven't really identified with the Unretrofied "brand" (blegh) for a long time. The site started as a very Apple-centric blog, and I honestly don't care much about that sort of thing anymore. And despite my own feelings on the matter, many readers still see me as a purely tech-oriented writer. If you want proof, look at the names of the Twitter lists I'm a part of.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy (and will continue to write about) nerdy things like apps and using an iPad as one's primary device. Even as I write this, the big review I've been writing about Day One is calling my name from my drafts folder. It's just that my interests have expanded beyond the tech world and it's about time the site's name reflected that.

What I care about are the people who make things, and I care about helping people who struggle to make their thing. I want to write in a way that inspires others to do awesome stuff rather than drifting through a dreary rat-race life. I want to tell better stories. I want to try new things. As Chase Reeves might put it, I want to do things that are matterful.

This brings us to where the "spark" in Spark Journal comes from. Many months ago, I started keeping a list of my favorite words in Drafts, thinking I could maybe turn one or two of them into a new site title. Lots of good combinations came from this list, but "spark" was always the one that stuck in my mind most.

When people speak of inspiration or creativity or genius or adventure or love, they often refer to the spark of that thing. It was the best possible word I could think of to describe where I wanted this site to go.

The journal part of the name is merely a natural extension of my love of journaling and my rekindled interest in handwriting and notebooks and such. Plus I just like the word :)

I'll stop rambling now, and I hope you'll join me on this new journey. I have lots of ideas and things I want to do here, and couldn't be more excited about what's to come.

“A computer will make something perfectly square, perfectly spherical, and that’s just ugly and boring. All of your time is spent kind of messing it up, which is the opposite of most people’s jobs…the real world is a big old mess and most people’s time is spent tidying it up.”

Suzanne Slatcher, former technical director at Pixar