Tag: gadgets

My Favorite Tools, Apps and Services of 2021

With the end of the year just about 10 days away, I thought a roundup of my favorite apps, tools, and gadgets of 2021 was in order. I’ve done these roundups before (see, for example 2013 and 2014) and it can be fun to look back at the old ones and see how the state of the art has changed. Here, then, are some of my favorite tools, apps, and gadgets of 2021.


Field Notes notebooks

Since 2015, I am rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my pocket. On those rare occasions when I forget it, I feel the way I do when I realize I’ve misplaced my keys or wallet. I’ve subscribed to Field Note’s annual notebook subscription for 7 years now, I think, recently renewing through 2022. These notebooks serve as short-term memory for me, so it varies how long it takes me to fill them. Sometimes, I fill one quickly, other times, slowly. Since 2015, I’ve filled 32-1/2 of these little notebooks, and in 2021, I filled 4 of them. When finished, these notebooks of mine are battered and ink-stained: a testimony to how well-used they are. To protect them, I recently acquired a home for my completed notebooks.

Along with the notebook, which can usually be found in my left rear pocket, are two pens, one blue and one black Pilot G-2 0.7 gel ink pens. I’ve lost count of how many of these I go through each year, but I use them until they run dry, and I now by them in bulk (12-packs) so that I never run out.

Fountain pen

Speaking of pens, for my birthday this year I got myself a Pilot Custom 74 (black smoke in color) fountain pen with a fine gold nib. Most of my journal writing is done using that pen. For a while I switched to writing my journal in cursive, loving the smooth feel of that pen on the paper. As much as I loved the smooth feel, I found that it was difficult for me to read what I had written, and I was certain that no one else would be able to read it either. I’ve always thought that my journals might be of interest to my kids when they are older and have kids of their own. So I eventually decided to switch back to printing for clarity, but still use the fountain pen.

Post-It flags

About halfway through the year, I began using Post-It flags to mark passages in books I had highlighted or annotated, to make it easier to find those passages later when I want to collect my reading notes. I bought several packs of these Post-It flags to stay ahead of the curve. They’ve proven to be very useful.

Mac Mini

At the beginning of the year, I bought myself a new Mac Mini with the M1 chip. It had been years since I had a desktop computer. The MacBook Air, which I bought in 2014 is still working, but very slow in comparison and so I thought the Mac Mini was a good balance between price and performance. For nearly a year, I’ve used it daily. I love how fast everything is on it. I’ve written the bulk of the 440+ posts for the blog this year on the Mac Mini. Software like Photoshop is lightning fast. Compared to my old MacBook Air, this machine is wonderful.



I first subscribed to Audible’s service in 2013, after being dubious about audio books. I haven’t looked back since. Audio books are still my primary source for reading material. I subscribe to the Audible Premium Plus service, so I get 2 credits per month in addition to other features. Frequently I will buy the audio book and either paper or e-book so that I can follow along and take notes. But I still love the fact that I can listen to a book anywhere, filling even the most dreary moments (washing the car, emptying the dishwasher) with interesting reads. In the 9 years (inclusive) that I’ve subscribed to Audible, I’ve managed to acquire 1,150 audio books. 182 of these titles I added in 2021.

I am currently listening to Life Itself by Roger Ebert, which is one of the very first audio books I bought back in 2013, but hadn’t listened to until now. So far, it is fantastic.

Calm App

Back in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic was still a big unknown, I began using the Calm App for daily meditation. I did it off and on. In 2021, I got more disciplined about it, and while I haven’t meditated every day of 2021, I’ve done it far more days than I haven’t. At one point, I had a 143 consecutive day streak going.

I’m not sure how much meditation helps me, but I enjoy it. I find it useful to have at least 10 minutes each day where I set everything else aside, when there are no distractions, and I sit down and do nothing. I do think it has helped in some areas, and that is why I keep doing it. When I began using the app, I subscribed the their annual service. But I’ve enjoyed it so much that when they had a 60% off sale for lifetime access around Black Friday, I took them up on it, and I now have a lifetime membership.

Usually, I listen to Jeff Warren’s “Daily Trip” each morning. Recently, I saw that Ryan Holiday has a new series on Calm called “Stoic Wisdom for Modern Life.” I’m saving that for when I am on vacation.


Halfway through 2021, I migrated my self-managed WordPress site to WordPress.com. Everything that bothered me about the self-managed site instantly went away and my experience got better. I didn’t want to spend time “managing” my site anymore. I wanted to spend that time writing. And that’s exactly what happened. As I recently wrote, I’ve been incredibly happy with WordPress’s tools and services.

When I migrated my to WordPress.com, I selected their Business Plan, which has everything I need. The fact that I have been able to spend more time writing is there in data: From January through June, I wrote about 100,000 words on the blog, while managing my self-installed WordPress site. From July through most of December, after migrating to WordPress.com, I’ve written just about 200,000 words on the blog. I’ve been able to write twice as much because I no longer have to deal with the slowness of the servers my self-managed installation was on, nor do I need to do all of the stuff to keep the site up and running. The good folks at WordPress do that all for me and I can reclaim that time to writing.


Finally, Obsidian. I discovered Obsidian in the first week of January 2021, while searching for alternatives to Evernote. Obsidian was just what I had been looking for. Since then, I have started to migrate notes from Evernote to Obsidian. I collect all of my reading notes there. And I’ve published the first 11 episodes of my Practically Paperless with Obsidian series. I use Obsidian for all of my work notes as well. It has become the tool that I live in for much of the day, whether at home, at work, or on my mobile device. I’m looking forward to all of the new features that will be coming in 2021.

Looking forward to 2022

In addition to looking forward to new Obsidian features, I am also looking forward to playing around more with iA Writer. Distraction-free writing tools tend to be distractions themselves, given how many there are and my compulsion to try them, but I recently revisited iA Writer nearly 10 years after I first played around with it, and I think it might work for me.

Another tool that I’ve been revisiting is the Reminder app that comes with MacOS and iOS. I used it to help collect all of the tasks I needed to do for our upcoming vacation and it worked pretty well for that, so I think I’ll continue to play around with it in the new years.

Do have any apps or services you’d recommend? Let me hear about them in the comments.

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Call me a hypocrite!

Well, there’s no point in beating around the bush so I’ll just come out and say it:

I am the proud owner of a new iPhone.

I feel rather like a hypocrite. I have said on many occasions to numerous people that as cool as I thought the iPhone was, I just never wanted to be that connected. The truth is circumstance and practicality conspired against me. Let me explain:

Three things made this a practical decision. First, I’ve been wanting a new phone for a while. My RAZR, while nice, is getting scratched up, bumped up, and let’s be honest, old technology. I’ve looked around at various phones, but held back. Second, I’ve been wanting a PDA. Recently, I’ve been looking at PalmPilot’s, Blackberries and various tools that I could use for managing contacts, calendars and lists on the go. Third, as I mentioned, I’m re-reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done with the idea in mind that I’m really going to give his methods a try this time. They worked pretty well for me the first time around, but I didn’t implement the whole system. Now I’m giving that a shot. Part of the system is a mechanism for keeping your calendar and “action lists” available with you. Thus the PDA.

Well, carrying 3 different devices is ridiculous. I don’t want to lug around an iPod and a cell phone, and a PDA. That’s crazy. Also, at home at least, I completely converted to the Mac back in 2004, so I needed something that would work with Macs. The answer was the iPhone. For the price I would have paid for a new PDA and a new cell phone, I got the 8 GB iPhone. It took 8 minutes to activate and I’ve already made a call with it. It is connected to my wireless network. I’ve downloaded some music and videos to it. I’ve already tried reading email on it and it works like a charm. And, its integration with AT&T’s EDGE network is included in the monthly fee, so even when I’m not on WI-FI, I can still read email and browse the web.

In fact, I’ve done about everything with it I can thus far, except post to this blog. But believe me, before the week is out I’m sure I will have done that too.

So call me a hypocrite. I deserve it. But I have my new little toy and I’m happy with it.

Video Age

Just about my entire team works in Santa Monica. Two of the team members work in Pittsburgh and I am the only one here in Washington. That means most of my meetings are audio-conferences. I rarely see faces. While we have video conferencing rooms, we never use them.

Today, however, I installed a Logitech QuickCamTM “Ultra Vision” camera on my work machine to use with our Adobe Connect meeting software. I just finished doing a test and it was pretty cool. I was able to see people that I was meeting with. The camera and throughput is not as good as what I get on my iSight camera on my macintosh at home, but I can’t complain. It will be nice to see faces in meetings.

Of course, this means that I have to look focused; I can’t be multitasking as much if I am on video. On the other hand, there are cool “face template” that come with the camera, so that I can make it look as though I am wearing a sea captain hat, and smoking a cigar, which has to make the people on the other end laugh, at least a little.

A picture’s worth $400

Norm was making fun of my digital camera nearly two weeks ago when we gathered for the Rainbow Room dinner. My digital camera is a Canon Powershot A-somethingorother and it is circa 2001. It is a 2.1 megapixel camera and it weighs about 9-1/2 pounds, so it’s no wonder that he was making fun of me. (He also made fun of the fact that I didn’t know what “macro” mode was.)

As it turns out, I have been thinking of upgrading my camera for some time. With the trip to Europe coming up this summer, I want one of those slim camera that could slip into my pocket, but with all of the “modern” bells and whistles.

Well, this afternoon I went out and got one.

I bought a Canon PowerShot SD100 Elph which is a slim, tiny digital camera with lots of bells and whistles. (Although I already noticed that the software on the camera has not been updated to correct for daylight saving time.) I also picked up a 1 GB high-speed memory chip, and a case and spare battery for it. All told, it cost me about $400.

Once I got back to my office, I set it up and played around with it a bit. Here is a picture I took (at it’s full resolution of something like 3000×2000-some-odd pixels), but dumbed down to be web-friendly:

(Notice the partial ER-diagram that can be seen on one of my white boards in the background?) This marks the first official picture I’ve taken with the camera. With a 1 GB memory stick, even at maximum resolution, I can store more than 500 pictures. I doubt I’d take more than 500 pictures in one day so that’s plenty for me.

I’m taking the camera with me to Orlando tomorrow to test it out. Because it’s so slim and small, I’m hoping it means that I will take more pictures than I usually do. We’ll see…

Manual vs. electric

I’ve been incredibly busy today, both writing code and giving presentations. But I have a few minutes before I head off to the gym and I’ve been itching to write about something I was thinking about in the shower last night. Are you manual or electric?

In thinking about manual things in our life and their electronic replacements, here are some of the things I considered, with my preference listed in bold:

Manual razor vs. electric razor
Manual pencil sharpener vs. electric pencil sharpener
Manual typewriter vs. electric typewriter
Manual stapler vs. electric stapler
Manual can opener vs. electric can opener

In one place I differ:

Electric toothbrush vs. manual toothbrush

And in a related way (mechanical vs. electronic):

Analog vs. digital clocks

I can’t remember what it was that got me thinking about this in the shower, but having thought it through, I seem to prefer manual devices over their electronic counterparts. Now if I only knew why…

My first cell phone

Nine years ago today, on September 15, 1997, I ordered my first cell phone. I ordered it through AirTouch (which I don’t think exists any longer). I ordered their “Cal 30” plan, which cost $20/month for the first 3 months and $30/month thereafter. We could make free phone calls to our home phone number and had 30 minutes of calling time per month included.

Compare that to my current cellphone (a Razr) for which I pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $70/month, but for which I get 2000 minutes/month, unlimited nights/weekends, and unlimited calls to other T-Mobile customers. All this, in 9 short years!

The picture above are the pages from my diary from 9 years ago. The specific entry about the cellphone is on the right-hand page, about halfway down. This was before I switched to the red “At-A-Glance” standard diaries in 2000.

Flat abs, flat panel

I mentioned in an earlier post that while shopping with jen_ashlock and Jason for a flat panel TV, I was overcome with the sudden urge to buy one myself. Well, Jen and Jason got theirs and now I have to get mine. I was looking at 32″ flat panel models, which were about as big as I need, plus they were all I was willing to fish out money for. (Sale prices ranged from $1,100 – $1,500 depending on the brand and the model.)

Now, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I thought I needed a personal trainer to get myself into shape. Ten weeks of personal training would probably run me somewhere between $1,100 – $1,500 depending on the frequency and experience of the trainer.

It is, therefore, easy to see that the cost of the TV and the cost of the trainer are about the same. It would be silly for me to do both right now. Logic dictates that buying a new TV would be the worst decision to make, seeing as how it would only mean I would sit around even more than I do now, in order to watch Yankee games in High Definition. I would, in fact, move further into the out-of-shape darkness.

I think I have a solution, however.

I am going to move forward with the personal trainer. I plan to use the trainer for 10 weeks, in order to see results and also to build up the habits and knowledge I need to continue on my own. If, at the end of those 10 weeks, I am happy with the results. I will reward myself with the purchase of a flat panel TV. At least then, I should have the habits built up to the point where I will no longer sit around all day watching the new TV. Plus, in 10 weeks, I can afford the TV by actually spending some of the money I got for my raise, rather than adding it all to retirement, like I usually do.

So there you go. Assuming I get started with the training by August 1, I should have a new TV sometime around Halloween.

If anyone out there has recommendations on what kind of HD flat panel I should get, I’d be interested in hearing them. But please don’t recommend anything bigger than 32 inches because (a) I’m not interested in something that big, and (b) I won’t spend the money for it.

New sunglasses

I’ve been threatening to get new sunglasses for the last month or two, and today, at lunchtime, I went downstairs to the mall and bought a new pair of black Oakley Whiskers to replace the ones I got nearly 2 years ago. The new Oakleys are lighter and they are also polarized.

It’s bright and warm here today so I walked across Pentegon Row for lunch and the glasses of that quality really do make a difference. And the polarizing effect is kind of cool too.