Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

TaskPaper 3

Productivity & Briefly 1 min read

Jesse Grosjean has released version 3 of TaskPaper, his plain-text to-do list app for Mac. I’m a big fan.

TaskPaper’s syntax is like the to-do list version of Markdown (about which I wrote a little book), and the app provides an augmented interface for the kind of plain-text lists we all make. It’s deceptively powerful, with projects, tasks, notes, and tags for anything you want: contexts, priorities, and more. All in beautiful text.

As an OmniFocus fan, I’ve created a TaskPaper theme to mimic its aesthetic; you can download the theme here. Themes are just Less-flavoured CSS, and you can read about creating TaskPaper themes here.

Household Wiki on Raspberry Pi

Tech 2 min read

I decided to use my new Raspberry Pi 3 as (amongst other things) a web server for a household wiki, where we’ll keep useful information: things like home, motor, and travel insurance details, utility accounts and contact information, and all the hundreds of other things that one or both of us may need to check at some point.

Very handy, but of course there are some major security concerns. The wiki’s contents would be a treasure-trove for identity theft. Here’s how I set everything up.

Regular Expressions

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

I have a degree in Computing Science. I’ve had a formal higher education. We covered a lot of ground.

I’ve learned about information retrieval, database normalisation, memory management schemes and paging, functional programming, distributed systems and synchronisation problems, matrix mathematics and image convolution kernels, Bézier curve construction, Fourier transforms, maps and trees and tries and doubly-linked lists, sorting algorithms, O-notation and time complexity, SQL, OO, NP-completeness and hardness and polynomial-time approximations, cryptography, multitasking models, user experience design, affordances, safety-critical systems, at least a couple of dozen programming and scripting languages, finite state automata, grammars and Backus–Naur, graph theory and colourings, compiler design, language design, hardware design, and… a hundred other things.

I’m a writer now, but all of that stuff still interests me, even if I have little reason to use it. If you were to ask about the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned within the sphere of technology – the thing I’ve most appreciated, found most satisfying, and had most use from, in diverse situations, all the time – I could answer easily.

I’d say: regular expressions. If you’d like to learn something new today, you could start here.

Losing Trust

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

Adobe has fixed the file-deletion bug in a recent Creative Cloud Mac update, but the issue is that it happened at all.

Creative Cloud pushes the user to enable auto-updating, and many people opt-in for the sake of convenience. It’s a fine idea, and ordinarily it should increase security and stability too, but more importantly it’s a gesture of trust. When that trust is violated, the damage done to the vendor’s image and their relationship with the customer is severe. Adobe has a long history of Byzantine installations and concomitant problems, and this one takes the cake – especially from a large company which readily has the resources for extensive QA, and a great deal to lose.

Ideally, your apps shouldn’t need “installation” at all beyond the app bundle itself, but they do need to be updated. Installer/updater engineering and testing is a critical opportunity to maintain trust. It’s time to demand better from the complacent old guard.

Henceforth, I’m an Affinity user (Photo and Designer, which share a file format).

The reader-hostile web

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

Maciej Cegłowski wrote a lengthy and sobering article on The Website Obesity Crisis. It’s a topic I think about often.

I’ve said previously that not wasting readers’ time is one of the primary respect metrics for a site, along with quality and legibility of content. You want each page to be a few hundred kilobytes at most, in total, and it should load in half a second. That’s the goal. I’m constantly tweaking things to make this site as fast as possible. People notice, and they appreciate it.

You can’t always make it small, but the size should come from content, not cruft. You might not have the freedom or the expertise to make it fast, but the delay should be from latency, not the transfer and rendering of resources. What you can do is get rid of all the stuff you don’t need, and put the words first.

Networks are faster, bandwidth is more plentiful, devices are more powerful, but the web is more needlessly slow than ever. Patience is still in short supply.

Leaving the Store

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

When I wrote about releasing software outside the Mac App Store four years ago, I listed several negative aspects of distributing apps via a proprietary storefront, but another has since come to light: comparative neglect by Apple. It’s still as expensive, risky, customer-hostile, and frustrating as ever, with the same challenges regarding upgrades, support, marketing, and responsiveness.

Christian Tietze wrote an ebook on how to do it yourself instead, with code samples and tests, that’s worth your attention (I’ve read it, and it’s inspired in part by my own piece). Apple’s model certainly makes money for the company, but it’s too often at the expense of small businesses and even long-term customer satisfaction. I keep waiting for the App Stores to mature, but I don’t think there’s any motivation for that – and the focus of change will understandably remain on iOS for the foreseeable future.

It’s a real shame, particularly since the Mac is probably the only Apple platform that still offers indie devs a shot at a sustainable business in non-disposable software.

Civil comments

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

I’m intrigued by Civil Comments (@HelloCivil), Christa Mrgan’s new venture, which aims to make online comments more respectful and valuable. We all love commenting, but we all hate comments – so there’s clearly scope for disruption. It’s a shame when technology has to a fix problems with how people work.

I’ve written previously (here, here, and here) about disallowing comments on this site, and my reasons. Civil discourse addresses moderation, and possibly impulsiveness. There’s still the matter of identity, but for me the biggest question is whether comments really belong in the same location as the original piece. I don’t accept the democratic argument; my place is mine, and your right of response doesn’t extend to choosing the venue. I think there’s both a dilution of the original, and a reduction in standing of the response, when on-site comments are the medium of reply.

I’ll be watching developments in the area with considerable interest. Having an invested community around your work is obviously a very positive and desirable thing. I’m open to having my mind changed on this – it just hasn’t happened yet.

Clone your drive

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

I’ve written previously about my backups strategy, but I’ve been lucky to not have any disasters – until recently. A failing internal drive in the iMac, then today sending my beloved MacBook in for keyboard repairs. I was saved by having clones of those machines (for the MacBook, “saved” by restoring a different MacBook to the same state, to use temporarily).

You should be cloning your machine. Here’s a great, cheap, silent, bus-powered USB3 drive you could use. To do the cloning, use Carbon Copy Cloner (nicer UI, more features) or SuperDuper (I’ve used it for years). Schedule bootable clones nightly.

You may also want continuous remote backups. I use Backblaze, and keep my work files in Dropbox too. Perhaps consider Time Machine as a third level of safety, especially if you need old versions of files, but full restores from it are slower and less complete than from a clone.

If your machine is OK now and you lose data later, it’s your fault. Do your future self a favour, and back up.

Liberty and cryptography

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

Two-and-counting US states want to require smartphones be decryptable and unlockable by their manufacturer or OS provider. This is the kind of palatable craziness that periodically comes out of America, or indeed the UK’s Westminster government.

Cryptographic backdoors are vulnerabilities; systems are either mathematically secure or they aren’t. Every master key will be found, eventually. Even if you’re not worried about your country’s own security infrastructure – and you ought to be – consider the idea of a foreign power or criminal enterprise being able to get into any of your citizens’ devices. That’s literally what’s being asked for. It’s an inevitability, given sufficient time. There’s no shortage of motivation.

Yes, terrorists and other criminals use crypto. Yes, it’d be easier to thwart them if it could be circumvented. Yes, lives would potentially be saved. But that’s idealistic, short-term thinking. Bad things are always going to happen. If we try to prevent them by doing other bad things, we have two problems instead of one.

We have to find another way round. Current intractability of a social ill isn’t an excuse to pre-emptively curtail liberty, and weaken all of us.

Tiered social media

Business & Briefly 1 min read

Twitter is experimenting with hiding ads from valuable users. Ostensibly, it makes sense: give the minority of “popular” (or whatever) users a nicer experience, because they drive engagement and keep everyone else coming back. Maybe it’s even motivation to get better at Twitter, whatever that means. Certainly, you don’t want influencers to complain about annoyances with your service, because lots of people are listening.

There are problems with that approach, the main one being the tacit admission that their ads are detrimental. If you’re rewarding people by reducing the hostility of their experience, maybe just fix the experience for everyone, and find something positive to charge for instead.

As ever, there’s also their continuing and worrying inability to directly monetise even the most committed users. I’m in the group that doesn’t see ads. I’d pay for Twitter if I could. It has real value for me, both socially and as a promotional tool. This latest move only increases my uncertainty about its future.