Bring On the Darkness

dark-themes

Despite mounting evidence that staring at a screen before bedtime is detrimental to your sleep, I do it every night. (I sleep horribly, by the way). Before I drift off to dreamland my face is awash in LED light as I read a few chapters in Kindle, chink away at my Pocket queue, catch up on Twitter in Tweetbot 3 and flick through my RSS feeds in Unread. Do you know what all of those apps have in common? They all have optional dark themes that display dim white text on a black background. To me, this is a killer feature.

The dark theme may not be as exciting as fancy gesture control or a sleek user interface, but it’s an under-appreciated feature, and it’s time it got its due.

Reading in bed without a dark theme is like staring at the sun on a clear day. It’s hell on the eyes, and it’s especially joyless for the person sleeping next to you. Imagine how many divorces could be prevented if all apps had dark themes.

For what it’s worth, my favorite implementation of a dark theme is in Tweetbot 3. It uses a clever two-finger swipe gesture to switch between modes: Swipe up for the light theme and down for the dark theme–like a light switch. The reason Tweetbot is notable in this department is because many other apps make you burrow into the settings menu to change themes, which takes up precious time I could otherwise spend ruining my night’s sleep by reading in bed.

So if you make an app people might want to use before bed, do your customers a favor and include a dark theme. Just think of the marriages you’ll save.

The Best Journaling App for iOS

Do you ever go back and read journal entries you wrote years ago? I do, and I love it. I’ve forgotten so much of my life! I was so funny/lucky/stupid! Time is fleeting, and we’re all hurtling toward death!

But seriously, keeping a journal is a good thing. It’s a tool for self reflection. It defrags the brain. It helps you sort through the clutter of daily life and hone in on what’s important. I just wish I did more of it.

day-one-iphone

Anyone who follows the world of apps can tell you that Day One is the premier journaling app for Mac and iOS. Apple even awarded it Mac App of the Year in 2012. And rightfully so: Day One is a beautiful app, with a host of useful features. It syncs between platforms, it lets you add a photo to each entry, it’s Markdown compatible, it logs lots of metadata, and it has multiple export options. It even makes your entries look like beautiful, minimalist web articles. What more do you want in a journaling app?

As great as it is, Day One never clicked with me. All of those features are amazing, but they have weight. Each Monday, when the app chimed to tell me it was time to write in my journal, I didn’t feel like writing–I felt anxious.

The problem was all those amazing features. I wanted to write something that was worthy of them. I wanted the photo to look just right, and capture the tenor of the entry. I wanted the writing to be as witty as Twain and as polished as a New Yorker article. And who has the time for that?

I take full responsibility for this reaction, by the way. This says much more about me than it does about Day One and its makers.

drafts-iphone

I finally solved my journal anxiety by using another app: Drafts. Drafts is a writing app that opens with a blank page, a cursor, and a keyboard. You enter text into it, and then use shortcuts to send the text wherever you want it to go. The app doesn’t do pictures, location data, or modern minimalist output–it deals strictly in words. It creates a no pressure writing experience.

No pressure. For me, that’s a key feature for a journaling app.

Drafts wasn’t designed for journaling, but here’s how I use it. With the push of a button, I send the text I’ve written in Drafts to my journal’s .txt file in Dropbox. It even automatically adds the date. Boom: instant journaling app. Easy peasy.

I write in my journal all the time now. Sometimes I treat it like a personal Twitter feed, jotting down a thought here and there and sending it to my journal. Other times I type out long entries that I edit carefully before adding. Either way, there’s no friction and no pressure. It feels good.

If you haven’t tried Day One, it’s definitely worth a shot. The results are amazing, if you can handle it. But if you struggle to find the bandwidth to write in your journal regularly, Drafts just might do the trick.

Breaking Bad, Tarantino, and the Art of Tension

breaking-bad

You might have noticed that the opening of the “Confessions” episode of Breaking Bad feels straight out of a Tarantino movie. In it, Todd and some fellow criminals sit in a booth at a diner, engaging in jovial banter as Todd recounts the train heist from “Dead Freight.” The story comes off as amusing and everyone has a good chuckle. Tarantino has similar scenes in about half of his movies. Surely this is no accident. This is an homage.

Another common trait between Tarantino and the makers of Breaking Bad is that both are masters of tension. In fact, I think tension plays a key part in why both are so watchable, and why audiences will follow them pretty much anywhere.

If you’ve watched Breaking Bad from the beginning, you can probably name a dozen tense scenes off the top of your head. Walt’s meeting in Tuco’s office, Jane choking, the twins attacking Hank, Jesse at Gale’s apartment, Gus straightening his tie, Walt and Hank’s confrontation in the garage. These scenes stick in your memory.

reservoirdogs

Tarantino’s movies are also full of tension. He’s given us the stand-off at the end of Reservoir Dogs, Mia’s overdose in Pulp Fiction, the underground bar scene in Inglorious Basterds, the dinner set piece in Django Unchained, and many more.

These scenes have one thing in common: They’re the result of brilliant plotting. Two diametrically opposed characters or goals are are set in motion. The pacing of the show or movie is deliberate and controlled so each scene increases the dramatic tension between the opposing forces.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, in an interview with Rolling Stone, said, “My favorite time as a kid was not Christmas morning. It was the night before Christmas, and the sense of expectation.” That’s a very telling anecdote, because he’s describing tension. In the best scenes in the show, the pressure ratchets up to the breaking point. Then, somehow, they stretch it even further–until it explodes. The scenes we remember are the ones that end with those cathartic explosions.

Creating compelling stories using tension and release isn’t some forgotten secret known only to Tarantino and the makers of Breaking Bad. Most writers understand how to do it in the abstract. Scenes like the ones mentioned above are so rare in pop culture because it takes a tremendous amount of skill and hard work to pull them off.

But when the elements come together, as they so often do in Breaking Bad and Tarantino movies, the results are better than almost anything else out there. Controlling tension with such mastery is what every storyteller should strive to do.1

  1. By the way, this building and releasing of tension isn’t limited to horror and crime stories. Think about the bus stop scene at the end of The Remains of the Day, or the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3–tension so high it could crack your TV.

Ulysses III Review

ulyssesiii

Right after I wrote a post about the top three minimalist writing apps for Mac and iOS, I downloaded Ulysses III. Almost immediately it became my go-to writing app for Mac.

Like iA Writer, Ulysses III is a gorgeous, minimal word processor. It has a killer dark-themed fullscreen mode. When you use Markdown features, it highlights them in beautiful colors. If you save your documents to Dropbox, you can edit them using any iOS word processor (my favorite is still iA Writer). You can export your documents to .txt, .rtf, PDF, or HTML. It’s powerful and customizable, but not complicated.

But for me, the killer feature of Ulysses III is that it shows your folders and text files in columns on the left side of the screen. This lets you do things like bounce between your in-progress blog posts, or separate a book into chapters and zip between them and your notes quickly.

Ulysses III is useful and beautiful. It’s my favorite writing app for Mac.

The Best Minimalist Word Processing Apps for Mac and iOS

writing-app-feature

I spend a lot of time writing, so I’m always on the hunt for better writing apps for Mac and iOS. As luck would have it, you can find apps for every type of writing imaginable. If you write research papers, you might want a word processing app that allows for notes, links, references, and outlines (like Scrivener). If you write novels, you might want an app that helps you track plot points and character development (like Storyist). For general writing, my requirements are less demanding. Here’s what I look for in a word processor:

  • Minimalism: Focus is important. The app must focus entirely on writing, and offer a full-screen mode to prevent me from being distracted by e-mail, Twitter, or any of the other alerts and feeds vying for my attention.
  • Dropbox compatibility: I’m not always near my computer when I want to work, so it’s important to have access to my documents from my iPhone and iPad. The two most popular online file systems are Dropbox and iCloud. Dropbox is more flexible and reliable, so that’s what I use.
  • Style: I spend a lot of time looking at words on a screen, so it’s important that they look good. If the font is ugly or the text is too scrunched together (I’m looking at you, TextEdit) writing can be a headache. A beautiful writing app eases the pain.

To find the apps that meet those criteria, I spent hours researching Mac and iOS word processing apps. I read as many professional reviews as I could find and dug through user reviews on the various app stores. Then I downloaded the top three Mac and iOS apps and tried them out.

But first, a note on file types

If you’ve been writing for years, your documents probably end in an alphabet soup of file extensions, several of which may be unreadable by modern programs. My advice (along with others) is to save everything in .txt format. The .txt extension is the bread and butter of minimalist word processing apps, and all of the ones I discuss below support it. On iOS, the .txt format is doubly important, because most iOS writing apps can read nothing but .txt files. On Mac, you have a little more wiggle room with .rtf files, but that’s useless if you intend to write on all of your devices. 1

The main drawback of .txt files is that they don’t allow for rich text features like bold and italics. To sidestep that issue, I suggest using Markdown syntax, which all of the word processors below support.

Mac word processors

All of the following Mac apps look great, offer full-screen modes, and have Dropbox support. If a minimalist word processor is what you’re after, any of the apps below will work. They’re also likely to be updated regularly, so the specifics might change at any time.

WriteRoom for Mac

writeroom-icon

WriteRoom sparked the whole “less is more” word processing philosophy, and for that I’m thankful. This was the first one I tried, and the moment I started using it, I knew I would no longer write in apps like Word or Pages if I could help it. While certainly useful in some instances, those programs are overstuffed with loads of features I usually don’t need.

What sets WriteRoom apart from the other minimalist apps is its huge list of options. You can choose from several (often ugly) visual themes, change the font, adjust the margins, pick your level of zoom, adjust the color of everything, and on and on. The default settings are fine, but once you start tinkering, if you’re anything like me, you may never stop. Also, there are no special Markdown features here, so that may cause problems depending on your needs.

On the plus side, WriteRoom handles both .txt and .rtf files and can automatically log your writing sessions to a spreadsheet, which data-mining types may appreciate. But for my taste, WriteRoom offers too many options, many of which make the app look worse.

Byword for Mac

byword-icon

Byword, on the other hand, looks downright elegant. It has a simpler options menu that only lets you choose light or dark themes and adjust the margins and fonts. It can also handle both .txt and .rtf documents.

Byword is great for Markdown users as well. As you write, it tastefully dims the Markdown characters, making them easier to skip over as you read back what you’ve written. It also has a Markdown preview mode. If .rtf is important to you, this is the app you should use.

iA Writer for Mac

ia-writer-icon

iA Writer treats minimalism like a religious calling, and that’s what makes it great. If all you need is a word processor that supports .txt files, then iA Writer is your holy grail.

Unlike the other apps, iA Writer offers zero options or preferences. You open the app, and there’s nothing to do but write. It’s perfect for anyone who wants a crystal-clear focus on their words.

Beyond that, it handles .txt files like a boss. It looks drop-dead gorgeous, with an ideal font size and comfortable margins no matter how big or small you make the window. And while the other apps on this list offer “focus” modes, iA Writer’s is the best of the bunch: it dims all text in the document except the sentence you’re working on. It also offers excellent Markdown support.

The only potential shortcomings I found in iA Writer for Mac are that it doesn’t support .rtf files and it does’t have a dark theme. But if you can do without those, look no further. iA Writer is amazing.

iOS Word Processors

All of the following iOS apps are universal, offer Dropbox support, and put an extra row of useful keys above the standard iOS keyboard. One downside to all of the iOS apps is that they don’t support .rtf files. In these apps, it’s .txt. or nothing.

WriteRoom for iOS

writeroom-ios-icon

WriteRoom is a good-looking iOS app that works about as you’d expect, but a couple of features set it apart from the others. Like its Mac counterpart, you get a lot of options here. Unlike the other iOS apps, WriteRoom supports all fonts built into iOS, and lets you fine-tune your background and text colors. So like on Mac, if you want customizability, WriteRoom is the app for you.

Byword for iOS

byword-ios-icon

Just like on Mac, the iOS version of Byword falls somewhere between iA Writer and WriteRoom when it comes to customization. It has light and dark themes, as well as four fonts–but only one of them looks very attractive for writing. The Dropbox support is solid, but not robust.

Byword’s extended keyboard row, however, is ideal for Markdown users who write for the web. It offers shortcuts that let you easily add links, pictures, and lists to your text.

Byword for iOS is also the only app to offer a Markdown preview mode. So if you’re a heavy Markdown user, despite any shortcomings, Byword might be the app for you.

iA Writer for iOS

ia-writer-ios-icon

Feature for feature, iA Writer for iOS is almost identical to the Mac version: It looks fantastic, with a beautiful font, a clean interface, a great focus mode, and–again–zero customization options.

What most sets it apart is that it offers the fullest Dropbox functionality on iOS, including the ability to create folders and even move files between folders using an intuitive touch-and-hold mechanic.

iA Writer is my iOS word processor of choice. It looks the best, requires no tinkering, and offers superior Dropbox support.

My Workflow

Any combination of these apps will help you get the job done, but my choices are as follows: On Mac I use iA Writer for .txt documents and Byword for .rtf documents. Both apps are gorgeous, and easily handle everything I need them to do. I save all of my files to Dropbox, where they’re available to be edited by other apps on other devices. On iOS, I use iA Writer because it looks great and offers superior Dropbox compatibility.

This is a great set-up that works well for me. As soon as another minimalist writing app comes out, I’ll look at it with an open mind. You never know what works for you until you try it.

  1. If you need .rtf compatibility, your options on iOS are limited at the moment to Pages, Evernote, and Google Drive, all of which use online file systems that no other programs can access. So if you don’t mind using those apps on both Mac and iOS, those will work for you. However, none of those apps look very good in full-screen mode, and they’re needlessly bloated for my needs.

    Textilus is the one iOS app that meets most of my needs and has .rtf compatibly. However, I’m not crazy about it, because it’s iPad-only, it uses its own separate folder in Dropbox, and it has a clunky overall feel.

Why Getting a Tax Refund Check is Bad

money

Every year as April 15 approaches, I hear people talking excitedly about what they’re going to do with their big fat tax refund check. I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but here’s what you should do: adjust your withholding so you don’t receive a refund check.

Why? Because your tax refund is not free money.

It’s your money. It’s money that you already earned at your job. The reason the government has it in the first place is because you gave it to them in what amounts to an interest-free loan. It doesn’t take an accountant to know that handing out interest-free loans is not in your best interest.

I get it. I see the appeal of receiving a check after completing the awful task of filing your taxes. It feels like a reward for the hard work you’ve done. But it’s not a reward. A tax refund is money that was yours to begin with. It’s money that should already be in your bank account.

So if you receive a refund check every year, what should you do? Adjust your withholding. You do that by filing a new W-4 with your employer. The IRS even has a withholding calculator to help you figure out how much to withhold.

The goal is to make it so you and the government are as close to square at the end of the tax season as possible. If you’re doing it right, very little money should change hands between you and Uncle Sam after you file your taxes. Once you adjust your withholding, you’ll see a small increase in each paycheck. That may not be as exciting as getting a big tax refund, but at least you’ll receive your money when you earn it.

Games We Play

Here’s a beautiful video about the games we play, or at least used to play, back when we were kids, when we were bored and didn’t have anything to do but use our imaginations.

It’s by Ian Bennett, as part of his Follow the Foot project. See more of his stuff here.