Grounded & Steadfast

The journal of Chris Bowler, a collection of thoughts on faith, business, design, and the creative process.

Ulysses

It’s been quite a while since a new writing tool has found its way onto my devices. Writer has been my tool of choice for quite some time (unless you include my dalliance with Writer Pro … but that was short lived and I almost lump the two together). Happily. It always met my needs and I was never tempted to try the favourites of other people (Byword for example).

However, I finally took the plunge on Ulysses. And I’m glad for it!

What’s good about it?

A lot!

This is not a full fledged app review, but a collection of things I like about the app. First, as mentioned above, it’s very flexible, yet also very powerful. You can easily configure it to be a very sparse writing environment by hiding the additional panes.

Or, you can use the full screen view for an even more immersive experience.

Beyond that, the way you manage your articles appeals to me. Where as Write (the Notes app I’ve mentioned lately) keeps everything available in a sidebar, but truly never feels like a comfortable Mac app, Ulysses seems to get the details just write.

Beyond that, Ulysses feels like a Mac app and Write does not … long time Mac using software fans will not this feeling.

Even as I typed that, I recognize it’s hard to describe why one feels right while the other does not. For me, it’s most likely because the sidebar approach in a Notes app needs to allow me to see the details of each note, otherwise I end up clicking around to try and find the correct entry. Whereas with a writing app, I don’t need to see the details, usually just the title, and I can find what I’m looking for.

I am able to save files locally, or in iCloud. I can group articles in the sidebar, but that grouping is not reflected in the OS X file system. At least, not that I could find. This means I can organize my writings for my blog, plus my notes for work, in their own groupings. If one were to write a book, this would also make a great way to organize your chapters and research easily. Flexibility!

One thing: Ulysses calls each “article” or “file” a sheet. Sheets can be stored under a parent group.

What about writing?

Now, an app like this has to nail one thing: the writing experience. Ulysses does, whether in full screen or not. Like iA Writer, Ulysses does a great job of highlighting Markdown items.

The colors look great and allow you to easily distinguish different content. Links are nicely highlighted and the URLs hidden. The spacing of the text is spot on and you can choose the font you desire. Full screen mode takes the current sheet and displays it full screen with a dark background. The nice touch here is that you do necessarily not need to exit full screen mode to navigate to another sheet. You can scroll to the top of bottom to move to the previous or next sheet in the current group.

All in all, there is a lot to like!

Desktop only?

My first thought was to try this on my iPad as well. But it turns out there is no Ulysses for iOS. Instead, they have an app called Daedelus Touch. I haven’t heard much about this, nor have I given it a try yet. I may though — it would put the iCloud Drive aspects to the test (I’m not sure I trust Apple with this yet, not like Dropbox).

Currently, if I were to start an article on my iPad, I would have to create it in Writer, then copy and paste the content from a Dropbox file into Ulysses on my Mac. But honestly, my iPad continues to evolve into a device most used by children. I rarely put it to use myself these days.

Update: I was kindly informed that you can add External Sources in the Ulysses sidebar. Fantastic — articles started on my iPad are available for editing at a later time.

The Kitchen Sink

Apart from the primary features, there are some other interesting options available for this app. Again, these are not features everyone would need … but they can add value.

One item I like is the easy access to the stats for a given sheet. You get a nice overview of the characters and words in the sheet, as well as an estimated reading time. Beside the button for stats is a button that allows you to quickly move from section to section in your sheet. A great option for longer pieces.

As well, there is a sharing button that makes it easy to perform various actions with other apps on your computer. For me, setting Droplr as the default app or service makes it easy to share a piece I’m working on. Truthfully, the Export options for this app are the best I’ve seen. Ulysses seems to have been created with the understanding that your words are your words and getting them into another app, service, or location should be as easy and as painless as possible. Smart move!


To finish, what would make me switch from using one writing app to another? Look and feel are important to me when writing. Ulysses and iA Writer both do this well. But I must admit I like that Ulysses allows me to organize my writing, as well as write. Where iA Writer has to be used in tandem with Finder, Ulysses works on its own.

Scrivener has long been the tool that people recommend for writing long content on the Mac. We’re talking novel length work. But seeing as Scrivener is a bit odd in terms of UI and seems to be updated infrequently, I can see Ulysses challenging in this arena. Ulysses nails the Markdown experience and gives a very solid document management toolset as well.

Although I switch tools far less often than I used to, it still happens. In this case, it feels like a change for the right reasons.

Hard Work is Hard

This article is an expanded version from my weekly newsletter.

There are so many things to take up our time, so it can be very tempting to do the tasks that are easier. More well known. Things that keep us busy, but do not directly get us closer to meeting our goals.

Why do we default to this kind of activity? Simply because doing the hard work is hard.

Doing something difficult requires us to hit the wall that feels uncomfortable, causes uncertainty, and makes the sweat pop out on our forehead. Sometimes the hard work requires us to do something we haven't done before. Other times we’re using skills we already have, but the nature of the work requires decisions to be made as you build, and decisions are hard (what if I make the wrong one!). Having to make many decisions even harder.

Whatever it involves, a part of our brain kicks in and tries to distract, tempts us to do busy work. “I don't have enough time to dig in to this, so let's answer those emails instead.” Suddenly, a couple of weeks have gone by and you have made no progress. Discipline is required to get past those moments.

It can be hard to accurately recognize these habits we form, or to articulate them to ourselves and others. Oliver Reichenstein does as an admirable job:

Life and work would be so easy if a lack of quality could be explained in a sentence, and fixed with a better technique.

When asking the question, why do web projects fail, he rhetorically states the answer:

Or is it because we have 22 drawers full of of comfortable tools, fantasies and excuses to avoid the pain of sitting down and thinking?

Add the Internet, with the new things for you to think about every .027 seconds, and his list is complete. This is it — the thinking is hard.

Over time, we can learn to enjoy the process of fighting through that discomfort and coming out with something worthwhile on the other side. When you are able to see those results, you can even come to embrace the hard stuff … because the results are so very satisfying. But that is something to be learned.

I'm reminded of this every week with our homeschooled children. As young people, they face much more often than us adults. It might be learning to read, doing algebra for the first time, or finally riding without training wheels. But each skill is essentially learning to solve a specific problem. And once they have that experience, the next challenge is a little easier because they know they've come through before.

It should be the same for us adults. Sadly, we have built up these habits around busy work that we allow to distract us from the important things. Guilty as charged, right here. But I'm learning.

As I've spent time learning my tendencies and how to deal with them, several practices have stood out. Friction is involved. The less friction between myself and my work, the better. The easier it is to get up and running (whether it's reading, writing, designing, or developing), the more I'll complete in the limited time I have available. And the more friction I add to the distractions, the less likely I am to waste time on the activities that do not get me closer to my goal.

Purposeful friction can sound like a lame crutch, but I've learned the results show the worth. Sometimes the crutch is needed first, then the healing can take place.

Desires is another. Truthfully, it goes hand in hand with the friction. If I focus enough on my goals, entertainment loses it's flavour.

Watching a movie or show at the end of the day is too easy when you have a Netflix account, a huge collection of DVDs, and a cable TV subscription. So I removed those options from my life. Over time, my wife and I have both come to highly value our evening time for reading (together and apart). Our desire to learn is greater than our desire to be entertained.

Habits, whether removing bad ones or adding good ones, come from small decisions, consistently made.

A Beginning

After several weeks of kicking an idea around, I decided to take the plunge. It's time for this guy to learn how to build apps.

The reason for the hesitancy is reality; this will be no easy feat. When starting anything new, there is a level of naivety … you don't yet know what you don't know. But I hope I have no disillusions here. Developing apps for OS X or iOS is an arduous task, a craft to be learned.

Nonetheless, this is a step I want to take. I simply have to take a high level, long term approach. This is a new skill I'm learning and it could be years before it bears any fruit. With that in mind, I decided I would journal the experience and share it with others. the greatest aspect the Internet has given us is access to knowledge. Education. I hope to share with others for the purpose of helping them learn along with me.

Siteleaf is fantastic! Using the Liquid syntax, it's easy to pick up if you're familiar at all with CMSes. And with Markdown support, it's a nice writing environment.

To do this, I created a new site. I could have simply included the content as a section here on my Kirby install. But I decided to give it a bit of separation and I've been looking for an excuse to kick the tires on Siteleaf.

If you're at all interested in developing for a Mac, or seeing what's involved, please follow along. You can subscribe to the updates here. I'll be sharing what I'm working on, where I'm struggling, the resources I'm using to learn as I go, and hopefully, some tips from the amazing community of developers out there.

I'd love to share with you!

Persona

Celebrity is a funny thing. Wanted or unwanted, it changes the life of the person who has it. And it often changes the person as well.

Internet celebrity is fairly new to our culture … I think many of us are still unsure how to approach it. This seems to be true whether it's our own celebrity, or someone else's.

Just Like You

When I was younger, it was easy to put people I looked up to on a pedestal. Bosses at work, pastors at church, my favourite bands. That is easy to do from afar, but the closer you get to people, the more you see the real person; the flaws, the hurting, and the mess as much as the good things.

As you age (I'd say mature, but the two do not always come hand in hand), you learn from these past experiences with people. But even though you learn that people are not always what the appear from the distance, it's still very easy to put them on that pedestal.

But if there's anything my career on the web has taught, it's that we're all regular Joe's. Man or woman, 150, 1,500, or 150,000 followers — we're all regular people. We have strengths, but we have weaknesses. We're all working our backsides off to pay bills, support our families, and create good things.

I had a chance to spend a day with Justin Jackson this week. Over lunch, we talked about this new type of celebrity. And Justin is the perfect example of this: he has thousands of followers, a reading list even bigger, has sold successful books, and regularly chats with the bigger names in the Saas world. And yet, he's a humble, down-to-earth dude who seems just as happy talking to local tech minded folks about the blog they should start …

He's real people.

The first conference I went to where I could meet some of the celebrities I look up to, I was nervous. Thankfully, once I met a couple, what I already knew was confirmed … we work in an industry of good, solid, and (mostly) humble people.

And we're all on a level playing field.

Getting Past the Persona

I remember my first company wide get together at Campaign Monitor. I was really looking forward to seeing my North American teammates for the first time. And despite working side by side five days a week, that first face-to-face meeting is always a little bit of a shock.

It's because the avatar we look at every day is only a two dimensional, shallow representation of the fully fleshed human being it represents. And although we all tend to present only one side of our lives online, the attractive bits and bobs, I prefer the real person. Truth is, we're all annoying and unattractive at times, but I'll take real over polish any day.

When our team gets together, the conversations and fun times that happen are what carry me through the chat room for the rest of the year.


I've really enjoyed getting a glimpse of the lives of so many people in the past 6 years. But as good as the persona can be, I much prefer to get to know the person. That's why nonferencing is so popular now — the conversations trump the content. They are the content.

I'll be at the last Brooklyn Beta this year. Please come and say, “Hi!”

Faith Requires More than Intellect

Recently, Paul Boag shared how he came to a belief in God and His Son, Christ Jesus. He gave his story in response to those who often react in surprise when discovering his faith; those who do not believe in God cannot understand how a rational, intelligent person could believe such things. Paul’s article was built around the idea that believing in God and the person of Jesus Christ is intellectually sound.

I was thankful to see Paul write and share this article. He's a very well known and well respected member of the design community. And if there’s been one aspect of being involved in the web that has surprised and delighted me the most, it's been in discovering that I have so many brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul's article was another reminder of that.

However, after reading the piece, something didn't sit quite well with me for the rest of the afternoon. While taking this analytical, logical approach to defend having faith in the Bible and the claims it makes about God can be helpful, it's not enough.

Faith is not wholly intellectual

In order for a human being to believe that there is a God and that He has revealed Himself to us through His Word and in the person of Jesus Christ, there has to be more of a change. A sound, convincing logical argument is not sufficient to make this change. Because we’re not talking about changing the mind, but rather changing the heart.

The Bible is filled with language about the heart of a man. What is it referring to? Certainly not the muscle and tissue that pumps blood through the body. I'm no expert theologian with a Masters of Divinity, but I'll attempt my own definition … when the Bible talks of the heart, it's referring to the essence of a human. It's a combination of what he/she believes and how she/he acts.

Christ alluded to this when the religious leaders of His time were so concerned about what people put into their bodies, or if they ate with unwashed hands. Their premise was that unclean food or hands would make the people themselves unclean. Christ responded in Matt 15 and explained it this way:

Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.

Christ knew it's the heart of a man that directs how a person acts and behaves.

Who’s In Control?

My slight discomfort with Paul’s article is that, if read the wrong way, it could come across as if he has made this decision based on his intellect, based purely on sound rationale. There is no need for God to help him in this decision, because it’s perfectly rational. I don't believe that to be true.

In order for a human being to have faith in God, God Himself has to get things started. He changes the heart, then everything else follows. Here are a few statements that lead me to make this claim.

Romans 8:7

… because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.

Eph 2:8,9

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Ezekiel 11:19,20

Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.

Only after this change of heart occurs can the mind follow. And it is God who works to make this change.


I have no idea how Paul Boag feels about all this. It's certainly possible he agrees. I simply walked away from his article feeling like credit needs to be given to God … for me personally, my faith comes from Him. Before my thinking could change, my heart needed to change. Big time!

I am incredibly thankful that He did that for me.

New Tools: Launchbar 6 and Flat Tomato

Tools do not make the craftsman, but they can make the job more enjoyable. And the availability of good tools for OS X has always been a draw for me, and a favourite subject for my writing. Here are a couple of apps that I've been enjoying of late.

LaunchBar 6

I've been using LaunchBar as my main app launcher and digital Swiss Army knife for quite a few years. It's already been 4 years since I did an extensive comparison of all the options and concluded that LaunchBar was the best of the bunch. I haven't even considered the alternatives since then.

Alfred was not yet an option and I know many folks love both the app and the people who make it. Our team at Campaign monitor certainly do. But I'm old and have very little desire to switch tools these days.

The good news is that the most recent version of LaunchBar, available yesterday, takes a good tool and improves on it. I've been beta testing this version for the past two months and love it. The funny thing is, functionality aside, LaunchBar 6 looks right at home with the aesthetics of the upcoming Yosemite.

And the change I enjoy the most with this version is the UI. LaunchBar is bigger, bolder, and uses larger text, making the contents of the window much easier to see. Look and feel aside, there are some functional improvements to the app as well. Most important are the updates that coincide with OS X, allowing you to index Finder tags and the like as well as fully manage your Contacts and Calendar without having to open those applications.

But truthfully, my usage with the new version is exactly as it was with the previous. My custom shortcuts all work with version 6 and so I've continued on as normal, with a modified interface. Reading through the launch page has been a good reminder that I'm only using LaunchBar at a fraction of what's possible!

Flat Tomato

I chuckle every time I see the name of this app. The backstory: I enjoy the Pomodoro technique. It's not for everyone, but it works well for someone who does support for a Saas product. If you're not familiar with Pomodoro, check it out.

I need that reminder to walk away from the desk and stretch, as well as to focus on something other than solving people’s problems. Sometimes reading internal documentation or working on a team project for five minutes is essential for shifting gears and getting your head into a different space.

I would do that in the past, but the end of the day would approach out of nowhere and I realized I didn't accomplish a couple of tasks I had set down, or my steps for the day would be alarmingly low. So I've been looking for a decent timer to track this a little better.

Two sad truths were revealed to me.

First, searching in the App Store is a fruitless endeavour. Usually, that's not an issue as the apps I'm interested in are brought to my attention via Twitter or blog posts. But egg timers and Pomodoro apps don’t seem to be all that popular in the circles I travel.

Second, there are far too many egg timer/pomodoro apps. Many of poor quality. But I finally found one I'm enjoying; Flat Tomato. If you're able to live with the flat-design-and-long-shadows look, you might enjoy this as well.

What I like about this app is the way the sessions are displayed. The clock shows the current time, but also displays your current session with the following session in a muted color and dashed border. A quick glance can tell me that I've just started a 25 minute work session and that a quick 5 minute break is to follow.

And it works in the other way as well. If I'm in the middle of a 15 minute break, the next working session is shown in the same fashion.

As you progress through the day, you can see your completed sessions around the edge of the clock. Each session also sees a shift in the background color, a nice visual indicator to remind you of the change. You can assign various tasks to assign to a session; I do not use that feature myself, but I can see that it could be useful.

This is one of those categories of apps where App store quantity surely trumps quality, so it's good to find an option that I enjoy. The functionality of a Pomodoro app should be sparse. If it looks good as well, that's a bonus. Flat Tomato does the trick.


Two good tools, check them out. It's these kind of utilities that make being a Mac user so great. If you're into software that delights, I've been writing on this subject in my weekly newsletter. Sign up if you'd like to hear more each week!