Matt Gemmell

My book Raw Materials is out now!

A collection of personal essays, with exclusive content and author's notes.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Shelf 7

Personal & Writing 5 min read

The little book shop was called Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

It was painted a very light cream colour, it was on the same street that I grew up on — but in a different city and country — and the cheerful Englishman behind the counter had the improbable name of Mr. Scotland.

The shop had an upstairs, and also a basement reached via another staircase hidden elsewhere. There were typewriters beside bookshelves, handwritten recommendations all around, and appropriately to its location in the eponymous spa town, one of the display tables was a full-sized claw-footed bath with boards across the top.

Writing in Markdown

Writing, Books & Tech 1 min read

It’s no secret that I constantly write in Markdown, which is a brilliant solution for the problem of keeping files in readable, portable formats, but also allowing for useful structure and formatting. In a nutshell, Markdown lets you write plain text in a way that’s not only readable as-is, but can also be converted to HTML.

If you’ve ever emphasised a phrase *like this*, you’ve used Markdown. If you’ve ever used a series of asterisks to create a makeshift horizontal separator, you’ve used Markdown. If you’ve ever made a list by starting each line with a hyphen or a number, you’ve used Markdown. It’s intuitive, it follows very common conventions, and it’s simple to learn and use.

Power Unused

Productivity & Tech 3 min read

I’ve been thinking about my set of productivity apps here on my Mac (I do almost no work on my iPhone except for making notes, and I don’t own an iPad). Taking productivity seriously means always being willing to refine your setup, I think. Sometimes you have to live with something for a while before you can see the areas where it doesn’t quite suit you.

I’ve crossed a threshold recently whereby I’m now working exclusively in open formats. It wasn’t a philosophy; just an accumulation of aesthetic and practical choices that had an unsought but pleasing side-effect.

Conduit

Personal 4 min read

Once in a while, someone asks me if I’m Matt Gemmell. I always tell myself that next time, my reply will be a wry Only if he doesn’t owe you money, but in reality I just say yes then silently curse the missed opportunity.

A year and a half ago, I wrote about losing my surname then taking it back, and the story will always be a defining part of my past. It shook my identity loose for a time, and I’ve never regained ownership of the person I was during those years. I did learn something, though, or rather I relearned some ancient wisdom that we’d do well to keep in mind.

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. Here’s how it looks:

TaskPaper 3 theme

You might also want the sample file shown, since it includes saved queries to provide some OmniFocus-like functionality. You should also read about the power of TaskPaper’s queries, and automation and integration via JavaScript.

TaskPaper 3 for Mac is $25 plus tax. Since the files are plain text, you can also edit them with almost anything, including various apps on iOS, Windows, and Android.

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.