Rands What I learned these holidays

The Tinker List

Tinkering is a deceptively high-value activity. You don’t usually allocate much time to tinkering because the obvious value of tinkering is low. You don’t start tinkering with a goal in mind; you start with pure curiosity. I’ve heard about this thing, but I’ve never used it. How does this thing work? I’ve always wanted to know about more about X.

Downtime is an easy time to tinker. Nothing is pressing, so these acts of mental wandering are acceptable. I’ve spent a significant amount of the holiday break tinkering, and as with all tinkering binges, I am reminded that tinkering isn’t fumbling through random ideas, tinkering is mindful structured learning.

Here’s what I’ve been tinkering with for the past two weeks:


There’s a new book coming in the next year. I’m writing a good portion of it before approaching publishers. In the past, I’ve dumped chapters into a Dropbox folders with a half-thought-out naming scheme. It’s fine, but somewhere around 20 chapters, I change my naming scheme or perform a lobotomy on the table of contents. As I’m laboriously changing titles and chapter numbers in the surprisingly hostile Finder, I dream of a better way.

Bear is a better way as I’ve written before. Add a tag anywhere in the document, and that tag instantly appears as an organizing mechanism in the left bar. Add a tag/sub-tag, and you’ve got a tag hierarchy which means I’ve got a simple editable book organizing structure. In just under an hour, the entire book is now inside of a dynamic information architecture within Bear.


I’ve been preparing the site to WPEngine in the new year. WPEngine is service devoted to running WordPress – that’s all they do. On my MediaTemple instance, WordPress is intolerably slow. A quick import of the Rands content to WPEngine revealed WordPress performance is downright spunky. There is no SSH access to WPEngine, so I’ll abandon a couple of tools including Shaun Inman’s Mint which I’ve used religiously since 2005. However, Shaun is moving on and so shall I.

After a couple of nights of intense tinkering, I can confirm, “There’s a shit ton of information inside Google Analytics.” I’ve had Google Analytics installed for as long as Mint, but have never used it. An answer to every obscure question I had about my traffic for the last decade is sitting somewhere inside of Google Analytics.

Also, sometime in the past few years, analytics spam has become a thing, I know this because I keep finding reports like this one:

While I am puzzled why Google hasn’t built preventative measures into Google Analytics, additional tinkering revealed a wealth of resources on the Internet to help configure Analytics to filter out this crap traffic.


I’ve been tinkering with a new R. More on this in the new year.


Newsblur has been my RSS reader since the passing of Google Reader in 2013. Newsblur is a fine newsreader but has two lingering issues: one mine, one theirs.

My self-inflicted issue involves keyboard support. Consuming RSS feeds is a task best done at a speed which means sensible keyboard support is required. Newsblur’s keyboard support is good, but once every 27 interactions, I’d randomly save a story or tag it. I never save or tag stories, so there suddenly there’d be this story hanging around for unknown reasons. Again, fixing this means “reading the documentation” and that’s on me, but it’s a design flaw that I easily interrupt my flow with an errant stroke of the keyboard.

Newsblurs’s larger issue is performance. Nine out of ten times stories loaded fine, but 10% of the time I sat there waiting for 5-10 seconds for a story to load. Again, a hangnail annoyance, but enough friction that I started tinkering with RSS readers.

Feedly is scary fast, provides a clean design, and offer just enough keyboard support. Highly recommend tinkering here.


Lastly, I live in a forest, and in a forest, you deal with trees. Whether it’s dead trees, fallen branches, cleaning up leaf-infested drive ways, or just preserving the view, power tools are a fact of life, and until recently the best tools required gasoline.

Gasoline is expensive, hard to store, and bad for the environment. Gas-powered engines are loud polluters that are apt to fail when you need them. The combination of power tools plus gasoline have felt like a necessary evil to live in the mountains, but this holiday purged that evil.

The Stihl 14 inch chain saw is powered by a large lithium-ion battery. With constant usage, the battery will allegedly last 20 to 30 minutes, but normal usage where you are cutting a bit, moving down the hills, and cutting some more equals several hours of usage with a single battery. Add instant torque provided by an electric motor, and I’m feeling pretty good. Remove almost all gasoline from the equation (the chain requires bar oil), and I’m delighted.

The battery doesn’t just work with the chainsaw. Stihl provides a whole suite of tools that use the same battery which means all the “gas” for a new leaf blower and a future weed whacker has already been purchased.

Battery life is my biggest concern. Even with a reasonable fast charge, having to stop mid-project could be a productivity buzz kill, but battery life exploration is how I’ll tinker today.


Before you know it, it’ll be April, and we’ll all be consumed with endless lists of interesting and urgent things to do. I’ll gleefully jump from one item to the next priding myself on my adept context switching abilities. Efficient? For sure. Productive? Maybe. Creative? Not really. Tinkering. Nope.

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5 Responses

  1. Do you ever plan your tinkering sessions?

    Or I suppose a better question is if you plan your downtime?

    For me, my downtime tends to be time I have simply not scheduled for working, but I end up using it to be available for “honey-do”s and such.

    So now I am thinking that I should schedule regular tinkering time to make sure I do spend time on mindful structured learning.

    I also recently learned about the Google Analytics spam AND found a solution to it. I’m waiting to see how my analytics data look now.

  2. jomido 2 months ago

    Two thoughts:

    1 – Check out TinyTiny-RSS. It’s an open source RSS reader in the vein of the original Google Reader, including support for Google Reader shortcuts (ala vim, j/k).

    2 – For electric tools, why not pick up an extra battery to avoid any “range anxiety” ?

  3. Patrick Tingen 2 months ago

    After the demise of Google Reader I switched to TheOldReader. It has the same look and feel as – er – the old one. I have used it ever since google dropped their reader. But last month I saw an RSS message on Inoreader as a good RSS reader. I had a little time to tinker, tinkered and never went back. My goodness, so much to tinker with and you can even use alerts on the content of messages. But most important: shortcuts a la Google Reader put of the box.

    Highly reccommended

  4. Stanley Law 2 months ago

    Very good points, Michael. I too have been reading up on the Stihl setup for a while now and there was a recent battery refresh this summer.

    However, I am still not convinced that this is the best choice for my use case.

    The issue for me is, especially after a recent trip to the Grand Canyon where evenings dropped below 30s, Lithium Ion Batteries generally function poorly at the lower end of the operating temperature spectrum. Battery damage due to sub freezing temperatures is an active concern especially if I have to consider that some of my trips will eventually take me to the Canadian Yukon and Alaska. Sub-zero temperatures will be the norm.

    Until someone comes up with a reliable, lightweight, power dense, low operating temperature range, and economical alternative to gasoline. I will be sticking to traditional dino-juice powered options like Stihl, Husqvarna, or Echo.

  5. Tinkering | Ezra S F linked to this.