Zero Distraction / An Anthology of Examined Nerdy Things

An Interview with Harry Marks

Harry Marks

I was fortunate enough to recently speak with Harry Marks, author of curiousrat.com — a technology weblog. We discussed topics relating to writing, in addition to many geeky things about Apple, how he uses technology in his day-to-day life and what his productivity workflow looks like.

I interviewed Harry via email, and he had this to say:

ALEX KNIGHT: I’ve been reading your weblog, curiousrat.com for a while now, in which you write about — but not exclusively, Apple and related technologies. Tell me a little bit about yourself and how the site came to be?

HARRY MARKS: I’m but a simple twenty-something from New Jersey with a passion for technology. For my day job, I’m a web marketing developer for a big law firm, but on the side I own and operate CuriousRat.com. Curious Rat came out of frustration with the quality of tech blogs out there today. Many writers out there (and if you read my site, you’ll see a lot of repeat offenders) write for pageviews, or comments, or because they really are just that stupid. I started Curious Rat as an antithesis to the noise and incompetence being expressed on the mainstream sites. The tone and design of CuriousRat.com were inspired by the subtlety of John Gruber’s Daring Fireball and the expletive-riddled rants of the Angry Mac Bastards, and after about a year, I really found my voice and my…”je ne sais quoi”.

ALEX: I know what you mean when you talk about finding your “voice.” I think that’s something all writers struggle with at some point in their career, and it’s certainly something that frustrated me for the first 12 months of writing. So it’s clear that you write a lot about Apple and are a Mac user. How long have you been using a Mac and what brought you to the platform? Can you tell me a little about your setup over the years and what your current rig is? HARRY: I was a Mac user in the mid ’90s – my parents had a Power Mac (can’t remember the model number) running System 7. I remember OS 7 was a very buggy OS, so it soured them on the whole Mac platform for 7-8 years. During that time, we  had Gateways, Dells and HPs and they served their purposes, but we didn’t terribly enjoy using them. Then, when I graduated high school and was headed into college in 2003, I saw how much progress Apple had made during those years and asked my parents for a 15-inch PowerBook G4. It came with a free iPod (the one with four buttons on the top) and from then on I was hooked. OS X was lightyears ahead of what I had been using on PCs (and still is, honestly), so I’ve clung to it for the past eight years. I don’t plan on jumping ship anytime soon.

ALEX: I can relate. I remember using those horrible candy coloured G3 iMac’s when they first came out, which I believe was 1998. I was using them in graphic arts class and they had shipped with OS 8.1, which was horrid. I think we sometimes become complacent and forget just how unreliable operating systems were pre-OS 10.1 days. So what does your current Mac setup look like and have you jumped onto the Lion bandwagon yet? If so, how are things going so far and can you talk a little about your favourite apps and how they fit into your current workflow?

HARRY: I never owned a G3 iMac, but I loved the colours — everything else was so boring! But you’re right, things didn’t get good until OS 9. My current Mac is a 2008 15-inch pre-unibody MacBook Pro. I have installed Lion and, while it’s a little laggy in some spots, it’s really great. I have an iPhone 4 and an iPad as my mobile arsenal. When they’re docked on my desk, the iPhone runs Night Stand HD and the iPad runs Weather+, providing me with a “Batcave-esque” desktop setup. My next Mac, once the MBP runs its course, will be an 11-inch MacBook Air. I don’t need much to get my writing done and I love the portability of the iPad, so definitely want the same thing in a laptop. For podcasting, I’ve been using a Blue Snowball mic that sits on a tripod on my desk. Lion’s been great so far – Versions and auto-save have been godsends. However, I’m getting extremely frustrated at Safari’s penchant for auto-reloading tabs after a certain amount of time has passed. I’m using “natural” scrolling without any problems and I’ve even gotten my work PC to scroll the same way. As for my favorite apps, the new Mail.app is fantastic. It’s slick, the conversation view for message threads is beautiful and it fixes a lot of the problems the old version had. I don’t really use iCal, but I friggin’ love Fantastical. It’s light and only a key-command away and truly looks like it was designed to make me more productive. Alfred is my dedicated application launcher, and while I’m probably not using it to its full potential, its existence means I can keep my dock relatively sparse. Twitterrific is my default Twitter app, as I swore off using any of the official Twitter apps on the desktop and iOS, due to the company’s horrible treatment of third party developers. It’s simple and clean – I love it. For writing blog posts and articles, I use TextMate with a built-in Markdown bundle. Quick notes are taken in Brett Terpstra’s awesome nvALT and Evernote is used as a poor man’s Yojimbo to store links and other random ideas for Curious Rat pieces. Finally, the piece de resistance I couldn’t get by without is TextExpander. Composing quick CR articles with “Via [link]” followed by a blockquote would be a lot more tedious without it. Seriously, anyone who owns a Mac should download TextExpander and really get it into his/her workflow. It’s a lifesaver (and much better on the RSI).

ALEX: Lion’s been great for me too overall. Like you though, I have noticed some performance issues with some of the window animation/transitions. I’m sure things will work themselves out with a point release soon though. I can tell that you and I employ similar hardware/software setups, and it seems that this is the case with a lot of other Mac geeks out there as well. With regards to your future MacBook Air purchase, I think I may end up going that route as well. My only gripe with the Air so far is the limitation on how much ram you can have. I’m hoping that the next iteration of MacBook Pros will use the Air’s wedge shape so I can have my dream config: a 15” MacBook Air with 8GB of ram. Your software picks are intriguing, and on the Twitterific front, I agree that it’s great supporting third party developers (after all, where would we be without them?). There’s something about the way it handles font rendering though that kind of bugged me. My understanding is that you can customize one of the theme plist files to change the look to make it more appealing. I should probably give it another go, especially now that Tweetmarker support was added. Delving more into Lion, what are your thoughts on the new gestures it supports? Do you still use a Mouse, Apple brand or otherwise with your MacBook Pro? Or have you tried switching full time to the Magic Trackpad yet? It seems like we’re in a transitional phase with Apple’s desktop OS — in that there appears to be a very obvious path with where they want to take it in the next couple years. Since we have just barely scratched the surface of the iOS’ification (yes, that word again) of OS X, what are your thoughts on desktop computing — here and now in 2011?

HARRY: I use the trackpad on my MacBook Pro. I tried using an external mouse, but I kept gravitating back to the trackpad. I love the gestures — I constantly use the three-finger swipe up for Mission Control, two-finger swipes for navigating my history in Safari and even the pinch-to-zoom gesture on occasion. It’s obvious Apple has a distinct plan for desktop computing in the future. I think we’re a ways away from full-on touch-based laptops and desktops, but we’ll definitely be seeing more gestures and iOS-esque features cross over. The focus on computing has shifted toward devices like the iPad and MacBook Air. Lighter, faster, always-on — these are what users want from their devices and judging by how iPads and MacBook Airs are selling, buyers are already proving that. I wouldn’t be surprised if all MacBooks in the lineup look like the Air by this time next year, with an SSD and a really thin frame. I also think we’re going to see a lot more interaction between OS X and iOS — stuff like your iPhone knowing when it’s in the vicinity of your Mac and transferring all push notifications to a Growl-like system there. Or perhaps we’ll see a feature like Seamless that automatically fades the song currently playing in the iPod app to your desktop speakers when it gets within WiFi range of your home. iOS 5 and Lion are about honing their respective mobile and desktop experiences. From this point forward, I think we’re going to see them grow closer and more interconnected. After all, it’s all about the ecosystem.

ALEX: So speaking of mobile computing, tell me about your iPad. What are your must have apps, and how have they changed the way you do things on a day-to-day basis? Can you share with us what your current homescreen looks like, and what your organizational criteria is for apps?

HARRY: It’s an original 16GB iPad — nothing special. I didn’t see the need/have the money to upgrade to an iPad 2, so I’ve been rocking ol’ faithful for a little over a year. My homescreen has one folder full of reading apps (iBooks, Nook, Kindle, Flipboard, etc…), while everything else is there with the intent of being easily accessible. The apps I use most are in my dock: Elements 2, Mercury Browser Pro, Mail, Twitterrific, TaskPaper and Reeder. When I write articles on my iPad, I use a combination of Elements and Mercury Browser Pro for composition and research, respectively. The other big apps I use are the Squarespace app for insights into how well the site is performing (I’m a bit of an egomaniac that way) and Instapaper. I keep Instapaper outside the Reading folder so it’s always accessible in one tap. My homescreen criteria is simple — what do I need to see on a daily basis? For example, my daily to do list is kept in TaskPaper, as it’s the simplest way for me to keep a running tally of my daily action items. For the information I need to retain longer, such as wines I’d like to try and articles to write about for Curious Rat, I turn to Evernote. Those two are used constantly, so they’re right there when I unlock the device.

Harry’s iPad homescreen: homescreen

You can read Harry Mark’s weblog over at curiousrat.com and follow him on Twitter at @HarryCMarks.

I also recommend checking out inThirty, a great technology Podcast co-hosted by Harry, now on iTunes.