Review: Elecom DEFT Wireless Trackball (M-DT2DRBK)

After I moved house, one of my goals in setting up a new workspace was to have a desk I actually used. I had tried the laptop-connected-to-a-monitor thing and it just didn’t work that well. So I found a small PC that could mount behind a monitor and then I hung the monitor on an arm so nothing would be on my desk except for a keyboard and mouse. This way I could have a clear desk that wasn’t taken up by computer stuff.

This also meant I needed a keyboard and mouse. Before setting up my writing desk, most of my work was done on the laptop’s built-in keyboard and trackpad. Now I had a nice mechanical keyboard and an average mouse.

Once I started putting in serious hours at the new desk, I started to notice a twinge of pain/soreness in my right wrist. The pain was mostly a dull ache in the outside of my wrist centered around the joint. This started not long after I began using a mouse again. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if I had splashed out for a nicer mouse. Maybe not. The way the pain started up as soon as I picked up the mouse bothered me. It was like flipping a light switch.

Before diving into the ergo-mouse world I walked away from the desktop for a few days. I wanted to see exactly what I was dealing with and if it would clear up on its own. My writing came to a standstill during this time, but I needed to be sure about my wrist. Having a few days “off” was worth way more that doing more damage. I also realized that the type of work I was doing was contributing to the problem. I was heavily involved in getting a client project out the door. So I was outside of my usual Vim writing environment, and had to use the mouse a lot more. Had this not been the case, the sore wrist might not have happened right away.

The pain let up after a day’s rest and a good night’s sleep. After two days it was like I never had the problem. So I knew it would go away with rest if I stopped hurting it. The real test was so try the mouse again. With in a few hours at the computer the pain started to come back. Not good. But it did convince me that a “better” mouse might not exist for me.

So I started looking into trackballs.

Continue reading “Review: Elecom DEFT Wireless Trackball (M-DT2DRBK)”

Lightfast Test: Lukas Aquarelle 1862 after nine months

This is the third and final lightfastness test of the Lukas Aquarelle watercolor paints (original post, first update, second update). The reason for ending the test is twofold, the test strip was in the way of a window I wanted to start opening, and after ten full months of Arizona sun the verdict is in.

I first hung the test strip in January 2016 in a south facing window. Expecting the paint to be faded out before the first 100℉ (38℃) day.

Continue reading “Lightfast Test: Lukas Aquarelle 1862 after nine months”

Lightfast Test: Lukas Aquarelle 1862 after four months

This is one project that seems to slip through the cracks when it comes to doing regular updates (original post, first update). The irony is that the more I forget about it the better the comparison becomes as I leave the test strip in the sun longer. This time it’s been 18 weeks since I first hung the test strip in a south facing window.

Continue reading “Lightfast Test: Lukas Aquarelle 1862 after four months”

Photo Import with the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter

A few weeks ago I bought this cable to connect my phone to my camera. So after a few uses it seems like a good time for a quick review. The bottom line is that it works, and other than a few camera related quirks it’s a good value at $30. As a bonus it can even be used to transfer photos from one iPhone to another.

The cable

Artisinal data transfer, every byte imported by hand.
Artisinal data transfer, every byte imported by hand.

Continue reading “Photo Import with the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter”

Lightfast Test: Lukas Aquarelle 1862 vs. Arizona Sunlight

Lukas Aquarelle 1862 watercolors are a european brand that is sold in North America by Jerry’s Artarama. Being a low-priced paint, I wondered about the quality of the pigments. So I decided some testing was in order.

I bought the following five paints: Alizarin Crimson (1064), Gamboge (1016), Ultramarine Light (1135), Burnt Sienna (1109), and Phthalo Green (1195), in half pans in a Jerry’s store. I have no idea how long they were sitting on the shelf or when they were made. I got the last of the yellow, blue, and brown. So either those are popular colors or they don’t get restocked regularly. I didn’t think to ask about it.

My goal was to build my Altoids tin watercolor kit without breaking the bank. I wanted to get the kit together and see how it traveled before putting a lot money into it.

Once that was done, I made a test panel for the south-facing window.

Continue reading “Lightfast Test: Lukas Aquarelle 1862 vs. Arizona Sunlight”

New Payment Service: Cash.me

Getting paid online is a delicate balance of convenience vs. cost. Some of the services are used simply because they’ve been around the longest. Like PayPal. But new ones seem to pop up every other day. For the most part, they’re worth signing up for to see how things work.

The newest is Cash.me from Square. They have a nice link-shortening gimmick called “cashtags.” The idea is to create a username starting with a dollar sign ($) which then becomes your unique URL. They also provide phone apps for both iOS and Android.

Since this is new service, I wondered if all the good short names were taken. They weren’t. I was able to get cash.me/$writer. I think that’s pretty cool.

There’s a choice between personal and business accounts. The personal accounts have no fees, but are limited in the transfer amounts.1 The buinsess account charges 1.5% per transaction with no transfer limits.2 This is quite a bit cheaper than the other options.

I have existing accounts with PayPal, Stripe, and Square. The fees as I write this are:

Service Rate Notes
PayPal Invoice 2.9% + 30¢ 2.2% + 30¢ for high volume
PayPal Here 2.7% 3.5% + 15¢ for keyed entries
Stripe 2.9% + 30¢ No standalone service
Square 2.75% 3.5% + 15¢ for keyed entries
Cash.me 1.5% Debit only, online only

Over all, they are all competitive. But the devil is in the details. Right now I don’t think there’s one that’s best in all cases.

Stripe is more of a back-end service. It’s at its best when integrated into another site. That might be a sales page or an online invoicing service.

PayPal is the granddaddy of the them all. It has a history of closing accounts at random and overall opaque3 customer service. It also has the best international support.

Square is the upstart new kid. It started as an app with a card reader, but has grown into a full merchant services provider. Square’s focus seems to be on retail, and I don’t like the invoices it sends. They’re too cutesy for a service invoice.

Cash.me only works for debit-to-debit card transactions. That’s the trade off for the low (or no) fee. For B2B transactions it will be hit-or-miss, depending on if a debit payment source is available.

For now, I’ll be pushing Cash.me as my first payment option just because of the low fee.


  1. Personal accounts allow transfering up to $250/day with no more than $1000 in a rolling seven day window.
  2. Buiness accounts require basic ID verifcation using date-of-birth and SSN.
  3. Non-existant.

Writing with the AlphaSmart Neo2

This is a follow up to my distractions post. The Neo2 arrived today, and I’ve been testing it out. This post will be the first thing I’ve written on it.

Keyboard

The typing experience is good. The keys themselves are solid, and use a plastic spring mechanism. I like the feel. It’s somewhere between an old clicky-clack keyboard and the newer chiclet style found on MacBooks. It’s quiet and I’m not worried about the noise being a distraction in quiet places like a library.

Connectivity

There are two ways to get text out of the Neo2: direct connection and the file manager.

Direct connection is easy. Simply plug in an USB printer cable (A to B) open a document on the computer and press send. The Neo2 is recognized as USB keyboard and sends the text as if it were being typed. I can also be used as an USB keyboard directly.

With the file manager (a free download from the manufacturer) the files can be saved as individual documents. The most useful thing about the NeoManager software is controlling the settings on the Neo2.

Renaissance Learning no longer makes the Neo and Neo2; I bough mine second-hand from eBay. Having the software installed is the only way to reset the factory defaults. This includes the master password! Which is something not provided by an eBay seller.

Writing

This is the reason I bough the little keyboard computer. So far, I’m liking it. I can type at full-speed and it keeps up. Granted, my typing speed needs improvement. I can see this working well for me.

The size is good, and is easier to manage in my lap than a regular laptop.

The Neo2 in my lap.
The Neo2 in my lap.

It also has adjustable font sizes. There’s only one typeface which is for display only. The actual text is stored a regular old plain-text (.txt). The screen will show between two and six lines of text. I tried the two-line setting, and while bold, there wasn’t enough context with what I had just wrote. Three lines seems about right. I can see enough to keep at thought going. Six lines is just too small. I would only use that if I was going to edit on the Neo2.

Neo2 showing the small six-line font.
Neo2 showing the small six-line font.
Neo2 showing the extra-large two-line font.
Neo2 showing the extra-large two-line font.

Markdown

The Neo2 was made for markdown formatting. If you’ve used markdown, you know how easy it is to add headers/links/bold/italics to text with out lifting your fingers. It’s the same with the Neo2, but knowing I can add the formatting on the fly is a huge time-saver. There’s no need to spend time on the computer trying to remember where I wanted the italics and headings.

Sending the text into a specialized markdown app like Ulysses is even better. When I add the brackets around text for a link, Markdown XL will make an easy to find token. It’s the same for images. Simply typing (img) will give me a place hold to add an image later.

For links, I’m finding it easier to just put the link text in brackets and move on.1 There’s no point in looking up the actual URL to type in. That would force me to pick up the phone or laptop and switch out of writing mode.

Using markdown saves time, both in the typing and editing stages. I don’t have to worry about making sure the format stays consistent across file types. It’s baked into the text.

When editing, I can plainly see the formatting, and only have to make adjustment or add the actual links.

Overall impressions

I’m actually blown away at how fast the words come out. This obsolete single-purpose device might change my writing workflow for as long as it keeps chugging along.

Having nothing but an LCD and keyboard is a total context switch for me. If I want to check email/twitter/etc. I have to stop and pick up another device. The inertia of writing wants to keep going when that’s all I can do on the Neo2.

I might have even forced my inner-editor to quiet down. He2 can only see a few lines, and can’t call out mistakes from a hundred words ago. I like that.

Other things

There’s a few added features that make the Neo2 even more useful.

Word count

Pressing Ctrl-W shows a nice summary of words writing along with other stats.

Neo2 showing the word count screen.
Neo2 showing the word count screen.

Spell check

While not necessary when drafting, it’s good to have. I seem to use it when I take a break and want to clean up my text a bit.

File passwords

Each file can have a password, which if set, is needed to open a file. It’s not encryption, but it will keep the mischievous from deleting a file.

Conclusion

I’m keeping it. I might even buy another as a backup!


  1. One hint if you use Ulysses: when a closing “]” or “)” is found, it opens a text box to add link, image, or footnote information. Then the typing continues into that box. To avoid this add a backslash “\” before it, like this \[link text]. Then remove all the backslashes and edit the links and images normally.
  2. I imagine my inner-editor as a cigar chomping, newspaper man from the 1950s. I know its weird, but oh well.

What I just read – Sandman Slim

sandman-cover

I first bumped shoulders with James Stark in a dark alley called Aloha From Hell. Richard Kadrey’s third book in the Sandman Slim series. I faithfully followed the series through the next three books. Watching Stark adapt to life outside of Hell has been a roller coaster ride through Los Angeles.

But what was Stark like when he first came home? Reading the first book never quite made it to the top of my to-do list. Until last week. Cracking the spine on a fresh ebook, I dug into Sandman Slim (2009).

Stark awakens in a smoldering trash pile, in a Hollywood cemetery. He’s just managed to kill his Hellion captor, and escape Hell through an inter-dimensional doorway. From there, his day spirals downward.

Kadrey is a machine-gun writer. Most notably, he doesn’t use chapters in the Sandman series. A small space break and the action keeps rolling. If typewriters were still a thing, I think Kadrey would deliver his manuscripts on a scroll—Kerouac-style.

The first few pages establish Start as a franchise character. The story is simply bursting at the seams.

Something funny happened to me when I was Downtown. I got hard to kill. When I first arrived there, I was the first and only living human to ever set foot in Hell. I was a sideshow freak. Pay a dollar and see Jimmy, the dog-faced boy.

Kadrey keeps a lid on the backstory. He introduces enough to explain what in the (literal) Hell Stark is talking about. But no more. By the end I had a solid picture of how Stark became Sandman Slim, “the monster that kills monsters.”

Stark is a man out place. He was sacrificed by his friends and sent to Hell for eleven years. Forced to fight for his life in the arena, he became a stone killer. Stark is not a subtle character. He’s sharp corners and venom, with a to-kill list.

If this is your first taste of the Sandman, be ready. Kadrey’s writing is an explosion of metaphor. His descriptions and imagery range from “I wish I thought of that” to “damn, where’d he get his drugs.” The fast-paced dialog matches the action.

Don’t pick this one up if you have somewhere to be. You’ll be late.

Buy Sandman Slim: A Novel on Amazon, and support me at the same time.

How I work – Ulysses

My main writing tool is Ulysses III. Simply put, it’s where my text is. In a way, it’s like an office. When I open the app I write.

What is Ulysses

Most importantly, Ulysses is a writing environment. All writing is done on “sheets,” which are managed by the app. The sheets (documents) are kept in a library, organized with a database. This means all files are kept out of sight and don’t clutter up the documents folder.1

Markdown

Markdown is Ulysses’ native language, Markdown XL being it’s preferred dialect. It combines plain text with an easy to read display. The brackets, parentheses, and other markup are hidden behind tokens.

At first I thought this was unnecessary ornamentation. Something that was cute, and not in the spirit of “plain text only.” I changed my mind after only a few minutes of use. Simply having URLs hidden behind a token made reading proofing extremely easy.

I’d much rather see this:

Ulysses with Solarized II theme.
Ulysses with Solarized II theme.

Than this:

TextWrangler plain text.
TextWrangler plain text.

The Library

Because all files are managed by Ulysses, they’re accessible using the lists in the sidebars.

Native iCloud sync is built-in, and all sheets are automatically saved. Ulysses does have a save command which creates a version. Again, library to the rescue! All documents have a browsable history with the Time Machine-style interface. Creating a version makes sure document is captured as-is in the history.2

Exporting

This is where Ulysses earns it’s keep. Plain text is universally readable, which makes it a great starting point for exporting. Ulysses can export in PDF, HTML, ePub, and Word/RTF formats.

  • PDF: There are built-in styles and many more that can be downloaded. Having a styled PDF maker is much more convenient that having to open a full word processor and create every document from scratch.
  • HTML: This can be saved as a styled web page, ready to upload. Or it can be copied to the clipboard and pasted into a blog post editor.
  • ePub: A formatted iBook in three click? Yes, please. I need more time with this, but my test books looked nice.
  • Word/RTF: Sometimes I have to speak Word. I haven’t had any problems with the output files being unreadable.

Only in Ulysses

There are a few features that seem unique to Ulysses:

Link pasting: If there’s a URL on the clipboard, pasting over selected text will create a link, not replace the selection. I didn’t realize how much time this would save.

Typewriter scrolling: With this option, the cursor stays at one place on the screen. The sheet moves “behind” it, like a piece of paper. Best. Thing. Ever. I absolutely detest having to type into the bottom of a screen. Typewriter scrolling keeps my eyes up.

Dark mode: Other apps have this, and each theme has different dark and light colors. But I can also choose to have the interface dark or light, no matter which theme is active.

Glue/split: Sheets can be merged (“glued”) together or split apart. Also, when multiple sheets are selected, they are viewed/exported as a single sheet. Managing multi-part projects are much easier to proofread this way.

Room for improvement

No piece of software is perfect, here’s where I think Ulysses could be made better.

  • Raw HTML preview. I’d like to see raw HTML from an export without having to paste it into a text editor. Currently, the previews only show the rendered HTML.
  • Support for HTML elements attributes. Being able to add class and id information to links would save a step after export.
  • More consistent image handling. One image on a line is exported as a <figure> element with the description text in <figcaption>. Two images on a line are exported as <img> elements, wrapped in <p> and the description as alt text. Some control over this would save post-export editing time.
  • Spell check everything. Currently, running spell check doesn’t “reach into” footnotes and photo captions. Their boxes have to be open for spell check to see them. It’s another step for something that should be seamless.

Conclusion

Ulysses is unique. It’s worth every penny of the $39.99 price tag. It’s available exclusively on the Mac App Store, and a free demo is available.

  1. When using iCloud, Ulysses stores the local copy of files at: ~/Library/Mobile Documents/X5AZV975AG~com~soulmen~ulysses3. Don’t mess with them directly, but it’s handy to know the location for backups.
  2. The versions are created every minute or so. Specifically creating a version makes sure nothing “falls between the cracks” of an auto-save.