State of my toolchain 2022

Welcome to my now-nearly-yearly State of my Toolchain report (you can see previous editions for 2021, 2019, 2018 and 2016). I began these posts as a way to document the tools, applications and hardware that were useful to me in the work that I did, but also to help observe how they shifted over time – as technology evolved, my tasks changed, and as the underpinning assumptions of usage shifted. In this year’s post, I’m still going to cover my toolchain at a glance, and report on what’s changed, and what gaps I still have in my workflow – and importantly – reflect on the shifts that have occurred over 5 years.

At a glance

Hardware, wearables and accessories

Software

  • Atom with a range of plugins for writing code, thesis notes (no change since last report)
  • Pandoc for document generation from MarkDown (no change since last report)
  • Zotero for referencing (using Better BibTeX extension) (no change since last report)
  • OneNote for Linux by @patrikx3 (no change since last report)
  • Nightly edition of Firefox (no change since last report)
  • Zoom (no change since last report)
  • Microsoft Teams for Linux (no change since last report)
  • Gogh for Linux terminal preferences (no change since last report)
  • Super productivity (instead of Task Warrior) (changed since last report)
  • Cuckoo Timer for Pomodoro sessions (changed since last report)
  • RescueTime for time tracking (no change since last report)
  • BeeMindr for commitment based goals (no change since last report)
  • Mycroft as my Linux-based voice assistant (no change since last report)
  • Okular as my preferred PDF reader (instead of Evince on Linux and Adobe Acrobat on Windows) (changed since last report)
  • NocoDB for visual database work (changed this report)
  • ObservableHQ for data visualistion (changed this report)

Techniques

  • Pomodoro (no change since last report)
  • Passion Planner for planning (no change since last report)
  • Time blocking (used on and off, but a lot more recently)

What’s changed since the last report?

There’s very little that’s changed since my last State of My Toolchain report in 2021: I’m still doing a PhD at the Australian National University’s School of Cybernetics, and the majority of my work is researching, writing, interviewing, and working with data.

Tools for PhD work

My key tools are MaxQDA for qualitative data analysis – Windows only, unfortunately, and prone to being buggy with OneDrive. My writing workflow is done using Atom. One particularly useful tool I’ve adopted in the last year has been NocoDB – it’s an opensource alternative to visual database interfaces like Notion and AirTable, and I found it very useful – even if the front end was a little clunky. Working across Windows and Linux, I’ve settled on Okular as my preferred PDF reader and annotator – I read on average about 300-400 pages of PDF content a week, and Adobe Acrobat was buggy as hell. Okular has fine-grained annotating tools, and the interface is the same across Windows and Linux. Another tool I’ve started to use a lot this year is ObservableHQ – it’s like Jupyter notebook, but for d3.js data visualisations. Unfortunately, they’ve recently brought in a change to their pricing structure, and it’s going to cost me $USD15 a month for private notebooks – and I don’t think the price point is worth it.

Hardware and wearables

The key changes this year are a phone upgrade – my Pixel 3 screen died, and the cost to replace the screen was exorbitant – a classic example of planned obsolescence. I’ve been happy with Google’s phones – as long as I disable all the spyware voice enabled features, and settled on the Pixel 4a 5G. It’s been a great choice – clear, crisp photos, snappy processor, and excellent battery life.

After nearly four years, my Mobvoi Ticwatch Pro started suffering the “ghost touch” problem, where the touch interface started picking up non-existent taps. A factory restart didn’t solve the problem, so I got the next model up – the Ticwatch Pro 2020 – at 50% off. This wearable has been one of my favourite pieces of hardware – fast, responsive, durable – and I can’t imagine not having a smartwatch now. I’ve settled on the Flower watch face after using Pujie Black for a long time – both heavily customisable. The love Google is giving to Wear OS is telling – I have much smoother integration between phone apps and Wear OS apps than even 1-2 years ago.

After having two Plantronics Backbeat Pro headphones – one from around 2017 and the other circa 2021, both still going, but the first with a very poor battery life and battered earpads, I invested in my first pair of reasonable headphones – the Sennheiser Momentum Pro 3. The sound quality is incredible – I got them for $AUD 300 which I thought was a lot to pay for headphones, but they’ve been worth every penny – particularly when listening to speech recognition data.

With so much PhD research and typing, I found my Logitech MK240 just wasn’t what I needed – it’s a great little unit if you don’t have anything else, but it was time for a mechanical keyboard because I love expensive hobbies. After some research, and a mis-step with the far too small HuoJi Z-88, (the keypresses for linux command line tasks were horrendous) I settled on the Keychron K8 and haven’t looked back. Solid, sturdy, blue Gateron switches – it’s a dream to type on, and works well across Windows and Linux. However, on Linux it is using a Mac keyboard layout and I had to do some tweaking with a keymapper – and used keyd. My only disappointment with Keychron is the hackyness needed to get it working properly on Linux.

Productivity

My Passion Planner is still going strong, but I haven’t been as diligent as using it as a second brain as I have been in the past, and the price changes this year meant that shipping one to Australia cost me nearly $AUD 120 in total – and that’s unaffordable in the longer term – so I’m actively looking at alternatives as as Bullet Journalling. The Passion Planner is great – it’s just expensive.

I’ve also dropped Task Warrior in favour of Super Productivity this year. Task Warrior isn’t cross-platform – I can’t use it on Android, or on Windows, and thanks to MaxQDA software, I’m spending a lot more of my time in Windows. The Gothenberg Bit Factory are actively developing Task Warrior – full transparency, I’m a GitHub sponsor of theirs – but the cloud-based and cross-platform features seem to be taking a while to come to fruition.

I’m also using time-blocking a lot more, and am regularly using Cuckoo as a pomodoro timer with a PhD cohort colleague, T. We have an idea for a web app that optimises the timing of Pomodoros based on a feedback loop – but more on that next year.

Current gaps in my toolchain

Visual Git editor

In my last State of My Toolchain report, I lamented having a good Visual Git Editor. That’s been solved in Windows with GitHub’s desktop application, but as of writing the Linux variant appears to be permanently mothballed. I’m sure this has nothing to do with Microsoft buying GitHub. So I am still on the lookout for a good Linux desktop Git GUI. On the other hand, doing everything by CLI is always good practice.

Second Brain

In my last report I also mentioned having taken Huginn for a spin, and being let down at its immaturity. It doesn’t seem to have come very far. So I’m still on the lookout for “Second Brain” software – this is more than the knowledge management software in the space that tools like Roam and Obsidian occupy, but much more an organise-your-life tool. The Microsoft suite – Office, Teams, and their stablemates – are trying to fill this niche, but I want something that’s not dependent on an enterprise login. But I’ve decided to reframe this gap as a “Second Brain” gap – after reading Tiago Forte’s book on the topic.

The Fediverse

Triggered by Elon Musk’s purchase, and subsequent transformation of Twitter into a flaming dumpster fire, I’ve become re-acquainted with the Fediverse – you can find me on Mastodon here, on Pixelfed.au here, and on Bookwyrm here. However, the tooling infrastructure around the Fediverse isn’t as mature – understandably – as commercial platforms. I’m using Tusky as my Android app, and the advanced web interface. But there are a lack of hosting options for the Fediverse – I can’t find a pre-configured Digital Ocean Droplet for Mastodon, for example – and I think the next year will see some development in this space. If you’re not across Mastodon, I wrote a piece that uses cybernetic principles to compare and contrast it with Twitter.

5 years of toolchain trends

After five years of the State of My Toolchain report, I want to share some reflections on the longer-term trends that have been influential in my choice of tools.

Cross-platform availability and dropping support for Linux

I work across three main operating systems – Linux, Windows (because I have to for certain applications) and Android. The tools I use need to work seamlessly across all three. There’s been a distinct trend over the last five years for applications to start providing Linux support but then move to a “community” model or drop support altogether. Two cases in point were Pomodone – which I dropped because of its lack of Linux support, and RescueTime – which still works on Linux for me, albeit with some quirks (such as not restarting properly when the machine awakes from suspend). This is counter-intuitive given the increasing usage of Linux on the desktop. The aspiration of many Linux aficionados that the current year will be “The Year of Linux on the Desktop” is not close to fruition – but the statistics show a continued, steady rise – if small – in the number of Linux desktop users. This is understandable though – startups and small SaaS providers cannot justify supporting such a small user base. That said, they shouldn’t claim to support the operating system then drop support – as both Pomodone and RescueTime have done.

Takeaway: products I use need to work cross-platform, anywhere, anytime – and especially on Linux.

Please don’t make me change my infrastructure to work with your product

A key reason for choosing the Ticwatch Pro 2020 over other Mobvoi offerings was that the watch’s charger was the same between hardware models. I’d bought a couple of extra chargers to have handy, and didn’t want to have to buy more “spares”. This mirrors a broader issue with hardware – it has a secondary ecosystem. I don’t just need a mobile phone, I need a charger, a case, and glass screen protectors – a bunch of accessories. These are all different – they exhibit variety – a deliberate reduction in re-usability and a buffer against commodification. But in choosing hardware, one of my selection criteria is now re-usability or upgradeability – how can I re-use this hardware’s supporting infrastructure. The recent decision by Europe to standardise on USB-C is the right one.

Takeaway: don’t make me buy a second infrastructure to use your product.

I’m happy to pay for your product, but it has to represent value for money, or it’s gone

Several of my tools are open source – Super Productivity, NocoDB, Atom, Pandoc – and where I can, I GitHub sponsor them or provide a monetary contribution.On the whole, these pieces of software are often worth a lot more too me than the paid proprietary software I used – for example, MaxQDA is over $AUD 300 a year – predominantly because it only has one main competitor, NVIVO. I have no issue paying for software, but it has to represent value for money. If I can get the same value – or nearly equivalent – from an open source product, then I’m choosing open source. Taguette wasn’t there over MaxQDA, but Super Productivity has equivalent functionality to Pomodone. Open source products keep proprietary products competitive – and this is a great reason to invest in open source where you are able.

That’s it! Are there any products or platforms you’ve found particularly helpful? Let me know in the comments.