Hi, I’m Noah Read

I’m a designer, husband and father living and working in Western Michigan. I created Mind Vault and host a podcast called The Way Station. I use this site to post my work and write. If you want to talk feel free to contact me on Twitter or ADN. You can also find me on Dribbble.

Paralympics

When I was at West High School in Salt Lake City in 2002 I had a unique opportunity, to work for the Winter Olympics. My school was less than two blocks from where most award ceremonies and official non-athletic events were to take place, so rather than figure out how to get us all to class in the crowds and post 9/11 influenced security boom, we got a couple weeks of vacation. A month ahead of time some recruiters from the Games came to West High to get people to work. I signed up.

I worked at the figure skating/short track speed skating practice rink managing traffic. I helped direct vans from the tightly secured Olympic Village to the back entrance without delay while sending everyone else to the front where the metal detectors were. It was a lot of fun, we made new friends, ate lots of free food, got to see the athletes practice during our frequent breaks and even got to see the bomb squad robot blow up something suspicious looking (it was probably just trash). It was a lot of fun, but exhausting because I had to wake up between 3-4 every morning to arrive for work on time. There wasn't much time or energy to see the attractions or events that were happening all over the city. In the end I had fun and made enough money to buy my first Mac, a G4 Tower, and didn't feel cheated that while working I had missed all the fun.

A couple weeks later I got tickets to go see the Paralympic downhill skiing. I don’t know what I was expecting but what I saw was amazing and still one of the most inspiring memories I have. These athletes were flying down the course at speeds that I will likely never approach (I was a regular snowboarder at the time), seemingly without regard for the danger or difficulty. There were many skiers without limbs, but to me the most amazing ones were the blind skiers. They were led by a spotter a few yards ahead at breakneck speed. Trusting someone else and your own abilities that much is a singular thing to behold. If you are ever in a position to see a comparable event I hope you take it. In the meantime check out all the wonderful photos over at The Big Picture.

Snippets

Over the last few weeks I have undertaken significant changes to my site. The design has been slightly updated, with Vollkorn replacing Calluna for a heartier reading experience. The navigation has been simplified, removing the social icons from the top right of the navbar and linking to them in my bio. Navigation items on mobile sizes are now icons as well. These visual updates will keep coming as I refine the design, but the biggest updates have happened under the hood in order to empower the new Snippets feed. I migrated to a new CMS, Craft, which allows for very simple, yet totally customizable content and has a great control panel. This flexibility allowed me to take control of a lot of the content that I have been publishing on social networks and create a canonical feed of little things I want to share. I call them Snippets.

Snippets

I really enjoy Microblogging, in Twitter, ADN, or Facebook form. These social networks are great places to share, discover, and talk about almost anything. Some of the content is so great that it seems a shame to be dumping it into 3rd party services, which may be gone within a few years. Microblogging and social sharing will survive, whether or not the current players do. So I wanted to take control of the things I publish on these networks, without abandoning the great things only they can provide, the conversations and reactions to what is shared. So Snippets are the way I will post to these services from now on. I create and own the canonical material, which is then posted to Twitter, ADN, Facebook, Flickr, etc..

The way I have configured Snippets allows me to tackle another problem of social sharing, cross posting. In the past I have used IFTTT to post what I share on ADN to Twitter and Facebook. This is not ideal, it leads to truncated posts on Twitter and posts on Facebook that I end up deleting because my friends there don’t care what I think about some mundane aspect of my job. Cross posting lives in the tension of differing social network capabilities and distinct spheres of social connections. The flexibility of Craft allows me to bypass all those issues. When I create a new Snippet I write the canonical post, then I select which social networks it will be published on. I also edit the post to fit each selected network’s capabilities (character limits for example). Once the post is published each service has an RSS feed that is used, by IFTTT, to publish their version of the post. This process deals with both the differing capabilities and desired audience for each service. Facebook friends may see an article I liked and not necessarily my comments about responsive web design, but both will live on my website.

I am not trying to log all my activity on these networks, just the content that I want to claim because it originates with me. This does not include retweets, likes, comments, or any of the unique things that makes each of these services great. I am happy with the possibilities of Snippets and am excited to see how they expand.

Homesteading and Sharecropping

There have been a few articles lately regarding the place that personal websites have, and have lost. The rise of blogging services, such as Tumblr and Medium have led to concern over the value of owning a proprietary domain and personal publishing platform. Frank Chimero’s post compares building your personal site to building your own home, homesteading instead of sharecropping. This is a wonderful way to think about it, and I agree.

This year I’m planning to make some significant changes to the way I structure and publish on my site, the first order of business is transitioning to a more robust CMS and tackling an issue that has been a constant headache for me, reclaiming microblogging from social services and leaving those services to do what they do best. I have something in mind that I’m eager to implement. Check back soon.

Hand2Hand

Hand2Hand is a charitable organization that connects schools with a local church who provides food filled backpacks for needy students to take home over the weekend. This benefits the children’s nutrition, provides help to their families and improves their performance in class. With over sixty schools and forty churches partnered in western Michigan, the growing organization needed a new website that signaled to potential partners the effect they have already had and the seriousness they bring to their efforts to combat hunger in the community.

There were two parts of building Hand2Hand's website that I would like to highlight; style tiles and the Content Management System (CMS).

We presented style tiles to Hand2Hand very early in the process, which made it easier to proceed with confidence toward a design. A style tile is similar to what an interior designer might present with paint swatches, carpet samples, etc.. In our case, we present different button styles, colors, textures, typefaces, image treatments, etc.. These seemingly mundane elements can become stumbling blocks later in the design process, so getting a feel for a client’s taste and the tone they are seeking early is helpful. With the style tiles we learned that, as a growing organization, Hand2Hand wanted to inspire confidence in their own capability to any potential partner.

Once the style tiles were chosen, proceeding to wireframes and design was straightforward. Front-end development began and proceeded quickly because of the streamlined design phase. Then it was time to begin the back-end development, building a CMS.

We chose to use Craft to build Hand2Hand’s CMS. It is a fairly recent entrant in the market, but is under very active development, and its makers come with a respected pedigree in Expression Engine development and add-ons. The flexible nature of Craft meant that we were able to build the CMS that Hand2Hand needed, without the control panel bloat and historical baggage of some other platforms. There are a couple major features that are helpful for people using the CMS worth highlighting; live previews when editing content, and a responsive control panel, as well as many features that make building a custom CMS straightforward for developers. I loved working with Craft, in fact it has been the most enjoyable first experience with a CMS I have ever had. I can easily recommend it, the only caveat being that the plugin community is still new so integration for obscure services/features and niche plugins might not be available yet. You should, however, not need any third-party help with the structure of the CMS as this is extremely flexible and intuitive to set up. Likewise, there is a tremendous amount of power in the base CMS and its first-party packages.

Conclusion

The Hand2Hand site was a wonderful project to work on for an organization that I respect and people I enjoyed working with. In addition, it was the first project I worked on, from beginning to end, at Mighty in the Midwest. I am eager to see Hand2Hand’s continued growth and apply what I learned with future projects at Mighty.

Where Does the iPad Fit?

I recently listened to Episode 24 of The Prompt and was intrigued by their discussion of what the iPad is for, responding to Marco Arment’s post, who was in turn affirming Matt Gemmell’s take. In short, the disagreement comes down to whether or not people should use iPads for workflows (requiring URL schemes and other hackery) that could be more easily accomplished on desktop operating systems. My own opinion lies somewhere between Viticci’s iPad only approach and Gemmell/Arment’s practicality approach. I use my laptop for the vast majority of my work because it is easier, quicker and more straightforward for most of what I have to do. On the other hand, I love that people are pushing the iPad further in automation and scriptability, because this pushes the platform forward and ultimately makes all apps better. The larger point is that I think both sides of this argument ignore the huge productivity that is being unlocked by the iPad right now.

If computer usage is a spectrum between hard-core users (programmers, designers, media producers, scientists) on one end and casual users (web surfers, Twitter users and email readers) on the other end, there is a huge range of activities and potential in the space between. This is the market that the iPad is opening up like no computing platform has before. There are many parts of our lives that have stayed relatively computing free and the iPad is addressing those. Many people who rarely used a computer in and out of their work are using tablets in productive ways. Sometimes their iPad usage overlaps with traditional computing work, but often it does not. Apple has highlighted a few examples of this phenomenon on their Life on iPad page. When I saw these examples I was impressed by two things. First, I would never have thought of using an iPad that way. Second, a laptop would never work as well in that circumstance.

I have seen the same phenomenon in places where I would not have imagined technology a few years ago. I serve in my church’s youth program and, as part of my responsibilities, I attend regular meetings with other volunteers. I have been in meetings like these off and on for the last ten years and something has recently changed. I now see iPads all over the place. People take notes, write themselves reminders or todos, email assignments to people, look up leadership resources, refer to past notes, etc. These things happened before, but not anywhere near the level that they happen now. Overall it is a huge win for the productivity of our organization, with very little traditional mouse/keyboard computing involved.

iPads are making inroads in many people’s lives and making them more productive than they probably would have been before. Will the majority of people learn Python or chain URL schemes together? I doubt it, but I’m not sure that matters. The iPad opens up computing to parts of our lives that we didn’t consider before and I think this is the real story that should be highlighted, by the tech press and Apple itself.

For me the iPad is nowhere near replacing the Mac for productivity, but it is getting better and better. I am grateful for tools like Pythonista, Editorial, and Launch Center Pro. I am confident they will push the platform forward and the limits of mobile software will expand.

There is a narrative that the iPad is a consumption only device where nobody can get real work done. If the examples I have detailed above aren’t persuasive that this is a bogus line of thinking then I think we need to redefine what real work is. Having used rather high end productivity, design and programming software on a regular basis I would say that if that is the litmus test for real work I fear for the state of humanity. The iPad is being used for real work all the time and the biggest concern I have for the platform has little to do with its capabilities, but with its economics. The race to the bottom on app pricing makes it difficult for developers to justify the investment necessary to create more powerful and fully featured apps. This is why I applaud developers like The Omni Group, who charge a fair price for their software, despite market pressure to give everything away for free.

In conclusion, I will reiterate that the iPad is built for real work and it can make you more productive in ways that you might not have considered before. It may not be better for Excel, but is that really all you do?

Why Gratitude?

I once received the firm admonition to be thankful for my nation. I am having trouble mustering gratitude for the country this year as I watch the ever expanding security/surveillance state encroaching on the laws and freedoms of our nation, with seemingly little public outcry. At times like these I have found it helpful to remember that my country and my government are not always the same thing.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have been given living in the United States. I have been able to find employment in a profession of my choosing, support my family, move freely from state to state, speak my mind as I see fit (although recently I can’t help but choose my words more carefully since it is clear that people are listening), worship and live my faith according to my own conscience, own transportation and a home, choose how I will vote and more. These things are all elements of my country, aside from offensive actions that my government takes.

It is important to undertake this exercise and find things to be grateful for. Without them, why would I change the things that need changing? Gratitude grounds motivation, and clarifies what is worth defending.

Mighty

Yesterday was a big day for me. My son turned two and got a Little Tikes car to prove it. I also started a new full time job at Mighty in the Midwest, a web design and development agency in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mighty is a fantastic company with a talented team and great clients. I have been working part time with Mighty for the last few months and have been impressed as I have seen how they do what they do. I feel very fortunate to take a full time position with them.

During my contract work at Mighty I have been able to help with the Downtown Market website and work extensively on a site that launched yesterday, Hand2Hand. Hand2Hand is a charity that partners schools with local churches who provide food filled backpacks for hungry children to take home over the weekends. It’s an inspiring organization with sincerely passionate people and I am proud to have been involved in their new website. You can visit the site here and learn about the great work they do.

I am looking forward to working on many more projects with the Mighty team and encourage anybody who needs a great website to get in touch.

Food in Peru

I recently replied to a question on Yabbly, a great website for QA and product recommendations, regarding travel tips for Peru. My tips were all food related, as that is my primary motivation most of the time. I thought I would post the same tips here and expand them in a couple points. Here are my top places to eat in the cities a traveller is most likely to hit making a trip to Peru.

Lima:

Cuzco:

Aguas Calientes (base camp for Macchu Picchu):

Ica

It is not as likely that a tourist would visit Ica, but it’s a city a few hours south of Lima in the desert where I lived for 6 months so I can offer a couple recommendations.

The Efficiency Trap

I have been deeply disturbed by recent revelations about the US government’s spying operations. The NSA’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution, as well as the Executive branch’s defense of spying, is what I consider to be a serious affront to the rights and liberties of American citizens. I have wanted to share something about the current situation that goes beyond outrage (my social streams have already been inundated with enough of my snarky comments). I think that the efficiency trap is what I can offer.

Greater efficiency seems to be a universally desired characteristic, but should it be? Efficiency is about automating any process that will shorten the distance/time between the beginning and end of any action. Gains in efficiency have lead to tremendous economic growth in virtually every sector of our society. It has led to wonderful and elegant solutions to the problems and annoyances of day to day life, especially in the technology realm. I am for greater efficiency in many of these areas. I love online banking, bill pay, better gas mileage, wider public transportation, online shopping, and all the other modern conveniences that have come from the drive for efficiency.

There is one part of civic life that seems to have been missed by all this efficiency, government. It seems that every time an issue arises for congress to deal with, the level of outrage among the American people rises.

“Why can’t these people work together?” “If only the (insert your least favored political party here) would play ball they could get something done.”

These familiar complaints can lead people to wonder why our government works the way it does. As I have thought about this I have come to think that our government works the way it does on purpose. This inefficiency of the process is what was intended by the framers of our constitution, and that is not a bad thing.

Checks and balances are not just a civics class factoid, they are essential to a functioning democracy. Each branch of government has power to check the other and it is easy to see why this is important in theory, but it is not efficient. The most efficient form of government would be a dictatorship, one chain of command with nonexistent or ineffectual checks to power. It is precisely this type of efficiency and singular vision that Apple has in the tech sector and Microsoft reorganized to achieve. We may like the outcomes from this structure in business, but the side effects of the same structure in government are widely condemned.

The ideas behind checks and balances are put to use in courtrooms, where trials are adversarial with impartial judges and juries deciding the outcome. This is why activist judges are roundly denounced (unless of course you agree with their leanings). Checks and balances exist (supposedly) for security agencies, in the form of congressional oversight from senators who approve their budgets. The fact that the military is divided so sharply into different branches helps prevent the type of power consolidation that so often topples governments (see Egypt for a recent example).

Checks and balances cannot prevent all problems in our government but their existence greatly reduces them. The framers of the Constitution knew first-hand the consequences of unchecked power in the form of a King effectively unchecked by a parliament that, in turn, was not accountable to the people it represented. History had taught them that unchecked power usually, if not always, leads to abuse of that power and the people with the least representation suffer the most. They created our form of government, with extensive checks and balances, as an answer to that problem and the American people have been the beneficiaries for over two centuries.

This is why the NSA spying revelations are such a huge problem. This and many of the laws passed in the last 12 years have introduced a tremendous amount of unchecked power into our government, the executive branch specifically. After 9/11, the intelligence community were caught flat footed. The problem, as they saw it, was a lack of efficiency caused by a lack interdepartmental cooperation. They were asked by the White House what they would need to fight terrorists and prevent another attack. Their recommendations resulted in The Patriot Act, a set of war powers that gave the intelligence community broad license to streamline their work with little real oversight. The NSA would need court orders to spy on Americans, but to promote greater efficiency they set up their own secret, non-adversarial courts that work off secret legal interpretations. Instead of congressional oversight where the issues could be debated openly by our representatives, all oversight was done by secret committees who were banned from discussing disturbing revelations publicly, if they were told the truth at all. In effect there is no check to the power of the NSA. Any semblance of oversight is tightly controlled by those who are supposed to be watched.

We have given our presidents war powers before, World War II comes to mind, but there was always an end objective in those conflicts. The “War on Terror” has no end point, so these laws that empower the executive branch and security agencies to act with impunity, will we be with us perpetually unless we do something about it. What can we do? We can do something hard, be squeaky wheels. Here are my suggestions, take them how you will:

  1. Contact your representatives. Let them know that this breach of the Constitution should not be tolerated and that they will lose your vote should they not work to make secret surveillance of US citizens clearly illegal (this will mean repeal of much, if not all, of the Patriot Act) and defund any agency that does not comply. Let them know that the choice between safety and security is a false choice and they are in Washington primarily to guard our liberties and uphold the law, not be lifeguards. If your representative does not comply then actually vote for someone else and tell your family and friends to do the same. Their willingness to stop these programs is probably best indicated by how they have voted for The Patriot Act in the past, although, being politicians, they can change if properly motivated.
  2. Tell everyone you know about it. The disregard for our rights being perpetrated by our government would have seemed like conspiracy theories a few years ago, but they are real and every revelation is worse than the last. If you’re wondering where to point people, this timeline, the Washington Post’s Top Secret America, The Guardian’s NSA articles, The Economist’s op ed, and Bruce Schneier’s piece on privacy are good places to start. This is an issue that should not be bumped out of focus by Syria or whatever else the executive tries to distract us with in the coming months.
  3. Let tech companies know, by your lack of patronage or by direct contact, that it will hurt them monetarily to leave open backdoors for the NSA. They may not have a choice, but they’re much more likely to make a bigger stink in Washington if it’s costing them money.
  4. Make life difficult for the NSA. If you are technically inclined, increase the time and effort it takes them to track your information. Here’s an article showing you how to get started.

The organizations that are abusing our fear of terrorism by increasing surveillance may seem so entrenched that we can’t do anything about it, but America was unique in the world when it was formed in an interesting way. We have the ability through our electoral system to have a peaceful revolution every few years. We can choose our leaders and no matter what they say about the benefits of institutional knowledge they can be replaced, just as all their predecessors have been. If we do not like the way our government treats us, we can replace them, all of them. The road to tyranny may seem long, but the NSA and the executive branch’s powers are shortening it a great deal. It may be hard to imagine our nation turning to tyranny today, but try to imagine who will be in power in 15–20 years. I can’t and I imagine you can’t either. This is too much power for any government, no matter how well intentioned. Let’s do something about it. We can show the world that efficiency is not more important than checks and balances and that liberty is more important than expediency.

Napkin

Napkin is a Mac App for image annotation and sharing. I used it recently to send quick feedback to developers on their implementation of designs and it is a joy to work with. It is clear that Napkin’s creators have focused on the details and flow of the app and made them great. Here’s how I have used it so far.

I capture screenshots of the app/website I want to send feedback on and then import them into Ember (which I wrote a review about last week). From here I drag them out of Ember onto Napkin, where all the images are thrown onto a new canvas. Here it is simply a matter of selecting the appropriate tool to point to, zoom, annotate, etc. different parts of the image. One of the best parts is how unnecessary clicks and steps have been eliminated. Arrows are created not by clicking a start point and an end point, but by drawing a line. In order to write a note you just start typing, without first picking fonts, location or color (these things can be changed after the fact). It’s all the little efficiencies and well considered design decisions that add up to create a great experience.

If Napkin seems like something you might find useful, learn more at their website or pick it up from the App Store.