What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

I enjoyed this feature on Quartz about the best gifts people have received. It’s not exactly a gift guide. It’s a collection of stories about gifts that have staying power and are worth remembering and talking about long after they’ve been given.

I immediately thought about what my answer would be if asked about the best gift I’ve received. Getting set up with the woman who became my wife was the ultimate gift. (Thanks, Gloria, for sending me her name and contact information on the back of that photo. Best gift ever.) And, of course, my two daughters continue to give us joy every day.

But if I’m considering just tangible gifts, I immediately think of the camera my parents gave me when I was in ninth grade. They ran a camera shop and portrait studio, and I worked there myself occassionally. I joined the high school yearbook staff and wanted to be a photographer on the staff, but I didn’t have a good camera.

In my dad’s shop I would play with the 35 mm SLRs that were in the display case, and as Christmas approached my dream was to get the Nikon FM. I knew it was the best, but it was so expensive. My parents were facing lean times as they were trying to keep their store in business. I was sure the best camera I could hope for was the much less expensive Pentax K1000. But I was still dreaming of the Nikon.

On Christmas morning I picked a present under the tree with my name on it, and my heart sunk. From working in their shop I could tell that the box I was holding was a match for the Pentax’s camera case. I was resigned to getting the Pentax. 

It was indeed the box for the Pentax camera case, but inside was another present altogether. Socks, I think. My mom had just repurposed a discarded case box from the store.  

The next present I opened… the Nikon. This was my Red Rider BB gun moment. I was so happy. I can still recall the feel of the Nikon in my hands, the smell of the metal and plastic, wearing the strap around my neck, and eagerly taking pictures (on film, of course) of almost anything remotely interesting on that glorious Christmas morning.

That camera was a beautiful thing. It was this sophisticated and solid device made for grown-ups, professionals even, and I was honored my parents thought me worthy of it. I used it for years and still have it, though it is now a nostalgic relic of a lost era of film photography.

It’s probably that camera and that Christmas memory that cemented my already burgeoning love for cutting edge gadgets and great things in general. 

And it’s the feeling of that moment that I hope to occassionally spark for my wife and kids and other family members as I search for gifts for them.

What are the best gifts you’ve received? 

As you search for gifts for others, are you content to just go through the motions and check gifts off your to-do list? Or do you want to go on a quest to find a gift that surprises and delights and makes a memory worth talking about even years later?


Thermapen deal, 48 hours only

The newest version of one of my favorite kitchen tools, the Thermapen digital thermometer, is on sale until 11:59 on December 9. (Thanks, Alton Brown!)

It’s still expensive, but it’s so worth it if you cook regularly. To heck with guessing whether the meat is done. I don’t have much confidence in people who gauge doneness by the way the meat feels when poked or pressed. With this thermometer, you can know if it’s done. 

For the cook or grill master in your life, this would make a great gift. 


On wearable technology and the world as it might be

Ben Thompson has a great post today about wearable technology in light of Apple’s upcoming new device: How Apple Will Make the Wearable Market

Thompson lately has been putting out a consistent stream of thoughtful analysis of Apple especially and of the direction of technology in general. In his most recent post about the Apple Watch he points out that most critics base their pessimism on how new technology will fare in the world as it is rather than looking imaginatively at the world as it might be.

He offers this:

For all of the changes that have been wrought by technology, a huge amount of our daily existence really hasn’t changed in a very long time. Consider keys: in my bag I have several pieces of metal, hopefully unique, that unlock doors or start up machines that run on controlled explosions. It’s positively barbaric! Money has improved a bit – cash is certainly a very old concept, although credit cards are more modern – but the idea that we physically hand someone access to a huge amount of money (i.e. our credit cards) without even thinking about it is odd. We operate lights with switches, print disposable tickets for everything from airplanes to concerts, and pack identification from a whole host of authorities, including the government and workplace.

It’s increasingly plausible to envision a future where all of these examples and a whole host of others in our physical environment are fundamentally transformed by software: locks that only unlock for me, payment systems that keep my money under my control, and in general an adaptation to my presence whether that be at home, at the concert hall, or at work.

He then goes on to explore how wearable devices can take a central role in such a future. And Apple is differentiating their device by making it desirable, aesthetically and emotionally, as well as remarkably useful. It’s not just a smart watch, there is also a good bit of art to their watch.

Apple’s focus on fashion is part of the plan to make their watch a cultural hit and not just a geek fetish. And widespread adoption would be necessary for all the parts to come together to make wearable technology more than just a fad for technology enthusiasts.

Reading Thompson’s post reminded me how much my family enjoyed using Disney’s MagicBands when we visited Disney World more than a year ago. These colorful bracelets unlocked our hotel room door, served as our tickets to enter the parks, managed our Fast Passes for rides, and were used to pay for our meals and souvenirs at restaurants and stores throughout the Disney resorts.

As much as I love good technology, I’ve been reluctant to get excited about Apple Watch. I have been imagining its primary function was to enable notifications to work more seamlessly. It seems to be a notification delivery machine. Literally. And I am anti-notifications. The fewer interruptions, the better.

Yet, a watch that would connect with my life in an abundance of helpful ways, the way the Disney MagicBands did, would be one that would earn a central role in my life the way the iPhone has.

There’s a long way to go before the infrastructure is in place to create such a connected and wireless world. But selling lots of Apple Watches would push that vision forward faster.

It’s hard for me to vividly remember the pre-smartphone world. The iPhone was a niche product with no app store, weak processing power, super slow internet, and a high price tag when it was introduced in 2007. Those who, at the time, saw the world as it was, dismissed its chances. But look at the world as it is now.

Consider the world as it might be from this point on. How will wearable technology and the infrastructure interacting with it look five years from now?

Since reading Thompson’s post, I’ve been browsing the Apple Watch options online, the sizes and band choices, and imagining wearing a watch again for the first time since 2008. (My favorite at the moment: Apple Watch Sport, space gray, black band, 38mm.)

It may be a year or two before I pull the trigger. I’m not a knee-jerk early adopter. The sweet spot of form and function and a robust ecosystem for these devices is surely at least a couple of iterations away. But I think it’s coming.

Apple Watch Sport space gray

Seven weeks left in 2014: Habit List app


I’ve been counting down the weeks left in the year, and we are at the seven week mark today.

I’ve been diligent with most of my finish-the-year-strong habits – getting in my mile walk every day, sticking with the hundred push-ups plan, and posting to this site daily. (Not so solid with my reading habit, though. Commit to a book, man!)

I remembered a habit tracking app I used last year, Habit List, and re-downloaded it. I was delighted to find a new and better design than when I last used it. I’ve tried the very popular Lift app, but I’m not interested in the social component, and the app is just not focused enough for what I want in a habit tracker.

Jerry Seinfeld apparently kept a big calendar on his office wall and crossed off each day on the calendar when he wrote, a daily habit that was a high priority for his work. And he was obsessive enough to not want to break the streak, so the calendar with the red “X”s compelled him to write every day if only to keep the streak alive.

Habit List is that calendar, but on your phone, in your pocket. You load in the habits you want to keep consistently and how often you want to do them. Then you can easily track how you’re doing. I get a small but satisfying boost whenever I tap that I’ve completed that habit for the day and keep the streak going.

And I feel a little tug of uneasiness as long as a habit remains unchecked for the day. I came in from a trip late Sunday night and was tired. But I didn’t want to break my “mile walk” streak, so I put on a jacket and grabbed the leash and took Mosley on a brisk walk through the neighborhood, going just far enough to check off the mile habit for the day.

Remember, systems are better than goals. Do what it takes to consistently put your priorities in front of you, to shame yourself if you have to, in order to act like and become the person you want to be.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 8.53.44 AM
Habit List app

Only nine weeks left to make 2014 awesome


It’s Wednesday. As of today there are only nine weeks left in 2014, one week down in my ten week countdown to make 2014 more awesome.

What will you have to show for this year? How do you want to finish? Schedule some time for a meeting with yourself on New Year’s Eve to assess the year, to review what was great about 2014 and what could have been better. Really, go put this on your calendar now. I just added it to mine. (By the way, I use Fantastical, a killer calendar app for Mac and iOS. So good.)

I’m imagining Wednesday, December 31. There will be football on TV and a family gathering that night probably. But that morning will most likely be a quiet time to get away and reflect on the year and on these last ten weeks especially. I’m hoping I’m stronger (I’m one week closer in the hundred pushups challenge) and a bit smarter (my book reading plan is slow go for now, though). I plan to have written something I’m proud of, and I’m counting on having even better relationships with the people I love.

What can you do to finish well? What actions can you take this week that will create momentum for the habits and routines you want to build. Systems trump goals, and these final weeks can give you a good foundation to build systems that will endure and that can truly transform your life over time.

Nine weeks is plenty of time to make remarkable progress on something you truly care about. Don’t wait till there are only eight weeks left to get started on finishing strong in 2014.

Start. Now.

iPhone week and the fleeting allure of great gadgets

I’ve loved gadgets since I was a kid. There was my blue plastic cassette recorder I played with in the car on the way to Disney World. I remember recording McCartney’s Live and Let Die from the car radio. I also as a kid had a nifty solar-powered calculator and a classic record player and some excellent film cameras including a Polaroid and a Kodak “pocket camera”. I received a Nikon FM SLR for Christmas in 9th-grade and spent the rest of high school roaming the halls and sidelines as the yearbook photographer. I’ve got that camera packed away in a closet somewhere. And it still works great, but film seems ancient now.

For high school graduation my parents gave me a gorgeous Seiko watch that I had first eyed in a full page magazine ad. That watch was with me throughout college. I lost it somehow a few years later when I was working in D.C. I last remember having it as I was taking my parents and grandmother on a White House tour. Later, after coming up empty with the lost-and-found desk at the White House, I couldn’t help but imagine President Reagan wearing it, proudly admiring my Seiko on his wrist, claiming finders keepers.

One of my favorite gadgets of the pre-iPhone era was the Palm V. It was a svelte little electronic organizer with lovely lines that just felt great to use. I went through a few different Palm devices until the iPhone appeared.

My first Apple device, though, was the distinctive iMac G4 with the white base and the screen on a movable arm. It’s such an appealing design we still keep it on a desk in our home even though it’s not been turned on in years. That Mac led us to the iPod (3rd generation) which eventually put us on the iPhone path.

I’ve been an iPhone user since 2008. I stood in line for hours during the opening week of the 3G release. Bless my sweet wife who waited patiently in the mall with our two young kids. She had no idea it would take so long or cost so much. I loved that phone. I was in awe of what it could do, especially compared to any other device I had ever owned. It did feel magical.

I’ve upgraded every couple of years since then. The iPhone 4 supplanted the 3G as my favorite device ever, and my iPhone 5 has been a solid improvement over the 4.

And now I’ve already preordered the iPhone 6. I went with the 4.7” screen with 64 GB of storage in “space gray”. The 6 Plus is way too big for my tastes. I’m even leery of the screen size of the smaller 6 and worried that it may be too unwieldy compared to the 5. My wife, especially, was fond of the size of the iPhone 5.

I think we’re both going to be fine with the new size, and we will probably wonder why we were even hesitant about it. I’m thrilled with the increase in storage, though. My wife’s 32 GB iPhone 5 stays full with photos and videos. My current phone only has 16 GB, not nearly enough. Fortunately, Dropbox and iCloud have enabled me to keep most of my stuff in the cloud and off my device until I need it.

I realize these devices are frivolous and inessential and have incredibly short reigns as our most cutting edge gadgets. And yet they’re amazing. My phone is one of the few things I have with me almost all the time. It’s in my pocket or on my desk or in my hand or on my nightstand while I sleep. It’s my window to the world and to the people I love. It’s my journal and calendar and to-do list and the first thing I reach for when a creative spark strikes. And it’s an amazing camera that’s helping me chronicle and remember my family’s big and small moments.

I’m not obsessed with my phone, and I don’t let it distract me from being present with the real live people I’m around every day. I keep it on mute and keep it out of sight when I’m in conversation.

I don’t have many material desires. But I do appreciate the grace of great things, and I do love having the most current computer technology. As brilliantly designed as these devices are, though, it’s stunning how fleeting their utility is. My old-school safety razor, for example, will be just as handsome and useful fifty years from now. My chef’s knife and cast iron skillet could be used someday by my future grandchildren. But the new iPhone that’s arriving at my door on Friday will be out of date a year from now when the next one is released.

I don’t mind, though. Such is the way of technology. The allure of having the best right now, especially for something that has such a prominent role in everyday routines, is worth it for me. This pocketable, best-in-its-class gadget regularly, consistently provides moments of delight and utility in a way that no other thing could. A mere thing, thoughtfully designed and well executed, can add genuine value and enhance the enjoyment of my days. I’m looking forward to seeing the UPS truck on Friday.

Paying for quality


You pay for quality.

If it’s poor quality you’ve purchased, you pay again with annoyance or frustration and regret and possibly lost time and maybe repairing or replacing.

High quality purchases may typically only require the initial payment.

Things are ultimately just things. But great things can add value and beauty and more consistently satisfying moments than things that are merely cheap.

It’s much better to have fewer things that you find useful and beautiful than to have a lot of things that ultimately do not delight you past the purchase price.

Great apps

Speaking of great things, Apple recently announced their annual Apple Design Award winners. They honor developers and designers whose apps stood out from a very crowded field in the ever expanding Apple App Store.


I was especially happy to see Day One win for its Mac app. It won previously for its great iOS app. Day One, the ultimate journal, is one of my most used apps. It’s beautiful and smart and has become a daily part of my attempt to chronicle and reflect on my life.

I use some of the other award winning apps, too. Sky Guide is magical. Just hold your device to the sky, and it shows you which stars or planets or constellations you’re seeing. (Or point your device at the ground and see the stars visible from the other side of the Earth!) At the beach this week we’ve used Sky Guide a few times to identify the planets appearing in the sunset sky.

Monument Valley is a beautiful, frustratingly challenging, and ultimately satisfyingly delightful iPad game. My 9-year-old went from near tears to fist-pumping triumph and back again trying to play her way through the many levels of puzzles. She’s playing it through again as I write this.

Threes is a fun and engrossing game with charming little details throughout.

There are a lot of poorly executed apps out there, apps that don’t delight. Too many developers are looking for a quick and easy buck, hoping to be the next Instagram or Angry Birds. I appreciate creators who disdain the “quick and easy” approach, and instead put in the effort to make beautifully designed and smartly executed apps that solve problems and add value to my life.

I’m amused by friends who flinch when I recommend an app that costs $3, or, heaven forbid, $5. (These same friends think nothing of dropping that much or more on a cup of coffee that’s gone in a few minutes.) I’m actually a bit leery of free apps. Is this free app going to target ads at me or set me up for in-app purchases or mine my information for some other service? I would rather pay directly to the makers of products I value and know I’m getting my money’s worth.

Go for quality in the things you possess, including the apps you use. Kudos to the makers who bring such wonderful tools to our devices.

Here are my current iPhone and iPad home screens:



The grace of great things

I have a notion of someday becoming what might be called a minimalist. I’m far from it at the moment. My family has plenty of unnecessary stuff and clusters of clutter scattered mostly out of sight. My wife and I have not yet committed to a truly deep and wholesale purge, just brief sorties here and there to minimize the spill-over of our typical, maximized American life.

However, I think I would make a fine minimalist. I proudly travel very lightly. My product consumption is mostly of the digital sort, e-books and apps being the primary targets of acquisition. I’m no clotheshorse. I have no desire to collect anything that takes up space or needs some sort of shelf of honor. Shopping is my least favorite past time. I’m quick to edit objects out of my life without regret. I’m not particularly nostalgic for memorabilia and am almost cold-hearted in my lack of attachment to sentimental stuff.

But I do appreciate the grace of great things.

A great thing can spark delight and wonder and enhance experiences in meaningful ways.


I am fond of this hat. I bought it five years or so ago for a beach trip, and I wear it regularly when I’m going to be outside in the sun or rain for long stretches. It is comfortable and rugged, made of hemp and quick drying after a dunk in the ocean or pool. And it’s got just a dash of style. I think I look good in it, whether anyone else thinks so or not. Just putting it on resets my default to play mode. If the wind snatched it from my head and cast it to the waves, I wouldn’t be sad. But I would order another one. I am grateful to whoever designed and made this excellently crafted hat. It is a great thing that adds an extra bit of joy to my adventures.


And there’s this tea cup. Beautiful to admire, a pleasure to hold. The double-walled glass is ideal for hot tea. I can wrap my hands around the warm brew as well as see the rich color of the tea. The infuser fits perfectly inside. (The infuser that comes with it is fine, but I upgraded to an even better infuser that prevents even the smallest debris of the tea leaves from getting into the cup.) This tea cup is a delightful part of my morning routine. The tea would taste the same from any old mug, but this great cup makes drinking tea a more wonderful experience.

Beautiful form and effective function make for an excellent design and a great thing.

I don’t want a great quantity of things. I do, however, want the things I choose to have around me to be of great quality. I like the declutterer’s sage advice: Surround yourself only with things you find either useful or beautiful. And it’s truly a great thing if it is both useful and beautiful.

May we all produce beautifully useful things in whatever we do.

In praise of email

Email gets a bad rap. But I like it.

I would rather receive or send an email about a task than receive or make a phone call or go to a meeting about a task. Email allows you to respond in your own time. A phone call does not. Email allows a person to assess and look into something, to build a potentially thoughtful, worthwhile gap between the stimulus and the response. Problems certainly arise when people don’t utilize that gap and instead respond thoughtlessly or too hastily. But email respects the time and attention of others better than conventional communication methods.

Most people need a couple of hours of uninterrupted time to get into a flow of productive work. Phone calls, especially, but meetings, too, have a skewed sense of urgency that does not respect the time and need for the deep focus of others. Certainly, some things have to be talked out or are best handled in person. But I appreciate someone who emails asking me to suggest a day and time when a call or face-to-face would be convenient. I have even set my phone’s voicemail message to encourage the caller to send an email instead of leaving a voicemail if possible.

Yes, email can be overwhelming if your email inbox is your de facto task list, especially if you don’t tend to your inbox consistently. But I’m an inbox zero guy. I process through my inbox every day and empty it almost every time I open my email app.

That doesn’t mean I respond to every email, and it doesn’t mean I respond quickly to every message. I just do triage. I decide which emails need a response from me and which can be deleted or archived. If an email needs a response, I do it right away if it will take less than a couple of minutes. If it will require more thought and take longer than two minutes, I file it in an “Action” folder in my Mail app for review at another time. Also, I only open my email app two or three times each day, ideally.

A good email should have a clear subject line, nothing cryptic, and the body of the email should be as short as possible. You’re more likely to get effective responses if you keep your emails clear, direct, and simple. Don’t cc unnecessarily, and there are very few cases where you need to bcc.

Tone is always important. Some people allow the impersonal nature of email or social media to enable bad manners. Be impeccable with your words, always. Read over everything you send or publish to check for errors, of course, but also to check your tone. Imagine anything you send being published for all to see. Don’t email anything you would regret becoming public. 

Email is just a tool, but used effectively it can help you work smarter and better.

My email inbox just minutes before this post was published
My email inbox just minutes before this post was published