Stuff I couldn’t do without in 2012

Several readers have written in, via the contact form, to point out the end of March is approaching and I’m a tad overdue with updating my traditional, annual and highly materialist post on ‘stuff I couldn’t do without’ (the 2010 and 2011 editions are among the most popular posts on this blog).

In the last twelve months I’ve actually been steadily moving away from the notion of stuff, and material things—so it’s a bit harder to get enthusiastic about it than I used to. But for what it’s worth, here’s an update of my previously-listed categories and items.

Hardware and accessories

iPhone 4S
No surprises here. And, yes, I use (’British’ English) Siri for some stuff and, on the whole, he understands the Queen’s English even if he doesn’t really speak it.
Macbook Air
I can’t even remember the time when I didn’t have one of these, and literally every single one of my friends who’s bought a new computer in the last year has got one. I don’t expect anything new here—bar an increase in hard disk and RAM when the newest iteration is made available, inevitably, at some point later this year.
One of the hardest things about owning a piece of Apple hardware is how difficult it is to find a decent case for them: I’m not quite sure why this is, but cases are a market segment in which the hoi polloi’s inclinations towards bad taste seem to flourish well beyond reason. Beyzacases’s zero series Macbook Air case and the matching iPhone version (some Apple stores also sell their own rather nice custom version of the latter) solved my problem nicely. They’re made from the finest leather, are delightfully cheap and service is superb.
I still don’t use one, except an old iPad 1 for reading my RSS, tweets, The Spectator and The Economist. I hate the inordinate amount of time it takes to type anything on the iPad, or send anything to Facebook or Twitter, and just don’t buy the lack of keyboard that slows everything one does to a trickle. I may yet convert it to update my supermarket shopping lists if I can find a suitable hook to fix it to my kitchen wall.


Sparrow Mail for iPhone and Mac
The hottest software I’ve seen in years, now on my iPhone as well as my Mac. Enabling notifications on the iPhone for Sparrow, despite despite everyone complaining about it and despite Apple trying to make it not happen, is a child’s play if you use Boxcar for iPhone, with the added bonus of being able to switch off notifications at night.
Google Search Duck Duck Go
I extolled the virtues of DuckDuckGo last year, but in the intervening period, Google Search has actually been getting massively better and Duck Duck Go worse, despite being very effectively ramped by the Fred Wilson propaganda machine. Having said that, it still makes sense to set DuckDuckGo as your default search engine on Safari, so as to use its powerful !bangs syntax to carry out searches… in other search engines (it makes your Google searches anonymous by default).
Byword Writeroom
I switched to the fabulous Byword minimalist, Markdown-enabled text editor for Mac last year. Since then, it’s been belatedly discovered by Shawn Blanc, who swears by it, and by Ben Brooks, who prefers iA Writer [i]. It’s also been successfully ported to iOS: read my excellent friend Brett Terpstra’s review of the mobile version—and bear in mind that iA Writer for iOS doesn’t even support Markdown. And, yes, I use my iPhone 4S to dictate texts using Byword: it works really well and is much faster than typing stuff on an iPad.
Google Apps Premier
No change here. I’m not using iCloud—Apple’s mail server is a joke—except for contacts, which it does a rather good job of syncing. [ii]
On the subject of shunning iCloud, I’m sticking with Dropbox—if only because it has become the de facto standard for syncing most server-based applications, such as 1Password, Byword, etc. I also use it to sync most of my Application Support data, using symlinks, so that my iMac and Macbook Air preferences are always in sync for all my apps. iCloud support is, however, growing and I expect within a few months it may be worth taking a second look at this. But at the moment Apple’s solution doesn’t seem to have proved itself yet.
Still the best—indeed, the only—RSS client out there. I also still don’t see any good reason to ditch RSS and rely only on Twitter for reading new blog posts: Twitter offers no good way of hadling the flow once it’s stale—and many sites aren’t mechanically posted to Twitter in the way that they are to RSS.
Sublime Text Coda
The most exciting new app of 2012. Sublime Text, which I hope to review in detail soon, is a fantastically powerful coding tool that’s replaced Coda almost overnight after I tried it out a few weeks ago. I now use it for all the code I write.
Still the best way to draft and publish blog posts. I still wish it offered a Byword-style distraction-free full screen mode—but, that minor gripe apart, it’s pretty perfect.
No change here either. This has saved me several times this year. I’ve gradually switched all my passwords to 22-character-long items and tend to change them every six months. This superb, beautifully-maintained application is one of the best investments I’ve ever made.
As I’d expected, Evernote, which I’ve used since it launched, has gradually become a core component of any serious geek’s online presence. I’m still lukewarm about their rather uncertain design choices, but the app has unquestionably improved dramatically since I started using it. You can store absolutely anything you like in it and find it later pretty easily.
Periodically, new, competing platforms such as the very clever Octopress or, more recently, the ultrahyped svbtle (membership by invitation only) crop up, but no one has convinced me to shift away from the solidity, flexibility and reliability of WordPress. Recent versions have been notably more responsive and user-friendly than previous ones. No bloat here.
Edgecast Amazon Cloudfront
Around the middle of last year, I started noticing issues with the static assets in my site (images, css and javascript files) which I’d been storing and serving on Amazon’s cheap and effective Cloudfront service. I took advantage of my switch to a new (ve) server at Media Temple to move all these assets to an Edgecast CDN, resulting in much faster performance, albeit for a lightly higher cost. The guys at Edgecast’s support team have provided some of the best assistance I’ve ever received while I was setting up my new installation.
Things Omnifocus
I recently moved my todo lists from the venerable, but rather clunky and finicky Omnifocus, to the minimalist, ultraflexible Things—which finally implementated over-the-air sync between its Mac, iPhone and iPad clients last year (currently in open beta).

Real-world stuff

Although I hate changing my custom for real-world stuff, the last twelve months have seen a few long-standing suppliers bite the dust, for a variety of reasons.

I actually hardly ever need to go there any more, as I fully expect my ties, wallet, belts and briefcase, all made to the highest standards in the days when the nouveau-riche clients who now throng the place were still a reasonably unthinkable prospect, to last a lifetime and more.
Uniqlo American Apparel
Superb Japanese cotton jeans, cashmere jerseys and down-filled jackets at absurdly low prices, although I’d feel happier wearing them if I knew exactly in what conditions they were made. I’d still go to American Apparel for hoodies and tshirts, of course, but there comes a point when one has so many of those that one just doesn’t have room for any more, let alone need any.
Turnbull & Asser New & Lingwood
Unquestionably the most traumatic experience of 2011 was a summer visit to New & Lingwood, who have been supplying shirts to the male members of my family since (at least) the 1930s. They have recently started ‘branding’ the mother-of-pearl buttons on their shirts—effectively turning their customers into sandwich men—and in the process appear to have recruited some absurdly young salesmen who seem to think making this outrageous change is cool. I was thus compelled to cross the road to Turnbull & Asser, which my father regarded as rather flashy, but which has maintained traditional Jermyn Street standards unchanged.
While visiting Kenya last summer I bought a stock of comfortable, super-trendy and elegant sarongs from Kikoy. Wearing them them for luncheon in New York or Paris will probably not be simple (London is not a problem), but I’d definitely recommend giving them a try.
Thresher & Glenny
My tailor, Mr Deone, has now retired, and the City branch where I had my habits has closed—a victim of the financial crisis. But the firm is still doing strong. A welcome spot of stability in an ocean of change.
If I had a valet, I’d ask him to wear them for the first couple of years (a tip given to my father by the late Duke of Norfolk—for suits, of course, not for plimsolls): I simply can’t bear them when they’re new and end up wearing ones with holes in them.
I’ve recently become totally addicted to this wonderful Italian furniture. It really sets off my Apple stuff to the best possible advantage.
  1. Just for the record, the reason I don’t buy the admittedly very hyped-up iAWriter is that the developer refuses to enable spelling suggestions in it. He does this, apparently, in the name of providing a pure minimalist experience. But any ism taken to extremes is just plain silly.
  2. Syncing of Google Contacts has actually finally improved last year, at long last segmenting names into prefix, first, middle, last and suffix—so my previous objection to using it has vanished, but there still doesn’t seem any good reason for ditching iCloud for this now that it’s free.