My coffee setup by Josh Li

On my birthday back in October, my wife bought me the Marco Arment coffee setup.

I have never been a coffee drinker before that, but all the coffee talk on numerous 5by5 podcasts got me interested in coffee culture and all the tools / toys associated with making good coffee at home.

Two and a half months in, I now wake up 15 minutes early to make sure I get my cup of coffee before leaving for work. My current system is as follows:

  • Beans: I have experimented with beans from Tonx, but have found their coffee to be a bit too lightly-roasted. So far, my favorite beans have been from Aroma.
  • Grinder: Virtuoso Conical Burr Mill - as per Marco's recommendation.
  • Scale: Hario V60 scale, which has a built-in timer that allows me to time more conveniently.
  • Kettle: Bonavita Digital Gooseneck Kettle, which allows precise control over how hot the water is for optimal brewing.

I have found that I do not like drip coffee, because by the time the coffee is ready for consumption, the temperature has cooled and the acidity level has already risen. The way I make my coffee is with an Aeropress, as follows:

  1. Heat water to 203F
  2. Place filter into Aeropress cap and soak with hot water for 30 seconds
  3. Weigh 12g of coffee beans and grind to medium fineness (setting 12 on the Virtuoso)
  4. Pour ground coffee into inverted Aeropress
  5. Place Aeropress (with the ground beans in it) onto scale and tare
  6. Start timer and simultaneous begin pouring in 100g of hot water
  7. Stir - the timer should read 20 to 25 seconds post stirring
  8. Pour in an additional 110g of hot water (total 210g) - the timer should read 40 to 45 seconds at this point
  9. Begin pressing when timer hits 1 minute; when done, the timer should read 1 minute and 25 to 30 seconds
  10. Stir coffee with spoon briefly

(My brew method is a modified version of the winning recipe of the Northwest Regional Aeropress Championship.)

As much as I enjoy the coffee, I have found the above ritual to be very therapeutic and relaxing - a great way to start a day!

iPad mini - smaller is better by Josh Li

I initially bought myself an iPad 4, skipping the iPad mini as I deemed it unlikely a good device for my use cases.

Then I played with one in the Apple Store, and my head began to spin.

One really needs to hold the iPad mini to feel how big a difference the thinness and lightness make to usability. I not only enjoy using the iPad mini, but I want to use it everywhere. At work, carrying the iPad mini is like carrying a Moleskine - drastically more convenient.

I initially had three major areas of concern about the iPad mini:

  • Screen size: I thought the screen would be too small to read documents and mark up presentations. I was wrong on both counts. The iPad mini is a better e-reading device (PDFs included), and marking up documents is no problem either.

  • Using the on-screen keyboard to take notes in meetings: I have not experienced a dramatic slow-down in speed or deterioration in accuracy typing on the iPad mini keyboard vs. iPad. In fact, I typed this post entirely on the iPad mini.

  • Lack of retina display: While not ideal, the lack of a retina screen is compensated for by the thinness and lightness of the device. I am sure we will all be blown-away when the retina version does get released, but I am very happy with the current version nonetheless.

Two days ago I returned my iPad 4. The iPad mini is now my main iPad, and I do not expect to go back to the larger form factor any time soon.

Finding the best activity tracker by Josh Li

Announced in 2011, the Jawbone UP drew my attention mainly because of its "smart alarm", which touted the ability to wake you when you come out of deep sleep. I have tried similar sleep monitoring / alarm apps on my iPhone, but never got comfortable with putting my phone next to my head for 7 / 8 hours a night.

But the UP had two major flaws:

  • To sync with the iPhone, you would have to remove a cap and connect the UP band via the headphone jack; the cap was easily lost (and I did lose one)
  • The software was very buggy

I was happy to live with those flaws given it was a Gen 1 device, except eventually the band stopped working. Jawbone did the right thing and refunded everybody.

What I did learn from the 3 weeks my UP band worked was that I enjoyed being able to track not only my sleep, but my daily activity. It made sense to me that given our iPhone is always with us, we should be able to get up-to-date information on ourselves.

Around the time of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Nike launched its big update to the Nike+ products. Of most relevance to me was Nike Hyperdunk+, which would track my activity (movement, foot speed, vertical leap) during a game.

I loved this.

While the app left a lot to be desired, the summary statistics after each game did in fact motivate me to play harder and more often. And, being Nike, the Hyperdunks were one of the best shoes I have played in.

Given how satisfied I was with the shoes, I purchased the Nike+ FuelBand -- since I was earning Fuel Points during basketball games, tracking my activity throughout the day seemed like a natural next step. That was when I ran into a couple of issues:

  • The Nike+ FuelBand app and the Nike+ Basketball app did not talk to each other: my points did not automatically aggregate across the Nike+ ecosystem
  • Both Nike+ apps were buggy and poorly designed (especially the annoying videos that popped up when certain achievements were reached)
  • The FuelBand required recharging every ~3 days
  • The FuelBand, while arguably very cool looking, was very conspicuous and did not fit well with my work attire (suit and tie)

Finally, what Nike did not provide was sleep tracking -- the thing I wanted to track most. So, I used Nike+ during the day, I used Lark at night to track sleep. While it served its purpose, Lark created a lot of friction at times I least wanted:

  • There are no buttons on the sleep sensor. To turn off the vibrating alarm every morning, I had to fidget with my phone while my eyes were barely open
  • The pro reports -- and I only tried the trial -- did not provide any useful information, or at least not easily digestible, actionable items that helped improve my sleep in any way
  • It required charging every day, which meant I had to make sure I plugged the sensor back into the cradle every morning

Around the same time I bought my Nike+ FuelBand, I bought my wife a Fitbit Ultra -- I looked at it as a hedge: I could try the FuelBand, and she could test the Fitbit. In fact, my wife ended up walking a lot more after owning the Fitbit, and was competing with friends online. So while I did not immediately jump ship, I knew Fitbit had a solid line of products that I could potentially switch to.

Then came the recent announcement of the Fitbit One, which was the first activity tracking device that effectively suited all my needs:

  • It has batteries that last 7 to 10 days (2 hours for full recharge)
  • It syncs with the iPhone via Bluetooth 4.0
  • It tracks both activity during the day, sleep at night, and has a vibrating alarm
  • It has an ecosystem of devices that talk to each other (although I do not own the Aria because I don't need to monitor my weight, it is tempting)
  • It is small and inconspicuous

I have only been using the Fitbit One for 2 days, and already it has eliminated all friction related to my desire to track my daily activity. Like the name, the Fitbit One really is the one to track it all. Highly recommended.

iPad apps for business by Josh Li

What apps do you have?

I get asked this question very often at work, because a lot of people struggle with productivity on iOS devices in a Windows-centric office. In fact, when the iPad was introduced in 2010, I bought it without really understanding how it would fit into my life.

If there’s going to be third-category device, it’ll have to be better at these tasks or else it has no reason for being -- Steve Jobs
Two years later, I cannot imagine being productive without my iPad. There are some things that are still better done on a desktop or with pen and paper, but the iPad excels at a couple of things:
  • Reading, editing, and storing PDFs
  • Keeping track of tasks
  • Taking and keeping notes
  • Providing real-time news and market data

Below are apps that I use for the above:

PDF Expert: The most user-friendly PDF reader I have tried. Two things that I love about this app: 1) you can move pages from one document to another; 2) you can add blank pages that can then be annotated.

SecureZIP Reader: Need this to decrypt secured zip files.

OmniFocus: Forecast mode is killer. Syncs across all Apple devices.

iA Writer: The clean interface is great, and the custom keyboard makes the app a lot easier to use in meetings. (Two things make taking notes on an iPad in a meeting acceptable: 1) the iPad lays flat on the table and does not create a barrier between you and other meeting participants; 2) there is no sound when you type on glass.)

Noteshelf: I use this to take quick notes or draft out pages using my Wacom stylus (yes, I use a stylus. Trust me. It makes the iPad a lot more productive for work.)

Evernote: Makes notes searchable, and synchronized across all Apple devices. Offline mode for selected notebooks ensures access even when there is no internet.

Market data apps are self-explanatory, so I won't waste time here.

Why blog now? by Josh Li

First there was a hurricane. Then Forstall got fire. The iPad mini will begin selling tomorrow. So I thought, why not?

Initially, I had set out to create a gallery website. As I started working on the new site, I realized I also wanted a platform to write about Apple, photography, and technology in general.

Hopefully I can find time to keep this up -- should be fun!