Back in 1995, when Bill Gates rather accurately predicted the form and function of the iPhone (or, as he snappily called it, the "Wallet PC"), he described it as the new Swiss Army Knife. The iPhone has certainly has lived up to that comparison, housing all sorts of handy tools, even if it's not that useful for cleaning out hooves or slowly and painfully opening tins of beans.

The one thing my favourite tools (or, as you kids call them, "apps") all have in common is that they do one thing and one thing only – they allow me to choose how to use them together in my own way. Nobody wants to open up a Swiss Army Knife just to find more Swiss Army Knives (well okay, now I see that written down it does sound like it'd be quite fun … for a couple of minutes anyway).

The single-purpose tools I use for working, blogging and surviving day-to-day life change over time. They come and go, they get replaced, they get absorbed by operating systems. So I thought I'd make a snapshot of what mobile and desktop tools I'm using right now:

Amazon Associates

Just one little unobtrusive way to make a few pennies from time spent blogging (particularly on one of my tumblrs, Print Is Dead). And by pennies, I mean Amazon vouchers – mostly spent on expanding my Complete Peanuts collection. Amazon's interface for this is surprisingly clunky, mobile-unfriendly, and incapable of differentiating customers from different countries. And it's quite fun seeing what else people are buying too, as Darren Rowse found out.


Pretty simple idea, but one that divides opinion: Buffer lets you spread your tweets out throughout the day, using a time pattern of your choosing. I agree that it seems completely contrary to twitter's live conversation ethos, but it does have its uses. For example: when I'm going through my RSS feeds, there are usually several articles that I want to share, but dumping them all onto twitter at once seems a bit uncouth. Why not spread then out? It's also quite handy for starting conversations with those you'd otherwise miss out on, i.e. in other time zones. I see it as an automated way to increase human interaction, but I understand the arguments against it.

Creative Suite

Good old Creative Suite. Couldn't live without you. I am a couple of versions behind though: sometimes I feel like I might as well be using Deluxe Paint IV.


Good lord Dropbox is useful. And incredibly reliable. One of those things that just works so well, I kind of forget it's there, or what life was like before it.


I'm including this as a tool I use … begrudgingly. It completely fails the one tool/one function test. It tries to do everything, and manages to do them all horribly. And somehow, they've made it so that the iPhone app makes the Facebook experience even worse. Unfortunately, I have a bunch of friends/family on there who I don't want to lose touch with. It's basically the modern day equivalent of Word: everyone hates it, but everyone uses it, so you have to stick with it.


This is how I manage my blog's RSS feed. I think. It might be useful, I'm not entirely sure. It's so weirdly clunky and poorly explained, it's not entirely clear what it does or how it does it. Really Simple Syndication? Really Fiddly, Opaque and Mystifying Syndication more like.

Gimme Bar

Ah, Gimme Bar, how I love you so. Image bookmarking sites have come and gone – anyone still using Ffffound? – but this one has just stuck with me. It's like a big cupboard full of little boxes of clippings, perfect for research and inspiration for any project. It's mostly for personal use, but my Red and Yellow collections seem to be rather popular.

iA Writer

A big white space you type into. Lovely. Particularly nice full screen. And its cloudiness – enabling me to switch from Mac to iPhone to Mac without trouble – shouldn't be sniffed at. That people still use Word to write things baffles me: iA Writer is like having a nice pen and crisp white sheet of paper to write on; Word is like having an irate octopus and a tree.


There's a little advert at the bottom of this page. Influads is how it got there.

Kenwood Coffee Maker

I consider this the most essential of all desktop apps. All of these other tools would be utterly useless without this.


I've only just started using this, so it'll be interesting to see how long it remains in my arsenal (wait, where did that Swiss Army Knife metaphor go?). I use the postal primate for managing my email newsletter (sign up now, or forever wonder what you could've had), and so far it all works rather nicely.


Path is great. It's a social network in which you update your status and chat to friends and … that's it. Perhaps it's just the people I follow on there (mostly creative dads in Northern Ireland for some reason) but it's basically everything I want Facebook to be. It's about people, not data. That it's also beautifully designed is just a bonus. If I could pick up all my Facebook friends and just plonk them into Path, I'd do it in an instant. As I've said before somewhere: Path is like a comfy fire-side booth in the pub with your mates; Facebook is like being screamed at in a supermarket.


For managing and reading RSS subscriptions. Until very recently, I was subscribed to nearly a hundred feeds, but it just got too much and I had a massive cull. Now I try to keep it to no more than ten (that's not to say I don't read other blogs and things, it's just I usually jump to them from twitter). So which ten? These ten:

Yes, yes I know.


My browser of choice. Works fine and dandy for me, except on eBay for some reason. Safari hates eBay. It's then, and only then, that I have to dig out Chrome. The only gripe I have – and this is soon to be fixed I believe – is that the address bar isn't also a search bar. One thing I particularly like is a handy little feature called Reading List that lets me save pages to read later. Simple as that. I know there are more fancy methods of saving articles out there, but this does everything I need it to, thank you very much.


I've never got on with Apple's Mail desktop app. Messages just look so very wide. Sparrow isn't perfect, but it looks right (then again, I used to use Entourage, so my opinions may be a bit warped). Actually, Reeder, Twitter and Sparrow are all rather splendidly designed, and look good together – more than can be said for Apple's current batch of leathery, crusty apps.


The thing I make this here blog with. Not the most popular of blogging platforms, but pretty reliable. I keep thinking I'll switch to Wordpress, but something always holds me back.


The thought of one day waking up to find my precious TeuxDeux lists gone fills me with terror. Where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to be doing? How should I feed myself, dress myself? Heed my warning, mankind: if the TeuxDeux server went down for just a couple of hours, what you've got on your hands is basically the worst bits of The Road.


As well as this blog, I also have too many tumblrs: there's the random pile of black and white stuff that is Hammer and Code; there's a collection of nice book covers at Print Is Dead; and there's a bunch of spaceships drawn by grown men who should know better at Star Draws. Oh, and there's Labcoating, which I'm not entirely sure what to do with. Please note: none of these sites are curated – a word that has pretty much lost all meaning.


You know, twitter.

So there we go. That's my Swiss Army Knife – for now anyway. It'll be interesting to look back in year's time and see what's been replaced or has become irrelevant (fingers crossed, Facebook). What are your essential tools? What am I missing?


Let it be known that I am no longer @scandb on that twitter, I am now @gray. With an A. Because that's my name. Yes, it's awesome. No, I shan't be changing the name of this here blog. And no, I did not kill anyone to get it.

That is all.

Infected words

If you haven't seen Pontypool, be warned that what follows is bit spoilery. And you really should see it. It's not perfect, but it's one of those intelligent, claustrophobic horror movies that does a heck of a lot just with atmosphere and shots of people thinking.

You see, one of the central ideas in Pontypool – seriously, stop reading now and go and watch it – is that a zombie-ish virus is spread through infected words. Certain phrases and languages are immune, but others, when spoken aloud, cause contamination. To survive, the characters have to avoid, or change the meaning of, these words.

Now this sprung to mind yesterday as I was merrily tweeting away, and found myelf instinctively avoiding certain words. Increasingly, the purity of communication at the core of twitter is becoming sullied by automation: auto-followers, auto-retweets, certain organisations using twitter as an automated mini-RSS feed, etc. It's wrecking the whole flow and humanity of the thing. And it's not just twitter, but the increasing number of public (and faux-private) communication channels.

A lot of this is down to those pesky robots (and I really love the idea that they're actual Tom Gauldesque robots) picking up on certain words or phrases relevant to the product or meme that they're tasked with promoting. Sometimes this isn't too bad – mention Fight Club and you'll receive a random quote from the film courtesy of @IAm JacksBot – but most of the time it's a right old pain in the bum. Just because I make a joke about vikings in a tweet, it doesn't mean I'm interested in your Canadian hockey supplies shop. In fact, I now resent you a little bit. As a promotional strategy, it's entirely counter-productive: identify people who don't know about you; piss them off. 

But we learn which words are contaminated, and adjust them accordingly – avoid the mortgage spam by deliberately misspelling it, or by throwing a zero in there. If you don't want half a dozen opportunities to "win a free iPad", refer to it as t'Pad (as we in Yorkshire do anyway). Or just omit words and phrases altogether, gambling with incoherence. Of course these are the same tricks used by them to get v1agra and pr0n through spam filters. It's a language conflict that is ultimately changing the way we use words.

Robots have infected humanity, and we just have to adapt to survive. Or we could just hide.