Nate Dickson Thinks...

Small Thoughts for a Quiet World.

I just thought I'd give a little update on my Painless... books since I set the minimum price to $0, or “free-ninety-nine” as one of my friends always says. Which doesn't make sense, because that sounds like “free plus 99¢” which isn't what he meant at all. But I digress.

Anyway, I made all three of my tech books free when the world went into lockdown, and unsurprisingly, and gratifyingly, a number of people have taken me up on that offer in the meantime. But here's what's interesting:

Since I made the books free the number of paid sales has gone down. This isn't a surprise. The surprise is that the amount people pay has gone up significantly. In the past I would see a few sales a day, all at the minimum price, so $14.99 for the “trilogy” and around $5 for each individual book.

Now I'm only seeing a few paid sales a week, but a lot of people are paying my “recommended” price of $14.99 per book or more.

I'm touched, honestly. I recognize that there are a lot of things going on in the world right now that require us all to be careful with our resources. But there are people out there who feel they have sufficient to toss me some money simply because they are kind.

I've said this before on Twitter, but I'll say it again here:

Thank you.

Leanpub quite rightly doesn't give me any information on the people who buy my books. Each sale is anonymized and even though they keep track so I can email people with updates they never show me email addresses. So I don't know who you are, but thank you.

If you want to pick up my books on Vim, Tmux, and Git, they are available here, for free:

The Painless Productivity Trilogy

I hope you find them useful!

In my junior year of high school my English teacher introduced us to the works of John Rember, An Idahoan author who writes about the Idaho outside of Boise. The story we read was a simple tale of a man taking a road trip from Southern Idaho to (what sounds like) Northern Utah with his friend and realizing that all he needed was some sunlight and a brief moment of clarity.

You can read that story and others, in the book Coyote In the Mountains, a book that, the summer after my junior year, resonated with me. The stories were about people having experiences that were deeply divided from my own; they were all in mid-life crises or mid-life ennui, I was still dealing with high-school angst. (Please remember I was in high school at the time and thought that using foreign words for feelings made me cool.) Many nights I would lie awake, and imagine myself having grown up to be Coyote: laconic, failing at being Zen, and full of vibrant if inexpressible yearning.

That summer I was also working with my father in the gift shop that had been his dream for years. We sold all kinds of gifts. If you needed a greeting card for grandma, an off-color t-shirt for that one uncle, a pewter figurine of Lt. Cmd. Data, and a unicorn balloon, we could sell you all of those on the same trip. And something in that mix must have called to Mr. Rember and his daughter that day.

I didn't recognize him as he wandered the store, how could I have? He didn't put author pictures in his books back then. At least, not in either of the two I had purchased. When he came to the register I read his check. “John seems like I know this name...”

“I'm not a criminal if that's what you're asking, the check is good...”

“No, no, it seems like I'”

“I have written a couple of books,” he said, almost sheepishly.

Coytote In the Mountains and Cheerleaders From Gomorrah!” I said, more excited than I really meant to be. His daughter laughed.

“See, dad? People do read your books!” She said.

“Oh, well, I'm glad you've read them,” he said and a thousand questions swirled in my mind. Who is Otter when she's at home? Where do these people come from in your books? Are the real people you know, are these real stories of your friends? I've written a few stories based on my friends and they were received with less than fulsome enthusiasm. Is that what you get? Is ennui all it's cracked up to be? What does Idaho mean to you, as a frame of mind? How can any of us accept being alive in the tail end of the 20th century with the world as messed up as it is? Is there any way you have a good hour to discuss your stories in and around me helping other customers?

And I said none of that. I thanked him for his purchase, lamented that I had left my copy of Coyote in the Mountains at home because that meant he couldn't sign it, and he left.

That night I went home, opened the window in my sweltering bedroom, turned off all the lights except my reading lamp, andread Coyote again. And I thought of all the things I could have or should have said to the man who pulled these people from his mind and wrote them clearly enough that they inhabited mine.

Tonight, twenty four years later, I put my kids to bed, opened the window in my library, turned off all the lights except my reading lamp, and read that same paperback copy of Coyote again. And I find that I'm okay with my experience. I'm happy I got to meet one of my literary heroes, unasked questions and all.

I've leaned into my “Disaffected Gen-X” persona far too many times, and it's not a good look on me, or on any of us, really. I've tried to be aloof and disinterested. It seems like a good way to protect myself from a painful world. Turning off the part of me that wants to care for and protect others means I can't be hurt by things that are out of my control, right? It means other people can't break my heart, right? It's the ultimate answer:


My dog gets to watch me work. For the most part he seems unimpressed, but he's very supportive!

#dogs #WFH

From time to time we find ourselves in positions that we dislike, but have to endure. It could be school, or a job that you hate but need for the time being, or school, or a social obligation, or school, really any number of things. I certainly didn't love every minute of my graduate program, for example.

I'm sure that, in March of 2020, everyone can think of a situation we'd like to see end.

In times like these I've found a way to stay positive and optimistic: I set a rolling internal end date for the event. Instead of saying, “this will all be over by May 1st,” I tell myself “this will be over in two more months,” And no matter how many days or months pass, I keep telling myself “two more months”.

For me this provides two seemingly opposite but related benefits.

The first is that I feel more stable right now in doing what I'm doing. I set a deadline far enough out that I don't need to take any immediate “get out and shut down” actions. Two months is long enough that I can treat the situation as if it were going to last forever, which means I can dedicate time and effort to making right now better. You don't spend time improving a situation that will only exist for a week.

The second is that there is a timeline, however fictional. And because there is a timeline there is hope. There will come a day where this situation will change. I don't have to keep re-hashing the question of when that will be, it'll be in “two months”. This frees up brain resources to stop thinking about when this will end and allows me to spend more time thinking about how I can make that timeline happen faster.

As we all face uncertainty and a lot of time inside and alone, I've been trying to think of what I can do to make things better in any way for other people.

I don't have much, but what I have I can give freely. A lot of people need to watch their finances right now. I hope this is a time of boredom for you instead of illness and stress. If you're bored maybe this is a good time to learn something?

To this end I'm making all of my Painless books free for the duration, meaning, from now until... well, we'll see. Here's the link:

Painless Productivity Trilogy for free

Leanpub being what it is, you can still choose to throw a coin to your author. (Actually the minimum you can pay is $4.99. That's a LeanPub limitation, not a Nate limitation)

Stay safe everyone, and take care of yourself!

Please feel free to share this and tell anyone who might find some command line training useful while they're stuck in the house.


It started with Star Wars, of course. I loved the original trilogy, collected it on VHS and then VHS special edition and then DVD. Like every other Star Wars fan I watched Episode I and was...okay. Then watched Episode II and was done. I still haven't watched Episode III. I might get around to it someday.

So fast forward and same thing with Episode VII. I really liked it! It was a return to the original trilogy, of course, but it was fun. Then Rogue One came out and was...fine. It wasn't great, it was obvious from the beginning that every character was going to die, but it was fine.

I stopped caring about Star Wars as I walked out of the theater after watching Episode VIII. My dad asked me what I thought and my only answer was “everything that has ever happened in any Star Wars movie happened in that Star Wars movie. They want you to know that this is a Star Wars movie.” I haven't watched Episode IX. I might get around to it someday.

But it made me realize that I'm no longer particularly interested in “reimagining” or “returning to” things I enjoyed in the past. I'm perfectly content with Dark Crystal sticking in my memory as a weird and unsettling childhood trauma without watching a Netflix show exploring that “universe.”

I enjoyed Star Trek: The Next Generation. But I have no desire to watch Picard. I have watched Friends more times than I care to admit, but I won't be watching the Friends Reunion.

And it seems like such a waste to keep returning to twenty-year-old wells when people are making excellent new things. The Good Place is excellent and unlike any other show I've ever seen. And they had the integrity to end the show when they ran out of story.

So I guess that's my message: Be like The Good Place. Tell your story until it's done and then stop. There are other stories to be told.

This is definitely a reminder I need from time to time. My pocket notebooks are never going to be part of the public record. I will never have to defend the half-thought things I dumped in a pocket notebook. Nobody will ever be impressed by what I wrote unless I work it into something bigger, and even then, it's unlikely anyone will ever much care.

So I can just write. I can just catch little things, regardless of state of finish or polish. The inner editor isn't allowed in my pocket notebooks.

#amwriting #notebooks #FieldNotes

This Tree Confuses Me.

This is awesome. I've walked past this tree daily for around a year now, and today it does this. It literally stopped me in my tracks, and I had to take a picture.

Sure, this weird little tree is just some ornamental that someone planted in their front yard. I'm sure there are people all over the world who will look at it and say “ah yes, that's a insert Linnaean name here, quite common in insert part of the world here.

But to me it looks like something that belongs in a coral reef, not someone's front lawn.

Nature is amazing. Infinite variety, even in a downtown setting.

Liz Phelly wrote about Spotify's mood monetization.

You should read the entire article, but here are some good quotes:

““At Spotify we have a personal relationship with over 191 million people who show us their true colors with zero filter,” reads a current advertising deck. “That’s a lot of authentic engagement with our audience: billions of data points every day across devices!”

And more succinctly:

“In a data-driven listening environment, the commodity is no longer music. The commodity is listening. The commodity is users and their moods.”

But... we all kinda knew this, right? This is how free services work. Spotify is a little different because there are users who pay for the service. Those users won't be presented with targeted advertising, but how much are you willing to bet that their data is being excluded from the data being sold to third parties? Yeah, me neither.

So what's the answer? Just dump Spotify? Honestly if Apple Music were a viable alternative I'd consider it. Apple is making a reputation out of being very conservative with user data and that might be good enough.

Or maybe the answer is to take your data back in the form of hosting your own music streaming. Plex will manage your music collection for you, and PlexAmp lets you access it from just about anywhere. A lifetime Plex Pass is about the same price as a year of Spotify Premium, although you do have to provide your own music to use Plex.

Which is probably a good thing. BandCamp is quick to point out that you listening to an album on Spotify will probably net the performer around 4¢, while buying their album on BandCamp will give them roughly 85% of whatever you paid. The performer cuts from buying MP3s from Amazon or AACs from Apple probably aren't as good as BandCamp, but probably better than Spotify.

For now I'm taking a hybrid approach. I have a hefty collection of FLAC files I bought off of BandCamp hosted on my Plex Server, but I still use services like Spotify or Amazon Prime Music to listen to new things that I'm not ready to buy yet.

And I'm quietly reminding myself that when I'm listening to Spotify, any number of advertisers are also listening to me.

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