The AwkEng Comes Back Online to Talk About Going Offline.

Hi all,

Today's post revisits ideas around my Receipt Printer, my Physical Trello board, and Staying Offline. I'm interested in a new iteration, where I effectively print a personal newspaper automatically each morning, with my calendar, my Trello, select filtered email messages, and maybe some news and weather.

More than that, though, I'm also interested in tying together several different threads of thought, including ChatGPT, habit forming/addiction treatment, and UX research into how people manage their internet use.

Context: Coming Back From Vacation

Full disclosure, I just came back from a week-long vacation in Colorado. I had no cell service and wi-fi was only available in one particular cabin where we were staying. I found myself sitting in a chair, listening to the birds and the flow of water in a nearby stream, feeling the sun and the breeze, and I'd sit and do... nothing... and it was glorious. I didn't feel any pull to use the internet, and I didn't slip into using the internet accidentally, either.

Do I really need to check email multiple times per day?

So I did mention that there was wi-fi in one cabin and I checked my personal email once a day. The truth is... there really wasn't really anything in my email that needed an urgent response. Same thing with the news. Once a day, or even every other day, or even every three days would probably be way more than enough. (Or heck, it could really probably go a week).

Reflecting on Atomic Habits

So I've known from past experience that putting devices away and staying off the internet has been good for me mentally. And yet... I always find myself sliding back into old habits.

My take is that because so much of my work is done on a computer, (and in many ways part of my job), it's always going to be challenging. Atomic Habits talks about cycles of cues, triggering cravings, leading to actions, leading to rewards. I think a lot of apps that put limits around device or email usage target placing limits on the action/reward portion of the cycle, but I'm really curious about preventing the cue in the first place.

In other words, how can I get the benefits of what I use the internet for (email, calendar, to-do list, weather, news) without using the internet.

Enter the Paper Printer

I know that personally, I do well productivity wise when I print up my physical Trello board, and I enjoyed using my receipt printer to show the weather and a comic strip. But there are flaws.

The receipt printer actually used some shell scripts that leveraged some command line tools to access Trello.  That in turn used If This Than That to create Trello cards with the weather. So the whole thing is really a flimsy, hacked together kluge. And then Trello doesn't format things nicely if you try to send them directly to the printer, so for the physical Trello board, I actually take screenshots manually and then send the screenshots to the printer.

Enter ChatGPT

So, I know conceptually that setting up something that pulls in data from various sources, formats it, and creates a pdf, then sends it to the printer is quite feasible, technically. The devil, as always, is in the details. For example, Google Calendar has an API, (or maybeI should use Zapier’s interface to the Google Calendar API or the dozens of Zapier competitors that have popped up), but now you need to register accounts with Google, get developer keys, a whole rigmarole. It's all possible, but it means reading endless, often poorly written documents. It's one of those things that might take 20 minutes for someone who knows what they're doing, but could take me a day.

I like to think that ChatGPT is really useful for this stuff. For example, I know that there are tools for running browsers in "headless" mode (meaning without a screen) as part of various testing and automation suites. I had an idea to stand up a little webpage, load it in a headless browser, take a screenshot, and send that to the printer. I asked ChatGPT and it suggested using Pupeteer.js and provided the code to do it.

So part of this idea is also to scratch an itch around playing with ChatGPT.

Didn't You Mention UX Research?

One of the things that I've learned the hard way is that you can't just go and ask people what they think of a mini-newspaper idea. You can ask if they would commit to trying it, or ask them to pay for it via some kickstarter-like presale, but that's not particularly useful at this point.

What you can do is ask about past behaviors. (Testing live reactions is something we can try later.) At this point the research is along the lines of "When was the last time you tried to manage your internet usage? What did you try? Did you spend any money on it? What happened? These are questions where we can get unbiased answers about motivations and pain points. The newspaper solution may or may not solve these problems, there's just no way of knowing yet, but we can get information to help tailor what the solution might be, and help craft something that adds some "pull" to the existing "push" of people looking for internet management solutions.

Other thoughts

Ok. This is a pretty tangled web, but there are few more thoughts to weave into this story.

Almost a decade ago, the Little Berg printer launched, which was essentially a mini-newspaper driven by a receipt printer. The product was adorable, but eventually it shut down when the cloud service that powered it couldn't be supported any more. Someone else revived it a few years after the original servers shut down, which is pretty cool. Regardless, I'm really interested in speaking to the founder and the revivor to see if they have lessons to share.

Also, I've participated in the past in a group called CaveDay, which I think essentially uses some peer pressure and group psychology to join a video chat, turn off your phone, promise not to check email, and just do deep, focused work. Everyone else is working hard, so, ummm... something happens where it makes it easier for you to focus and tune out distractions too. It may sound weird, but it has a cult following.

Finally, I know there are experts out there who specialize in addition treatments, and I'm sure internet addition falls in that category. I'm curious what their take is on this too.

So what's next?

This post was really about getting some ideas out. I'm really interested in flexing some dev skills and making something for myself. I also acknowledge that I'm weird and into odd little ideas like this, but I'm curious... when was the last time you, dear reader, tried to manage your internet usage? What happened?

best regards
Sam Feller

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