My last "How I Work" post was in 2018 and and the first one was in 2015 and I thought it was time to update, even though much of how I work remains similar to last time.
We're still in the same town south of Boston and I still work in the home office. After our home flooding problems in 2021, the office seemed to acquire some more stuff that was shoved in here. Our home suffers from a lack of storage-- no basement, no garage, no attic to speak of--and we have seven people so even though we don't have a ton of stuff, we're packed to the gills. One of my goals for the new year is to clear out some of the stuff that's accumulated in my office, including old computers and a telescope no one uses.
I am still the CEO of the StarQuest Production Network (SQPN), aka StarQuest Media, which I've been doing since that last post in 2018. I've been working for SQPN since 2015, though, initially as part-time executive director. That means I've worked for SQPN longer than any other job since I left Catholic World News/Catholic World Report in 2006.1 In the past year or so, we've started introducing video into our podcasts, so now every episode of Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World is a video, including animation and other additions, while Secrets of Doctor Who and Secrets of Star Trek are also simpler video shows, all posted to our Youtube channel. I can honestly say that I can see myself doing this job for the rest of my working life. I am very happy with what I'm doing.
We're still making podcasts, with a network total of about a dozen right now. I'm regularly on six of them.2
One Word That Best Describes How I Work:
Current Mobile Devices:
iPhone 13 Pro Sierra Blue (256GB); 2018 iPad Pro (11-inch WiFi) (256GB); Apple Watch Series 8 (45mm GPS)
2022 Mac Studio M1 Max, 32GB RAM, 2TB internal SSD, 1TB external SSD attached; 2020 MacBook Pro (13-inch, Two Thunderbolt 2 ports), 1.4GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5; 8GB RAM, 500GB SSD
I have two displays. I still have the BenQ GW2765HT 16:9 27" monitor, which I've attached in portrait mode (i.e. sideways) as the secondary display. My primary display is an LG HDR 4K 27" display in ladnscape. Both are on VESA mount arms attached to my desk.
My keyboard is a WASD CODE mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Brown keys. I love the typing feel of a mechanical keyboard with its definitive throw as opposed to so many modern keyboards which feel like mush. The downside is the clacky sound. I don't have co-workers to annoy with my typing, but it does make using it while podcasting a real problem. I may have to replace it with something that still feels nice but is quieter.
Apps/Software/Tools You Can't Work Without?
- Adobe Creative Cloud
- Keyboard Maestro
Again, I won't rehash everything I've said about the software I mentioned in the previous posts, so I will talk about what's new.
Obsidian is part of a new class of software called Personal Knowledge Management. At it's heart, it is a series of text files that are connected via links in the text. Think of it as your own personal wiki. But of course, Obsidian goes further and includes a plug-in system that allows you to do so much more. I use it in work as a way to keep track of all the various bits of information I need to do my work. I divide it into sections that include Shows, People, Sponsors and Donors, Board Meetings, Giving Campaigns, Promotional Materials, and so on. Within those, I have individual notes, like a note for each person I work with that includes contact information and any other relevant info. And anytime that person comes up in a different note, like the notes for each podcast that lists the people on that show, I create an internal Obsidian link. This allows me to create a web of links between all the inter-related parts of SQPN. The part I use the most is my Daily Notes. I create a new note each day and in there I make notes on each show that releases that day, shows I edit and prep, discussions I have, interactions with Patrons and sponsors, and almost every other thing. I try to keep track of as much as possible, so that I can always refer back in the future when I'm wondering what I decided or what I said to someone.
Drafts is a tool I've been using for ages and in some ways it's a little like Obsidian. It's the first place that text goes when I need to write something down. Drafts is great at processing text and sending elsewhere, although I also use it store stuff, usually stuff that's a bit more ephemeral than what goes into Obsidian. Right now, I have Draft notes on our dinner menu for the next week, a Terminal command for the Mac I wanted to remember, a recipe I saw online I want to import into my recipe manager software, recipe ideas for camping, and a punch list for the contractor who is finishing the repairs on our house from the flood. Plus more. But Drafts can also do automation and so I have a series of templates for Omnifocus for each of our shows. Every episode gets a separate Omnifocus project and so when I'm setting up new episodes, I launch the template automation which asks for episode number, title, recording date, and release date. It calculates all the intermediate task due dates, puts it in Omnifocus in the right location, and creates an appropriately labeled folder in the show's folder on my hard drive. Best of all, Drafts is cross-platform so I can use it on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
AirTable is a web-based database that also have Mac client software. We use it to keep track of all our shows through the various stages of production, including recording and release dates, sponsors, panelists, links, and more. Its best feature is its API which allows third-party automation tools plus its internal automation tools that lets me do things like automatically change the status of an episode from "Posting scheduled" to "Posted" when a new episode is released by our content management system and then to have a message sent to our Discord community about the new episode, all without my intervention. AirTable is a key aspect of how I can keep track of everything going on and is vital to my workflow.
Slack is a communications tool we've used since I started with SQPN. It's the way that our team of colleagues communicate as we plan shows and manage our recordings since we're spread out over many time zones, including as far away as Australia.
On the hardware side, the Stream Decks are programmable control panels where each key is a little screen. Those keys can be programmed to do various functions based on a built-in features or using plugins, including Keyboard Maestro. And it can be set to show a different setup depending on what software is currently active. Among other things, I use it to run Keyboard Maestro macros, like setting up my studio to record (lights, apps, etc.), to run those Drafts template automations, play music, show me the temperature outside and in my office, to run a "start my day" macro, turn lights on and off, and so on.4 I started with just one Stream Deck, the smaller 15-button one, but then I added the larger 30-button Stream Deck XL. Now, the smaller one acts as a control interface the larger. The XL changes depending on what app I'm in, while the smaller Deck shows me the same buttons no matter what. I love it so much, I even bought a special 3D-printed stand that stacks them together.
The Rodecaster Pro is the heart of my recording setup.5 It's more than a mixer, but it's a full self-contained recording studio with four microphone inputs, a Bluetooth telephone input for taking callers, plus several more Bluetooth and USB inputs; a sound clip bank; built-in audio processing, SD-card recording; and lots more. I don't use all of that in my day-to-day recording, but when I do any live recordings (which I plan to do at some point), this will be able to do it all.
The DS418 and the DS420+ are both network-attached storage, basically very large hard drives on my network. The 418 stores all SQPN-related files, while the 420 stores all my personal files. They are RAID, meaning they have redundant hard drives inside so that if one drive dies, no data is lost. The 418 can hold up to 7.85TB and the 420 can hold up to 10.75TB and they're both also backed up to the Amazon AWS Glacier cloud, because that DS418 holds everything, all our show files. In addition to storing data, the NAS can also run software of its own, including a media server, a Dropbox-like cloud storage service, Office-type apps, and more.
What’s Your Workspace Setup Like?
I have basically the same workspace, the same old Ikea desk. I wouldn't mind replacing it with something even larger, but I haven't been able to find anything that works for me. The Mac Studio is mounted in a 3D-printed cage to the bottom of the desk, out of the way. My keyboard sits on a Star Wars deskmat, along with a Magic Trackpad, my iPad on an Anker USB-C hub stand, which lets me use the iPad as a kind of dashboard of my work. Next to that are my Stream Decks and then an Elago iPhone charging stand. This is a soft rubber that will hold a MagSafe charging puck and so when I put my iPhone on it, it holds it and charges it. I have one on my desk and one on my nightstand. I am thinking of replacing it though because at the angle it holds the phone, it can't do FaceID without me picking up the phone or tilting it awkwardly.
Also on my desk is an Amazon Echo 5 with a screen. I got the one with a screen so that I can have my Ring doorbell or other cameras show me video on it if someone comes to the door. The downside is that it's actually pretty slow to bring the video up and by the time I see it, it's often already been too long.
I have the same microphone boom arm as before, but now I have a Rode Procaster microphone, which makes my voice sound great with the Podcaster Pro. Another change from before are the computer speakers, which are Mackie Creative Reference Studio Monitors. I also have the Anker Docking Station 13-in-1, which gives me more Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports (there aren't enough on the Mac Studio for my needs) and the Sabrent 16-port USB 3.0 hub. Yes, that's right 16 ports. Between the ports on the Studio and on the Docking Station, I'm still using 10 of the 16 ports here.
I still have the same chair and other physical parts of my setup, although I wouldn't mind replacing the chair since it's nearly 6 years old and I sit in it every day for 8 hours or more. And it now it's starting to squeak a little during recordings.
Here are the home screens of my iPhone and iPad:
What’s Your Favorite To-Do List Manager?
No surprise, it's still Omnifocus.
Besides Your Phone And Computer, What Gadget Can’t You Live Without And Why?
I'm tempted to say my Apple Watch or my Kindle, but I could live without them if need be. In fact, I don't think there's any gadget I couldn't live without. It is funny how much attached to my Watch I've become especially since I was so sure I didn't have a use for it when they first came out and for several iterations after. But I was right at the time: they didn't have enough functionality to just a purchase. But now, I'm always using it to control smart home devices, unlock my computer and password manager, control podcasts and music on my phone or Homepods, set timers, check messages, check the weather, track my exercise activity, and more. It has really become a very useful gadget and I look forward to seeing how much more it could do.
When it came time to buy a new Watch this past fall (because the battery life on my old one had gotten so low it wouldn't last all day), I was sure that the new Ultra at $800 was way overkill for me. But seeing how other people use it and given how often I'm out camping and hiking with the Scouts and with family, I wonder if I would have been happier with it. On the other hand, an extra $400 in my account makes me very happy. And in a few years when it's time to get a new Watch again, maybe the Ultra won't be so ultra-priced.
What is an Area You Would Like to Improve In?
This is a different question from the one in this space in previous versions of this blog post since the answer to that hadn't changed.6 An area I would like to improve in is my recording presentation. I have noticed that in some shows I tend to be, well, "shouty." I'm a naturally loud person (I am Sicilian after all.) And on certain shows, like Secrets of Technology and Secrets of Movies and TV Shows, especially, I find that I'm very loud. I need to find a way to be expressive without being loud. And to be sure, it's not that I'm drowning out others. Bot the recording and the editing processes will level the volumes of all the various panelists, but it still sounds off, especially compared with more calm-sounding people like Jimmy Akin or Fr. Cory Sticha.
What Do You Listen To While You Work?
Most often when I'm working (and not actively editing or recording), I listen to podcasts. I'll admit that my podcast lineup has remained kind of static over the years. I know what I like and I like what I know. New additions since 2018, including The Pillar podcast from the guys at Pillar Catholic, Thomas Salerno's Perilous Realms7 and David Sparks' MacSparky Labs Report. I do find myself becoming a patron of more creators than in the past as this seems to be a more sustainable way of supporting the shows I enjoy than advertising. I'm glad that StarQuest has stuck to this model from the beginning and that our listeners have generously responded.
When not listening to podcasts, I listen to Apple Music, usually on shuffle through the thousands and thousands of tracks I've downloaded. I have eclectic music tastes and enjoy moving from one genre to another at random.
What Are You Currently Reading?
By coincidence, last time I was reading a Tom Clancy novel and so I am this time. I am currently reading Tom Clancy Red Winter, by Marc Cameron, which features Clancy's original character Jack Ryan but back in 1985 when he was still a young CIA analyst going up against the Warsaw Pact. It involves the F-117 Stealth fighter, East Germany, and the whole cast of Clancy characters we've come to know and love. I'm not sure what I'll read next, but I think it will either be a history book or some other nonfiction for a change.
What Has Changed Over The Years Since You Started And What Do You Do Differently?
The basics of how I worked in 2018 are still very similar, although the details have changed, i.e. slightly different software and services. I've been automating more and more of my work in order to let me do more and more. SQPN is a small, lean organization and we don't have a lot of extra funding to hire more help. So I have to rely on volunteers where I can and use automation to help make up the difference. Services like Zapier and Make.com and AirTable, plus software like Keyboard Maestro and hardware like the Stream Deck have really helped me.
I know that for a lot of people the 2020 pandemic lockdown completely up-ended everything about how they work, but for me it was business as usual. I've been doing work-from-home for more than the majority of the last three decades and so while everyone else was struggling to adapt, I had already become an expert at it.
I still love being able to work from home and be around my family, to not spend several hours a day in the car commuting, to be able to pop out to have lunch with the kids or go to the grocery store with them. Now that the kids are older, they're more understanding of my need to work uninterrupted. And Isabella has been getting more involved in my work, doing voice work for some of the Mysterious World episodes. I hope in the future, one or more might be interested in doing some of the more technical work as well.
- I worked at CWN/CWR for 10 years, the Archdiocese of Boston for 7 years, but two different jobs (pastoral center and parish), and Mass. Citizens for Life for 2 years.↩
- Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World, Raising the Betts, Secrets of Doctor Who, Secrets of Movies and TV, Secrets of Star Trek, and Secrets of Technology.↩
- Last time it was "Intensely" and before it was "Focused".↩
- One of these days I'll write a blog post just on my Stream Deck setup.↩
- I have the older, original Rodecaster that I purchased just a couple months before the new model came out.↩
- The question was: What one thing am I better at than anyone else.↩
- Thomas is a new contributor to StarQuest podcasts, including The Secrets of Middle Earth.↩