Category: Technology

My favorite notetaking apps

C.J. Chilvers wrote about the pros and cons of popular notetaking tools. Out of the four he features—Apple Notes, Evernote, Ulysses, and Bear—I have used two previously, and none currently. So, having already examined my favored podcasts and newsletters, here’s a look at the tools I do use and why I use them.

Paper

The once and future king of all notetaking apps. I keep a plain, pocket-sized Moleskine in my backpack for odds and ends, a larger journal as a daily diary and scrapbook (previously a Moleskine classic hardcover and currently a Zequenz 360), and a good ol’ composition notebook for my filmlog.

WorkFlowy

Dynamic, lightweight list-making with blessed few bells and whistles. Perfect for hierarchical thinking, tasks, and anything else you can put into a list. It’s built for marking tasks complete, but I use it mostly as an archive for reference, split between Work and Personal. Plus a To Do list at top for quick capture of tasks.

Simplenote

Good for taking quick notes in plain text. I often use it for first drafts of blog posts, taking book notes, and whatever else I need a basic text editor for. Helpful when trying to remove formatting from text you want to paste cleanly elsewhere—”text laundering” as I call it. Clean, simple, works well on the web and mobile.

Google Drive

For when Simplenote isn’t enough. Good for collaboration and as a document repository. Among other things my Logbook spreadsheet is there, as are lots of work-related docs, random files shared with my wife, my archive of book reviews, and my Book Notes doc filled with (at present) 121 single-spaced pages of notes and quotes from 108 books.

Apple Reminders

Used mostly for sharing shopping lists with my wife, because it’s easy to regenerate lists from completed items. Unfortunately it doesn’t sync well between devices without WiFi, which is a bummer when we’re out shopping.

Google Calendar

Google, don’t you ever get rid of Calendar. I mean it. Some former Google products had it coming, but you’re gonna ride or die with Gmail and Calendar, ya hear?

Dropbox

Essential for quick and easy file backup. Through referrals and other incentives over the years I’ve accumulated 5.63 GB in free storage on top of the 2 GB default. I’m using over 95% of it.

How to help someone use a [insert frustrating digital device]

Thanks to Jessamyn West for republishing Phil Agre’s advice from 1996 on how to help someone use a computer. Swap out computer for “smartphone” or “e-reader” and it’s still quite relevant. Some favorites:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
  • Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
  • Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
  • Be aware of how abstract your language is.

As someone who helps people with technology for a living, both at a public service desk and in one-on-one appointments, I appreciate the reminders. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is breaking through people’s technological self-hatred. A common refrain I hear from people struggling with their devices is “I know I’m stupid, but…” It drives me insane. They are not stupid. Their frustrations are almost always justified, being the result of a user interface that was not built with them in mind. What seems simple and sleek for Silicon Valley technophiles might be baffling, counterintuitive, or simply too small for the less agile fingers of the digital immigrants I encounter every day.

Agre has advice for these situations too:

  • Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface.

Oh boy, can I criticize a bad interface…

DuckDuckGo to Apple?

From Macworld: Apple should buy DuckDuckGo and make it into Apple Search:

Yeah, Apple could start from scratch in building its own search engine, but why? Buying DuckDuckGo would give Apple several years’ head start on building core search technology and a huge index of the whole web along with a talented team of engineers that share Apple’s privacy priorities.

And buying DuckDuckGo is the fastest and likely most economical means of bootstrapping a hypothetical Apple Search. It would even be good for DuckDuckGo fans, as long as Apple keeps it available on the web and to other web browsers, not just to Apple device users. It would mean at least an order of magnitude more users and a huge boost in development resources (both money and talent), from a company that has the exact same privacy stance as DuckDuckGo. It’s a win-win.

Hadn’t thought about this possibility until reading this article, but it makes sense to me. As much as I enjoy DuckDuckGo’s privacy features and indie web ethos, Apple is the only company that could do right by it and its many users. (And Apple Search is just a better name, let’s be honest.)

Regardless of its future, try out DuckDuckGo if you believe in an open web. It’s not quite as robust and sleek as Google, but it’s certainly good enough for most things. And while you’re at it, use Firefox, don’t use Facebook, and start a blog.

Why I love Kanopy, Hum, and System Information

Want to give some love to three services I’ve enjoyed lately:

Kanopy

Kanopy is a free streaming service available through your public library. (If it isn’t, ask them to get it!) Abundant with titles from A24, The Criterion Collection, and other high-quality providers, it’s rife with a delightful array of foreign films, indies, and documentaries to fill the FilmStruck-shaped hole in the hearts of cinephiles. My watchlist expanded pretty quickly once I signed up, much of it classics and Criterion titles I’ve been meaning to watch and want to get to before my wife gives birth. In the last few weeks I’ve watched Three Days of the Condor, The Seventh Seal, 48 Hrs., Ugetsu, Battleship Potemkin, and The Wages of Fear, with more on the horizon. Get thee to Kanopy!

Hum

hum-songs

I’ve been using Hum for a lot longer than Kanopy, but only recently realized how much I love it. It’s the perfect songwriting app. Super easy to quickly record song ideas, gather lyrics, and add helpful metadata. Beautifully made and a joy to use, though I really ought to use it more. Since I recently released the songs that comprised my 20s, I’m excited to see what will become of the song ideas currently residing in Hum.

System Information on Mac

I rediscovered this function while trying to clean out some disk space on my wife’s MacBook Pro and make it run faster. Previously I used Disk Doctor for this job; it’s a fine app that costs $2.99, but System Information is built-in and provides a more granular view of your files. It also makes deleting them super easy and satisfying. It’s a bit hidden, but well worth the hunt. If you’re a file hoarder or haven’t optimized your Mac in a while, you’ll be shocked by how much cruft builds up. Also by how large iOS backups are! (Seriously, my wife’s storage space more than doubled after I deleted those.)

Code of Ethics for engineers (and everyone)

Not sure where I found this on the interwebs, but I immediately fell in love with it—not for the engineering and robotics aspect, but for how it can be used for any creative work:

Let’s call these the 10 Commandments of Creative Work. Just replace “robot” with your art of choice:

1. Be industrious. Build, test, repeat.

2. Follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

3. Ask questions. Always.

4. Try things you’ve never tried before. There are many solutions to one problem.

5. Don’t fall apart if your robot does. It’s a chance to begin again.

6. Keep tinkering even if you’ve run out of ideas. Building will bring you more ideas.

7. Save your best ideas in secret notebooks.

8. Read lots of books about other things. Things that are not robots.

9. Pay attention to dreams.

10. Remember: the best robots are the ones you haven’t thought of yet.

Browse eternal, shiny and not Chrome

Last month I got fed up with the constant whirring of my MacBook Pro’s fan, and its consistent slowness generally, so I tried a few things to try to improve it.

One was quitting iTunes when I wasn’t using it, and the other was quitting Chrome and using Firefox instead. I don’t know if only one or both of these things made the difference, but the whirring stopped immediately and the computer sped up significantly.

I’ve been a dedicated Chrome user since it was released 10 years ago. Initially I liked its clean interface and single-bar searching. Since I was already a dedicated Gmail and Google Calendar user, it just made sense. (Anything to avoid Internet Explorer.)

But based on this experience, there’s really no reason for me to go back to Chrome. Its privacy concerns alone warrant pursuing other options, though I’m still happy to use Gmail, Calendar, and Google Drive because at least they provide consistent and practical service without chewing up my CPU.

(Post title for the Mad Max: Fury Road fans out there.)

My home screen

I’m always intrigued by other people’s smartphone home screens. Which apps make the dock? How is everything organized, if at all? Do they have 10,000+ unread emails like a crazy person?

Here’s mine for you to judge:

Messages, Podcasts, Google Maps, Safari, and WordPress are probably the most used. Safari used to be in the dock until I decided I was using it too much. You’ll notice no app badges because I turned all of them off (except Messages and Phone). Snapchat is the only social media app I have, for the sole purpose of seeing pictures of my nephew. And I use the black background for the lock screen and home screen to make the phone as boring as possible.

You Are A Service, and other ads for smartphone addicts

Typecaster Rino Breebaart on what messages he’d put on bus ads for people who happen to look up from their smartphone:

These would work just as well, if not better, as digital ads. Or maybe as a service where you get one of these texted to you for every 10 minutes you’re on your phone.

How I’ve made my social media better

Here are some browser extensions and tools I’ve been using to make my experience on the Big Three social networks better:

Twitter

Since 2012 I’ve been using Fix Twitter to swap the right and left columns to put the feed back on the left, as it was pre-2012. Mostly cosmetic, but for me preferable.

Make Twitter Great Again hides two things that have made web Twitter nearly unbearable recently: other people’s liked tweets popping up in my timeline and promoted tweets.

Twitter Demetricator hides all the site’s metrics for followers, likes, retweets, and notifications in order to, per its creator, “disrupt our obsession with social media metrics, to reveal how they guide our behavior, and to ask who most benefits from a system that quantifies our public interactions online.”

I recently enabled Tweet Delete to automatically delete tweets older than two months.

Facebook

I’m not deleting my account, not yet anyway. For work and other reasons it’s just more convenient to have one. The next best thing to do in response to the company’s rolling malfeasance is to deny them their power source, so I’m using Social Book Post Manager to bulk-delete my old posts and plan to post a lot less. It’s a little clunky, and you have to do the process repeatedly to actually get all the posts, but seems to be working.

I’m starting with the earliest, from the summer of 2006 when I first joined, and working forward. Since you get to watch it work through your posts in real time on your Activity Log, you get to quickly reminisce—or cringe—at all of your status updates and comments of olde (common topics for a while there: Lost, the Oscars, The Office, and the Packers). Once all your posts are removed from a given year, the updates that remain—Life Events, your friending history, photos you’re tagged in—reflect an interesting kind of online anthropological history.

I also use Stay Focusd to limit my time on Facebook.

Instagram

I like Instagram generally, but I don’t like how easy it is to waste time scrolling mindlessly. I also don’t like the feed showing me whatever the Almighty Algorithm decides to show me rather than what was posted chronologically.

My hack for this is to delete the Instagram app from my phone after each time I post a photo. This cuts me off from the mindless scroll, from obsessing over my likes and follows, and forces me to decide whether posting a photo is worth the extra time to download the app and sign in again.

Refer Madness: A String of Beeps

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

I was on the phone with a patron when I heard it: that incessant beep the copier makes when something goes wrong.

Once I finished with the patron on the phone, I went over to see what was the matter. This time it was “Insufficient funds”. The coin tower screen showed 25 cents, which was enough for the two copies the patron wanted to make. I cleared the attempted copy job, tried it again, and it printed fine.

I assume copier technology has advanced since the mid-20th century, but you wouldn’t know it based on what’s churning out copies in many libraries.

“I guess it just hates me,” the man said with a smile.

“It’s just old and cranky,” I tell him, which is true.

“Well, I’m old and cranky too,” he said wryly. (A sense of humor goes a long way when dealing with technology—of any age.)

It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the computer or copier or iDevice malfunctions, but as soon as someone comes to the rescue, it works fine. We made it through this operation painlessly, but it was emblematic of how much of my job is realizing how things get screwed up and how often it’s the machine’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times a patron brings a device to the desk and says “I feel so dumb” or “This is a dumb question, but…” Sure, sometimes patrons don’t read instructions or signs correctly. But just as often it’s the design of the machine or app that led to the failure. The annoying beeps and popup error messages are just an insulting icing on the cake.

Though the machine is just trying to say:

*BEEP* ERROR

its frustrated victims actually hear:

*BEEP* WRONG
*BEEP* YOU’RE STUPID
*BEEP* SCREW YOU

Counteracting this ought to be the chief quest of good design. It makes everything better: users can actually use things without going insane and devices can be used with minimum intervention from outsiders.

Easier said that designed.