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.

Going to the movies is a gift

As the due date of my first child approaches, I’ve tried to account for and appreciate things I can do now, pre-parenthood, that won’t be quite so easy soon. Quiet nights reading, hassle-free dining, uninterrupted sleep, and keeping a tidy home come to mind. But chief among these activities is moviegoing, one of my most cherished traditions.

Here’s my typical moviegoing routine:

  • I pick a morning showtime, usually the very first, to avoid crowds and get the cheapest price. (Having a job with occasional weekdays off helps.)
  • I drive our Nissan Leaf since the public parking garage near the theater has free charging stations for electric cars.
  • I use a theater gift card, which I always request for birthdays and holidays and which those cheap early showtimes help stretch into more movies. (Gift cards: like MoviePass minus the chaos.)
  • I take advantage of the theater’s free parking validation on my way out.

(Who says there’s no such thing as a free movie?)

My wife and I saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part on Friday. As I expected, it wasn’t quite as good as the first one (one of my favorites of 2014), but still had the same manic, joyful verve and heavy meta references. It’s also probably the last movie I’ll see in theaters before the baby arrives. My moviegoing days aren’t over, of course. But it does feel like the end of an era.

I can certainly sympathize with the people driving away from the theater due to high prices or bad behavior. I remember the guy who took a phone call during Children of Men. I remember the old woman’s smartphone playing opera in her purse (unbeknownst to her) throughout the previews and the beginning of 12 Years A Slave. And I remember the lady behind me expressing her every dumb thought and question during Gravity.

For me those incidents are few and far between. I just love going to the movies, and I hope my child will too. Because far more often, I emerge from the theater refreshed or challenged or bewildered or overjoyed, or sometimes dismayed or disappointed. Regardless, my aforementioned moviegoing routine isn’t special to me only because of its combination of thriftiness and good fortune. It’s special because it tells my mind and heart to prepare for something extraordinary.

The late, lamented Sam Shepard called the movie theater “a dark room where a bunch of strangers sit down and watch huge images of other strangers who somehow seem more familiar than the people they know in real life.”

A funny thing happens in the dark with those strangers on and off the screen: life feels a little less strange.

Sunday in the living room with Olympia

Spent one of our last pre-baby Sundays repairing a typewriter, watching Jeopardy, and enjoying the snow. This caseless Olympia SM4, owned by a friend of a friend, was rescued from their deceased relative’s basement. It’s in fine shape mechanically. Just needed its metal polished, body scrubbed, innards dusted, and ribbon replaced. Now is (almost) as good as new:

Four quotes from The Overstory

Here are four context-free quotes I like from The Overstory by Richard Powers, a book I’ve only just started and am not sure if I’ll even finish:

“Makes you think different about things, don’t it?”

“Now, that next best of times, is long, and rewrites everything.”

“A tree is a passage between earth and sky.”

“They can’t believe a kid worked for months on an original idea, for no reason at all except the pleasure of looking until you see something.”

A modest grand bargain

Charles C. Camosy has a modest proposal—a “grand bargain to save the planet and call truce in the abortion war”—that triggered my Pragmatic Centrist Solution alarm. This alarm seems to go off only for ideas that sound great, would help a lot of people, but will never, ever get through Congress:

Democrats get a Green New Deal in exchange for a law that mirrors Portugal’s abortion policy. Under a law passed in 2007, Portugal bans the procedure after 10 weeks (with significant exceptions) and requires a three-day waiting period.

Democrats may balk at this proposal, but the current pro-life majority of the Supreme Court could well create law that is even more restrictive — for which they would get nothing. Plus, it would take the political wind out of pro-life sails for years, as most Americans would think that they got more than enough. It may even be the beginning of the end of the abortion wars, which have disproportionately helped the GOP.

Republicans (though many are quite eco-friendly) could also balk. But there is almost no legislative chance for a dramatic change to U.S. abortion policy without some kind of grand bargain. My proposal would test just how important pro-life priorities are for GOP leadership. Do they care more about neoliberal economics or about justice under law for prenatal children?

It would also test just how strongly Democrats believe that climate change is on the verge of causing catastrophe. If the lives of millions hang in the balance, adopting Portugal’s abortion policy ought to be an easy decision. Does Democratic leadership really believe in an existential threat from climate change or is a 10-week limit on abortion the real end of the world for them?

I look forward to this becoming law in my dreams.

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…

Making Migrant Mother

You probably know of Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother” (aka Florence Owens Thompson), an icon of the Great Depression. Perhaps you don’t know, as I didn’t, just how much the photo was staged and later altered.

Evan Puschak of the video series The Nerdwriter breaks down the photo’s origin, the alterations (ghost thumb!), and the other photos from the session (h/t Kottke):

My favorite podcasts right now

After examining my current newsletter situation, I thought it would be a good time to look at the podcasts I’m into right now.

I say “right now” because since my September purging, I’m constantly looking for reasons not to follow a podcast. (For the record: I use Apple Podcasts, and I never increase the audio speed.) There have never been more to choose from. It’s a good problem to have, but the need for discernment has never been higher. Even with the ones I do follow, I don’t feel obligated to listen to every episode.

So these are the ones I’ve stuck with, that bring me joy or enrich my soul or challenge my mind or lighten my mood:

Regular Listens

Filmspotting, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Judge John Hodgman, On Being with Krista Tippett, Armchair Expert, This American Life

Depends On The Guest

Typology, WTF with Marc Maron, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, ID10T with Chris Hardwick

Depends on the Subject

The Rewatchables, The Bill Simmons Podcast, This Movie Changed Me, Ask Science Mike, Slate Political Gabfest, The Liturgists, The Big Picture

What are yours?

My favorite newsletters (what are yours?)

Newsletters seem to be A Thing these days. To me they are a strange hybrid of public and private discourse, like a corner booth at a restaurant. You can subscribe and interact with the writer privately, as if you’re in the booth together. Or you can just eavesdrop from the next booth, so to speak, following their recommendations and links as desired without needing to interact.

Personally I prefer blogs (or anything that I can throw into my RSS reader). They’re easily accessible, don’t require subscriptions, and have space for other pages. But I get the appeal of newsletters and why people would start one.

Which got me thinking about how many I subscribe to. There’s not a great way to figure that out besides looking in my email trash folder, which is limited to the last 30 days. Based on a quick perusal, I was able to nail down the ones I like and have stuck with. (With email in general, I am merciless about unsubscribing.) Some are daily, many weekly or occasional. Some merely supplement a blog, podcast, or other endeavor. All of them I’ve found enriching in some way:

Books

Prufrock, Ryan Holiday, Mark Athitakis, The Atlantic Books Briefing

Culture/General

Jocelyn K. Glei, Dense Discovery, Chris Bowler, The Art of Noticing, Austin Kleon, Robin RendleCJ ChilversJohn August, Alan Jacobs

Libraries

Jessamyn West, Read for Later, Shelf Awareness, PW Preview for Librarians, Top Shelf Reference

Events

Music Box Theatre, my local movie theater showtimes, my local library

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour, Filmspotting

Not included are mailing lists for several bands and the newsletters that publish too infrequently to be in my trash folder.

Subscribe to a newsletter you think I’d like? Let me know.

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.