Tag Archives: Personal life

Some Tools for the Productive

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m a big fan of tools that help sort through your stuff, or at least help you keep it orderly. TiddlyWiki is one of them, but it’s often just sat on the wrong side of the line in terms of easily getting stuff into it while you’re doing something else. You know the situation: You’re browsing, you like the look of something and you want to put it somewhere you can find it again, but you don’t really want to start moving around into other programs. TiddlySnip, in this case, might provide the answer:

TiddlySnip is a Firefox extension that lets you use your TiddlyWiki as a scrapbook! Simply select text, right click and choose ‘TiddlySnip selection’. Next time you open your TiddlyWiki file, your snippets will be there, already tagged and organised.

It works well. On the same subject, I’ve heard from the PR folks involved with EverNote, the scrolling toilet roll of stuff that works not unlike TiddlyWiki, but now, in its 2.0 beta,

allows users to search for text within images—the first time such a product is available to the public.

What this means, apparently, is that you can search images for embedded typed or handwritten text. There’s also a portable version of EverNote that you can put on your USB thumbdrive. Both versions might be worth checking out.

An Outliner That Tags

One of my favorite and most used programs, the MyInfo outliner, is now out in a new version that wraps in tagging, fast searching and other tweaks that put it ahead of the opposition. If you use outliners, check it out, and if you don’t, you might want to consider it. (Outliners are simple free-text databases, organised in a familiar tree format. Great for storing more or less anything you want to keep in one place.)

MyInfo is developed by Milenix, a small software company in Bulgaria. It sells for $50. I’ve been playing with this version, 3.5, and it’s impressive. The tagging is simple but well thought through — a classic example of how tagging can be wrapped into standalone applications to improve organising and finding stuff. Search now works across as many files as you have open, so you can find stuff quickly and efficiently. Gripes? There have been some bugs but Petko, the guy behind it, has been pretty quick to fix them.

The TiddlyWiki Report, Part IV: Jeremy Ruston

This week’s WSJ.com/AWSJ column is about the TiddlyWiki (here, when it appears Friday), which I reckon is a wonderful tool and a quiet but major leap forward for interfaces, outliners and general coolness. I had a chance to chat with some of the folk most closely involved in TiddlyWikis, but sadly couldn’t use much of their material directly, so here is some of the stuff that didn’t fit.

Last, but not least, Jeremy Ruston, the man who started it all.

Jeremy Ruston: Hi Jeremy
Loose Wire: hi jeremy, thanks for getting back to me…
Jeremy Ruston: no problem, hope it’s not too late wherever you are
Loose Wire: i’d like to hear from you about the history of this, how it works under the hood, what they’re used for and where it’s going…
Jeremy Ruston: sure, where to start
Jeremy Ruston: i was originally trying to do a personal site
Jeremy Ruston: kind of wanted to blog, but acknowledged that I’m not a great writer
Jeremy Ruston: (being more of a inventor/design/coder type)
Jeremy Ruston: so, wanted something that would let me do a partwork, gradually assembling a coherent picture of the work I’m interested in, and the stuff I’ve done
Jeremy Ruston: but I wanted it to be enough like a blog that people would recognise it as one
Jeremy Ruston: anyway, i started messing around with dhtml, for the first time in years
Jeremy Ruston: and realised that actually it might be a good enough way to implement some of the wiki ideas I’ve been thinking about for a long time
Jeremy Ruston: I did the first version which was very primitive and didn’t allow saving
Jeremy Ruston: which got a bit of attention, but everyone said ‘tsk, if only it allowed saving’
Jeremy Ruston: which of course, I knew was Totally Impossible for a mere HTML file
Jeremy Ruston: which turned out to be wrong…
Jeremy Ruston: oh, and I never did get around to doing the personal site I originally envisaged
Loose Wire: interesting. basically all the code that makes the TW happen is stored in the same file as the content, right? It’s all self-contained?
Jeremy Ruston: yeah, just one file with three main chunks: html to deliver the skeleton of the layout and the content itself; css for the appearance of elements and javascript for the behaviour
Jeremy Ruston: it’s really the opposite of what computer geeks consider conventional wisdom, which would be to separate stuff neatly
Jeremy Ruston: it’s kind of like if every Word document actually incorporated a copy of Microsoft Word itself
Jeremy Ruston: but in the crazy world of the web the application is shorter than the document
Loose Wire: it
Loose Wire: ‘s an interesting twist…
Jeremy Ruston: now there’s a couple of other projects that use the same approach, but I think TiddlyWiki was the first
Loose Wire: which projects are those?
Jeremy Ruston: is the one I was thinking of
Loose Wire: how hard was all this to do?
Jeremy Ruston: Hard, I guess, but it’s the kind of thing I enjoy 🙂
Jeremy Ruston: A lot of it is actually quite routine from a programming perspective, but some bits were ridiculously hard to get right
Jeremy Ruston: for example, getting it to display properly in Internet Explorer — Firefox is easy
Jeremy Ruston: also, the code to actually do the saving was pretty complex, and the code to handle wikification (what I call turning Wiki text into proper displayed text with links etc)
Jeremy Ruston: The great thing about the internet is that it’s a great resource for finding out more about the internet… there’s masses and masses of chunks and slivers of code out there to learn from
Jeremy Ruston: hopefully tiddlywiki is now something that other people are learning from
Loose Wire: i found it interesting, too, that other tiddlywikis sprang up — the GTD one, for example — and now have been folded into the original….
Jeremy Ruston: yeah, I’ve been astounded by the reaction from the developer community
Jeremy Ruston: or rather the way that tiddlywiki has formed it’s own developer community
Jeremy Ruston: there’s something eminently hackable about JavaScript, though
Loose Wire: do you see it as part of this ‘AJAX’ resurgence?
Jeremy Ruston: Slight aside about the previous point: 15 to 20 years ago, all computers came with a BASIC interpreter; the owner was expected to do a bit of programming, or at least tinker with other people’s programs. I felt it was a shame when that era ended, but it seems that the web has ushered in a new era of accessible, hackable, available programming tools
Jeremy Ruston: As to AJAX, yes, absolutely, I think that TiddlyWiki is one of the quintessential AJAX apps. And yet, perversely, it technically fails to meet the original criteria of AJAX because it doesn’t talk to a serverside. But I think that that is a shortcoming in the definition of AJAX…
Loose Wire: have you heard back from people about how they’re using TWs? any surprises?
Jeremy Ruston: yes, astonishment usually
Jeremy Ruston: 🙂
Jeremy Ruston: I’ve heard of people really stretching it: putting about 50 times more data into it than I’d ever bothered to test, for example
Loose Wire: those would be big files, no?
Jeremy Ruston: I think a lot of the people who are actually using TiddlyWiki (as opposed to hacking the code) don’t ever publish their stuff. A key feature of tiddlywiki for them is that it’s utterly private; you don’t have to trust any shady, fly-by-night dotcom with your data
Jeremy Ruston: so there’s a huge mass of ‘dark TiddlyWikis’ that we can’t see
Jeremy Ruston: but of the ones that I can see, I’m thrilled that academics have taken to it so well – have you seen Elise Springer’s site?
Loose Wire: no…
Jeremy Ruston: (yes, putting lots and lots and lots of text into it)
Jeremy Ruston: Jeremy Ruston: there’s also a site about religion:
Jeremy Ruston: which I think is interesting because it’s the sort of densely argued manifesto that works really well in tiddlywiki
Loose Wire: Elise’s site is beautiful…
Jeremy Ruston: Yeah, she’s really dedicated to getting it how she wants it, very impressive
Jeremy Ruston: This one is interesting too: it’s about Bolivian politics
Jeremy Ruston: One thing that was definitely a surprise was the translation activity. Volunteers have gone and done translations into German, French, Dutch, Bulgarian, Chinese (traditional and mandarin), Portuguese
Jeremy Ruston: and probably others I’ve forgotten
Loose Wire: excellent… any idea of the number of folk using TW now?
Jeremy Ruston: I think it’s impossible to measure in any sensible way; people only visit the site once to get a copy, and can then use it as often as they like without me being any the wiser
Jeremy Ruston: but it’s certainly tens of thousands I’d have thought
Loose Wire: one feature that particularly attracted me was the tagging thing. it really helps propel TW into another league…
Jeremy Ruston: Yeah, it was an obvious thing to add, and does really work well
Jeremy Ruston: also a good example of a feature that I’d envisaged but got implemented first by other people
Jeremy Ruston: But I don’t think it yet scratches the surface of what’s possible with tagging
Loose Wire: what do you imagine happening there?
Jeremy Ruston: being able to ‘twist’ on a tag that you’ve used to see things that other people have tagged the same way
Jeremy Ruston: that’s something that flickr and del.icio.us do today
Jeremy Ruston: TiddlyWiki needs multi-user features before it can do that
Loose Wire: yes… but i’ve always felt tags are just as useful to the individual as the group…
Jeremy Ruston: yes indeed
Loose Wire: TW is the first i’ve seen really using that. suddenly you have a very powerful way of organising and accessing stuff.
Loose Wire: it really puts to shame most other data organisers…
Jeremy Ruston: Thanks!
Jeremy Ruston: Well, I’d like to make it easier to navigate by tags
Jeremy Ruston: and search by them
Loose Wire: jonny was saying he is working on being able to select multiple tags…
Jeremy Ruston: oh cool, that will be interesting. I’m interested in extending that to more complex things (give me everything tagged ‘jonny’ and ‘jeremy’ but not tagged ‘football’)
Jeremy Ruston: I think that the challenge with those kinds of features is the ui
Loose Wire: that would be excellent..
Loose Wire: yes…
Jeremy Ruston: I’ve aimed to give tiddlywiki a liquid interface that’s as uncluttered as possible
Loose Wire: i’ve been juggling data for a project using a TW and already the ways to get related data is beyond any other program i’ve used.
Jeremy Ruston: it’s a challenge to keep these complex features out of the way but accessible and discoverable
Jeremy Ruston: hehe that’s excellent
Jeremy Ruston: what do you think of the search? I still find it way too slow, and keep wondering about making the search results popup as a submenu that you can select from
Loose Wire: i also started thinking about how one could turn blogs themselves into databases… many of us blog, but that stuff is not all that accessible once it’s blogged..
Loose Wire: (the search idea, i agree on)
Loose Wire: TW struck me as the intersection of publisher and database.
Loose Wire: i can’t think of any other program that fills that space.
Loose Wire: and yet now we are all publishers, we need it more than ever!
Jeremy Ruston: Yes, indeed, I like the counterpoint with blogging
Jeremy Ruston: blogging seems essentially ephemeral because individual posts are often so meaningless shorn of their context, while using tiddlywiki can lead to the production of a coherent body of work, something of lasting value
Jeremy Ruston: (sorry rambling)
Loose Wire: exactly. and blogging offered us different methods of navigation, and TWs are kind of bringing that home, to one’s own data too. indeed TW is an example of not really distinguishing between public and private, offline and online data.
Loose Wire: at least in the sense of the way it’s edited and collected.
Loose Wire: now i’m rambling too.
Jeremy Ruston: yes, I like that too
Loose Wire: 🙂

Loose Wire: i guess my wishlist would include making it easier to set up a TW — maybe a desktop shortcut — and an easier way to tweak the stylesheet…
Loose Wire: perhaps some tip bubbles…
Jeremy Ruston: yeah, there’s a sizeable percentage of ‘normal people’ who I see sit in front of it: they scroll it up and down, and don’t actually click on anything, and so completely miss the point…. Thought provoking for an interface designer
Loose Wire: anyone who has ever just wanted to save some stuff they found, or keep notes in the same place, would welcome TW…
Jeremy Ruston: you’re right of course. The hackers are very vocal so I tend to neglect the more ease-of-use oriented features…

Loose Wire: finally, where do you think it might go?
Jeremy Ruston: well, I hope that in 12 months time, I’m working on it full time, and offering a really nicely polished, free, version of the current single file thing, along with some probably more commercial expanded version with multiple users, real time collaboration, spell checking and all that good stuff
Jeremy Ruston: but if I’ve learned one thing over the last 12 months, it’s to put stuff out there and see what happens
Jeremy Ruston: so I guess I’ll keep doing that 🙂
Loose Wire: how scalable is it, do you think? does it hit a limit? can you get around that?
Jeremy Ruston: tiddlywiki itself doesn’t have any (serious) inherent limits; it’s just that browsers tend to explode if you push them too far
Jeremy Ruston: so, a 10MB tiddlywiki would probably kill internet explorer
Jeremy Ruston: but yes, these problems are all get-around-able
Jeremy Ruston: fun problems to solve, actually, generally
Loose Wire: cool… well, thanks for this jeremy.

Canada Gets The Hipster PDA

Nice piece by Tralee Pearce in The Globe and Mail on ‘The hipster PDA’ :

On BlackBerry-addicted Parliament Hill, NDP press secretary Ian Capstick turns heads with his newest organizational gadget: a stack of 3 x 5 index cards held together by a black bull clip.

The hipster PDA, of course, is Merlin Mann’s idea, and the piece quotes liberally from Merlin — visit his website at 43Folders. An interesting article and worth a read.

The Moleskine Multi-Tab Hack

I’ve been experimenting a bit with the excellent Moleskine hack suggested by Jerry Brito for adding Getting Things Done tabs to the notebook. Jerry divides the book into five sections — next actions, projects list, someday maybe list, article ideas, and notes — which I found wasn’t enough for the messed up life I seem to be leading at the moment. I have never quite succumbed to David Allen’s world, and found I preferred to add stuff to specific places, so that I could easily re-read them and follow up on them. So I added sub tabs, which sounds confusing, but isn’t. Well, perhaps it is.

Dsc01638

The basic idea is that there are five main divisions, or colours: Tech (anything tech related, subdivided into notes, ideas for columns or posts, expenses, dealing with the Editor), Personal (moving house, getting married, diary, that kind of thing), Action (the to do stuff, from Now to my Big Picture stuff, which I call 30,000 feet), Dump (anything, from phone numbers to words I want to Google at some point) and Book (for a book I’m writing). Each section is a colour, each subdivision is a tab — actually those sticky labels that are a cross between Post-Its and book markers (which seem to come in five colours anyway).

Now the Moleskine was already in use when I started playing with this, so I found myself just adding the label to wherever I had started one of these lists in the book. I found it better to only allow the tab labels to protrude slightly from the edge of the page, thus:

Dsc01644

To make it easy to find stuff I numbered every right hand page (which takes you up to about 100 in a normal Moleskine) and then used the first page that falls open — the first double page — as an index:

Dsc01643

I know this all sounds kinda messy. But it seems to work. Having the colour coded tabs dotted over a 100–page spread actually makes them easier to find, because it’s very easy to estimate the page you need to jump to — 45 is about half way through, 79 is towards the end, etc. Sure you need to use the index, at least to start with, but I found I quickly got the hang of it. If you liked you could write on the tabs to identify them more easily.

I’m sure this won’t work for lots of people. And one could easily argue that all this extra complexity takes away the simple beauty of a Moleskine. I would probably agree, but this seems to work for me, at least for now.

The Moleskine Multi-Tab Hack

I’ve been experimenting a bit with the excellent Moleskine hack suggested by Jerry Brito for adding Getting Things Done tabs to the notebook. Jerry divides the book into five sections — next actions, projects list, someday maybe list, article ideas, and notes — which I found wasn’t enough for the messed up life I seem to be leading at the moment. I have never quite succumbed to David Allen’s world, and found I preferred to add stuff to specific places, so that I could easily re-read them and follow up on them. So I added sub tabs, which sounds confusing, but isn’t. Well, perhaps it is.

Dsc01638

The basic idea is that there are five main divisions, or colours: Tech (anything tech related, subdivided into notes, ideas for columns or posts, expenses, dealing with the Editor), Personal (moving house, getting married, diary, that kind of thing), Action (the to do stuff, from Now to my Big Picture stuff, which I call 30,000 feet), Dump (anything, from phone numbers to words I want to Google at some point) and Book (for a book I’m writing). Each section is a colour, each subdivision is a tab — actually those sticky labels that are a cross between Post-Its and book markers (which seem to come in five colours anyway).

Now the Moleskine was already in use when I started playing with this, so I found myself just adding the label to wherever I had started one of these lists in the book. I found it better to only allow the tab labels to protrude slightly from the edge of the page, thus:

Dsc01644

To make it easy to find stuff I numbered every right hand page (which takes you up to about 100 in a normal Moleskine) and then used the first page that falls open — the first double page — as an index:

Dsc01643

I know this all sounds kinda messy. But it seems to work. Having the colour coded tabs dotted over a 100–page spread actually makes them easier to find, because it’s very easy to estimate the page you need to jump to — 45 is about half way through, 79 is towards the end, etc. Sure you need to use the index, at least to start with, but I found I quickly got the hang of it. If you liked you could write on the tabs to identify them more easily.

I’m sure this won’t work for lots of people. And one could easily argue that all this extra complexity takes away the simple beauty of a Moleskine. I would probably agree, but this seems to work for me, at least for now.

The Moleskine Report Part I

This week’s column, in tomorrow’s Asian Wall Street Journal and WSJ.com is about Moleskines and how they seem to command the respect of a lot of technorati/blogging elite members (known as BlEMs). Lots of stuff I wasn’t able to include the column, which I’ll feed into the blog over the next few days. Thanks to everyone for their help.

Here to start with is emailed answers by Marc Orchant to my questions about how he uses his Moleskine:

What do you use, exactly, in digital and paper terms?

My primary PC is a Toshiba Portege M200 Tablet PC. It has revolutionized my approach to everything else I use. My primary capture tools are a small NoteTaker wallet I bought at a David Allen Getting Things Done seminar years ago (small notepad and a collapsible Rotring pen) and a small Moleskine journal (actually it’s the sketchbook model – blank pages). I also have a Sony Clie UX50 (Palm OS) that is total overkill for my current PDA usage which is checking my schedule or looking up a phone number when I’m out and about.

How do you use them?

I almost always have the Tablet PC with me and capture as much into this primary system as I can – either with the pen or keyboard). In the less frequent situation where I don’t have access to the Tablet, I use the Moleskine for note-taking of any consequence and for creating and working action lists. The NoteTaker is for quick disposable notes (as in “Honey – can you pick a few things up at the store on the way home?”) or actions I want to get into my task management system on the Tablet as soon as I get back to it.

Why still use paper?

There is an immense amount of satisfaction in writing on paper – we tend to forget that in this digital-toy-crazed world we live in. The Moleskine has lovely paper – crisp, creamy, and smooth – that is a pleasure to write on. I use a four-nib Rotring pen that has a mechanical pencil (great for sketching), a roller ball pen, a bright orange dry-lighter, and a PDA stylus tip – all contained in a very precision-machined metal barrel.

I also enjoy flipping through my journal pages, reviewing sketches, diagrams, and ad hoc notes. With the Tablet PC, I get a near-paper experience but the best thing about paper is that it requires no batteries!

Are you alone, or does everyone you know follow the same practice?

Very few do, actually although, given my status as one of the resident gadget freaks at my office, I have made a lot of people *very* curious ;^)

Do you get odd looks for using paper?

See above. Yes – very definitely.

Do you see any broader significance in all this? Or is it a fad? The demise of PDAs?

I spend a good amount time in the Getting Things Done discussion forums and there seems to be cyclical pattern to the adoption of, tweaking of, and abandonment of electronics like PDAs. I’ve been using a PDA since the original Newton MessagePad and have probably owned at least a dozen different models over the years. Right now (at least), I’m at a stage in my personal cycle where I don’t want to put up with the hassles a PDA presents. Whether it’s battery life, readability in direct sunlight, a cramped and frustrating text entry UI, or the myriad other things that “suck” about PDAs, the Moleskine has none of these issues.

For me, what has killed the PDA is the Tablet PC – but that’s probably another article. It has completely transformed my approach to computing and, as the Storyteller (my actual title – translate in suit-speak to Marketing & PR Director) at a software company that does all of its business online, I *live* in my computer. It is my primary business tool – even more than the telephone in this day of VOIP and a ubiquitous public network.

Do you think paper and digital might merge, a la Logitech’s io Pen, or is that the wrong way of looking at things?

I hope that’s not how it goes. I hope the Tablet PC approach emerges as the winning form factor. I’ve used both. The Tablet (admittedly a more expensive proposition) is an infinitely better solution for students and business people.

Thanks, Marc. Here, fyi, are Marc’s blogs:
http://office.weblogsinc.com (a blog about Microsoft Office)
http://tabletpcs.weblogsinc.com (a blog about Tablet PCs)
http://blogs.officezealot.com/marc (Marc’s Outlook on Productivity)

How To Solve Crosswords

Italian computer engineers have come up with software that will crack crossword puzzles, according to Nature.

The program, called Web Crow, reads crossword clues, surfs the web for the answers and fits them into the puzzle. Computer engineers Marco Gori and Marco Ernandes at the University of Siena in Italy say a prototype should be available by the end of the year.

It’s not the first program to solve crosswords, Nature says. That was Proverb, developed in 1999 by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, which uses a variety of databases to solve puzzles. Web Crow is the first to solve crosswords in any language.

The way it does this is analyse “the crossword clue and turns it into a simple query. Then it plugs the query into the internet search engine Google and uses a certainty score to rank the possible solutions in a candidate list,” according to Nature. It then “uses an algorithm to figure out which candidate words provide the best fit for the grid as a whole”.

Some of the technology behind this could be used for extracting information from the web, or organising schedules and shifts, Nature quotes Gori as saying. And of course he’s careful to stress that he’s not trying to take away the fun of solving a crossword.

The Death Of A Devil Duckie Drive

In a box accompanying a Loose Wire column two weeks ago I mentioned TikiMac’s Devil Duckie Flash Drive, a “red, horn-toting 4 1/2″ rubber duck with hypnotic blinking eyes” that houses a high-speed USB 2.0 (1.1 compatible) personal data storage launched in March. Sadly, since writing the piece the Devil Duckie has died.

A press release on the company’s website says: “It’s a strange day when a rubber duck affects a technology company, but that’s just what happened. TikiMac, LLC. announced today that it is halting production of its Devil Duck Flash Drives, due to unexpected issues relating to the quality of the rubber duck’s ‘shell’ used in the drive’s manufacturing.”

Sadly it appears the ducks were either unusable or needed repainting. Instead, TikiMac is offering an its own “Upgrade-A-Duck” service where end-users can obtain their own rubber duckie shells and have them transformed into a “Bionic Duckie” flash drive.

My apologies to readers.

The Art Of Stone Skimming

For those of you not sure what resolution to commit to this year, here’s a suggestion: Improve your stone skimming. To help you out, this month’s Nature (subscription required for full text) carries a scientific analysis by three French academics of the optimum angle at which the stone should hit the water:

Following earlier attempts to analyse the physics of this ancestral human activity, we focus here on the crucial moment in stone skipping: when the stone bounces on the water’s surface. By monitoring the collision of a spinning disc with water, we have discovered that an angle of about 20° between the stone and the water’s surface is optimal with respect to the throwing conditions and yields the maximum possible number of bounces.

So now you know. Apparently the record is 38 bounces, set by one J. Coleman-McGhee in 1992. Good luck, and have a happy 2004.