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Filtering by Category: software

My Semi-automated Diary

Chris Campbell


One of the neat things about geeks is that we like to simplify things using semi-complicated methods. It's an investment of time up front that pays off down the road by making things easier. The exploration is a lot of fun and there is a lot of tweaking along the way to make it work just right. Many people do this in different ways as they figure out their preferred methods. I love keeping a journal with the Day One app on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad. At a basic level it's a diary that allows you to write and save photos. For many people I suspect that is how they use it. But it's also built in a clever way that allows you to do all sorts of interesting other things with it and that's where you can have a lot of fun with it (if that is the sort of thing that you are in to).

When you create a new entry, Day One can find your location and weather to keep track of that along with the words that you write. If you take a photo it can add the location and time as well. If you add a photo that you've taken it will ask if you want to change the date, time, and location to the data embedded in the photo. To go beyond simple GPS info, you can also choose a location based on Foursquare's database, so that can be handy if you are at a specific place. On the iPhone you can also record things like the number of steps you've taken (if you have an iPhone 5S with the M7 chip). By syncing through Dropbox or iCloud it makes for a powerful way to keep track of things whereever you are.

Through various other services I write and track things every day. Wouldn't it be nice to have that show up in your diary too? Other folks have thought that and there are few different ways to do it with varying levels of complication. The first system that I used was Brett Terpstra's Slogger Ruby script. It's a neat way to create automated Day One entries for various things that you'll share online like your Tweets, bookmarks, songs listened to, etc. It's a bit esoteric to set up (with a powerful range of plugins) and it served me well for a long time. With a new laptop I was thinking that I wanted something a bit simpler so I switched to Craig Eley's Sifttter Ruby script.

Sifttter uses the almost-magical IFTTT service to collect data from your online sharing into text files. Then when you run the script (or automate the script to run before you sleep) it creates a summary entry for the day using the contents of each of the files. Right now it saves my tweets, my Foursquare checkins, my Pinboard bookmarks, my played songs, my bike rides logged at Strava, my films watched on Letterboxd, and my weight logged in Fitbit. The IFTTT recipes append an entry to text files with the date, so it gets updated during the day. At the end of the day the Ruby script runs and creates a nice summary of what I've been up to.

An automated system isn't the same as writing a journal entry yourself, but it is a way to keep things recorded that I log every day. It allows me to look back at a day and remember what I've done which can give you a prompt for writing, or to see how things were going for me. It was a bit of a challenge to set up, but now I love having diary entries for every day even if I don't think about writing one.

Writing Toolkit

Chris Campbell

It's good to write and it's even better to write every day. One of the cycles in #clmooc this year is "Hack Your Writing" and it's made me think about how I write and the tools that I use to write. Most of the time I write something to put it online and my blog is the most common way to share it. Over the years I've used different blogging systems and amazingly I've migrated from various systems and hosts and kept the archive mainly intact. Now my site is on Squarespace which means I've simplified things even more, so I no longer install and maintain the blogging system and I focus on writing more.

One of the important things to me is keeping the content and the presentation separate. So most writing happens outside of the publishing system. While sites like Medium have a great editing and creating experience, most of the time I'm doing the first version of the writing somewhere else. The main location to do my writing (as with this) is on the 750 Words web site. It's simple and minimalist with the goal to write at least 750 Words every day. Sometimes it's journaling, but if there is something that I want to share, the first draft starts on the site and is then copied to the clipboard.

For writing I need a keyboard, so the vast majority of the writing happens on my MacBook Pro. If I don't have it, the other neat thing about using a site like 750 Words is that I can use any computer that connects to the internet. It is rare that I don't have internet access and while I don't bring the laptop everywhere, if I am travelling light, I have a Bluetooth keyboard that I can use with my iPad to get the writing done.

After the first draft, I'll paste it into Byword on my MacBook Pro. Byword is a simple and clean writing environment where I'll start editing and revising what I have written. For most blog posts there will be links, so I usually will have those open in tabs in the web browser and I'll copy the links and then paste them in using the Markdown language. Markdown is simple to add as you write and is easy to read. Byword has built-in support for Markdown, so any links or code added to the text show up as being a bit lighter, so they are there, but not distracting. One of the great features of Byword is synchronizing using iCloud, so I can make revisions on my iPad or iPhone. It's good to change the medium and location for editing as it seems to make it easier to find any mistakes as you change the context of reading slightly.

Sometimes an idea occurs while you are walking or away from your computer. If that happens I'll open up Vesper on my iPhone and take a quick note. It's the electronic equivalent of a notebook you always have with you, but it's easily searchable and will let you have a photo with a note too. It's a good way to capture things that I may need to look up later. Sometimes I'll use Simplenote to capture something too, but with an upcoming Mac version, I think that I'm going to be using Vesper more and more for notes and inspiration.

To keep track of links I've been using Pinboard for years. It's become almost invisible to me as it automatically captures the links that I post to Twitter or add to Instapaper. That makes it a powerful history of what I'm interested in and a fast way to find any links that I want to keep. I pay for the archiving function which means that any sites that disappear are backed up. Every now and then I need to go through my links and add some tags to make it easier to search, but it's good to know I can find what I've been watching and reading quickly.

While it's not something I use all the time, if I want to do a quick check on the writing that I've done, I'll use the online Hemming App to check what my writing. It analyzes the reading level of what you have written and gives advice for making your writing clearer. It's good to use to hone your writing and it always gets me to keep my writing in a more active voice and to vary what I've written. Down the road I may use Brett Terpstra's Marked app which gives a preview of things you've written using Markdown. It now incorporates writing tools to help you assess the reading level or word repetition of what you've written.

The final stages after editing, revising, and adding links is to add a photo to make the blog post more interesting. That's when I turn to Flickr and my archive of over 13,000 photos to choose from. I like using my own photos with blog posts. If I am writing about a film I will usually grab or find a screenshot from the film to go with the post. If I need to edit the photo I'll open up Acorn which is fast, powerful, and simple.

To share my writing with the world I'll go to Squarespace and add a new blog post and paste the Markdown into the editor. Then I'll add any images and check to see how it all looks. Then add some tags and a category and publish the blog post. After publishing, I'll grab the link and tweet it out (which also creates a Twitter card) to let people know about it. I like having a system for writing with separate steps as it lets me pause along the way to think and revise what I share.

Twitterrific 5

Chris Campbell

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My iPhone is a slab of glass and metal that can be a bit magical. A new app can change your perception of the whole device. The same thing can happen with services and websites too. It's a challenge for me to separate Twitter from Iconfactory's Twitterrific app. I started using Twitter early (back in 2006) and initially I used it with my pre-iPhone and on the web. But it was in January of 2007 that Iconfactory launched Twitterrific and that changed the way that I used and saw Twitter. The colour scheme and look are burned into my brain, so that's how I think about the different types of tweets. My tweets are green, replies are brown and direct messages are blue. I got into the iPhone game late (the iPhone 4 is my first iPhone), so I was able to dive right in with Twitterrific there and I loved it too.

With the right app it changes the whole experience. Above having a smoothly-functioning app, the Iconfactory create things that look great. With Twitter the actual content is relatively simple as it is text, so if you can display the text well, it's good. Combine that with additional functionality in terms of posting and viewing other content and it makes it all quite seamless and wonderful. Within Twitterrific they’ve innovated with features that have become standard and many associate Ollie, the icon for Twitterrific, with Twitter itself.

While others moved to more complex apps with multiple columns and accounts and looks, I stuck with Twitterrific on the desktop and my phone. This is software with an opinion about how it should look and work. I agreed with that opinion and I'm so glad that I've stayed with them. They have a point of view, but they listen and evolve and it's fascinating to see how it has changed over the years. Every major update had a few changes. It was all recognizable, but there was a bit of an adjustment period in getting used to some of the refinements.

The app keeps up-to-date with innovations in the operating systems without being too bleeding edge. The vast majority of my tweets have been created through it and I expect that it will continue. The sad spectre lurking over app developers for Twitter is that there is a finite limit to the number of people who can use their apps. It's complicated and most people who use Twitter won't know or really care about it. But it's sad for me as it means that things are moving towards a single web-based interface. I'm hoping that the space and tools enjoyed by more advanced users will remain for a long time.

My other fear was that with the changes that there wouldn't be another update to Twitterrific, but today there is a quite wonderful update for the iPhone and iPad. With version 5 there are no longer two separate versions, but just one. The interface is cleaner with new gestures. Swipe right to reply to a tweet, swipe left to see the conversation. That's nice and fast. It fills the screen more and overall is easier to use. I'm still trying to figure out the best combination of theme and font size, but right out of the box (app store?) it's solid and easy to use. There are three buttons at the top of the screen for the unified timeline, replies and direct messages. This makes it clearer what is going on and there are subtle and beautiful light indicators at the bottom of the buttons to let you know when there are new replies or DMs. You can pull to refresh and there is a delightful animation where you have to pull down and break an egg so a bird emerges and starts to fly.

One neat addition is adding locations to tweets (which had come and gone in various iterations) and continued easy ways to add photos to tweets. I haven't really used location that much with Twitter, but I think I will now. It's funny how having things added in a certain way can change your perception of them. I'm sure that there are other features that I haven't seen or explored yet that will be useful. Search has been improved which will make it easier to add other people and the usual solid sharing functionality is still there. It's a neat improvement to an old friend. Ollie, the Twitterrific mascot also looks a bit different too. He keeps getting bigger in the icon. He's the thing I associate most with Twitter and I'm so glad that he's still around and helping me connect with the world in short bursts.

Reading Things With Instaper

Chris Campbell

One of my favourite ways to read things is with Instapaper on my iPhone. Marco's program is simple and easy to use and it makes me think that I would like it even more on an iPad. Instapaper is one of those apps that you may think that you don't need until you start using it and then it becomes part of what you do.

The key to a compelling app is that it needs to disappear. Any good tool enables you do to things. If you think about it too much, it's not working. Instapaper really effectively gets out of the way. It helps you read things later and it does that smoothly and efficiently. I started using Instapaper with my iPod Touch since you can't always depend on reliable WiFi access everywhere. So as long as I kept it synced there would always be something to read when I had some time.

Reading in an RSS feed reader or a web browser can be a good experience, but the nature of reading on a laptop means that you can be distracted by other things. Jumping around between different things isn't conducive to long-form reading, so changing modes to an iPhone or iPad can make a big difference. Switching modes makes it more fun and more casual. It's closer to the mode of a book or a magazine. What you're reading is the only thing on the screen so it allows you to disappear into the writing and that's a very good thing.

Instapaper also plays very well with others. The basic sharing functions are usually mailing something to someone, but within Instapaper there are many possibilities for all sorts of workflows. Wherever I see something online now if it's longer or if I don't have time to read it, I'll Instapaper it. (If something becomes a verb it's a very good sign.) It's easy to get things into it and it's really easy to get things out of it as well. There are buttons for sharing in ways that I use often. The basic method is to email something, but that only scratches the surface. I can select a few sentences and post them as a quote to my tumblelog on Tumblr (or send it to the Tumblr app). I can send it out to Twitter with Twitterrific or Birdhouse. I can bookmark it on Pinboard (or have it automatically added to Pinboard) or I can add something as an OmniFocus task.

Now most of my online reading happens through Instapaper or through things saved there. It's powerful, subtle and essential for me. It's like a customized version of the web that always provides interesting things to read.


Essential Apps for Time and Money

Chris Campbell

Sometimes when you grow accustomed to certain applications they disappear as they're always there and you use them all the time. In compiling a list of apps that I use every day, I forgot about the ones that are so completely integrated that I don't really think about them as I just constantly use them. Oddly they are all related to money and time.

I get things done and (frequently) stay within a budget with the following apps for my iPod Touch: OmniFocus, Spend, and Grocery Gadget. Interestingly they all use lists and two of them use the cloud to synchronize the data that they use.