Day One: Journaling Made Easy

Day One

I don’t buy apps very often. Probably because I can usually find a free alternative that works. However, every now and again the free alternatives are not what I’m looking for and the paid alternatives look fabulously well developed–great UI, great UX–so I take the leap and buy.

Day One is one of those apps.

Probably about a year ago I went ahead and bought it and I’ve never missed the money or regretted it. ($5 really isn’t that much money, it just seems like a lot relative to all those free apps we download. It’s probably cheaper than buying a physical journal!) I’ve always struggled to keep a memoir of my life, but Day One makes it easy because not only are their reminders, but I can take pictures along the way. One of the reasons I don’t write in a journal regularly is because it takes time to describe what I did that day or I’d have to bring the journal with me everywhere I went just to capture a moment in the moment. With Day One, I can capture moments in the moment and all I have to do is take a picture.

While pictures are awesome, words are the essence of any true journal or diary. A photo journal without words is more of a photo album. It can tell a story, but words can add a lot of depth to a picture, much like sound to a motion picture. If typing on the phone sounds ‘no bueno’ to you then just speak into your phone and let it transcribe your voice because Day One supports that too! Brilliant! My greatest entries are probably those that combine pictures with words.

Once again though, writing a long, reflective entry can take time. I’ve found that some times all I need is the time it takes me to get to work on public transit or waiting in the airport for a flight.

Writing in a journal is often more about reflection and meditation than anything. This is one of the keys to relaxation and greater happiness. This is one of the biggest reasons why I write in my journal. Furthermore, I want people to know what my life is about on the day to day, what I think about, what I notice, what’s important to me. I want to go back and remember what I did 10 years ago. I want others to do be able to do that too, if they wish.

In summary these are the reasons why I love Day One:

  • Photos
  • Tags
  • Reminders
  • Varied journal views (i.e. timeline, calendar, photos, year, etc.)
  • Geolocation data
  • Weather conditions
  • Cloud backup via Dropbox
  • Digital

Day One: journaling made easy.

Use Preview, Not Adobe Reader or Acrobat

One of the beauties of owning a Mac is Preview. Preview is a simple application for viewing images and PDFs in Mac OS X. Preview uses Apple’s implementation of Adobe’s PDF specification.

The crazy thing is I’ve found a lot of people either don’t know it exists, don’t know it works with PDFs or they are using Adobe Reader/Acrobat instead. Probably mostly the latter. Personally, I’ve always found the Adobe PDF products to be really bloated and heavy-weight for such a simple task as reading and highlighting PDFs.

I’ve also heard a number of people complain about how they can’t copy/paste text from some PDFs using Reader/Acrobat because the PDF is locked. I’ve heard a couple students in my classes say this about Harvard Business Review cases they’ve paid for and downloaded. I downloaded the same cases and had no trouble with copy/paste when using Preview. I have run into trouble before on other PDFs that were locked with a password, but none of my HBR cases have given me any grief when I use Preview. Tip of the day: Stop using Acrobat or Reader. USE PREVIEW.

There are a lot of other nifty things you can do with Preview that I think are worth mentioning. One of the most important using Preview to preview documents and images without actually opening the application. Novel idea, right? All you do is navigate to the text file, Word doc, Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint/Keynote presentation, image or whatever it is you want to preview and press SPACEBAR. Preview will render the file in pop-up. Press SPACEBAR again to kill the pop-up. Pure genius.

Another one of the most basic use cases is to use the Rectangular Selection tool to outline the section of an image you want and then crop it (Cmd+K OR Tools >> Crop). Most of the time you probably don’t need to open Photoshop to do that. And instead of cropping screenshots, just use Cmd+Shift+4.

You can use gestures to zoom in (pinch-in and -out). You can also rotate images or pages (rotate your finger + thumb). One of my cases had horizontal text, so instead of turning my head or my computer, I simply rotated the page.

You can manipulate the brightness, contrast, saturation, exposure and other elements of photos (Cmd+Alt+C OR Tools >> Adjust Color…). Granted, Preview isn’t as powerful as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, but it gets the job done for simple projects you don’t care about getting professional with (e.g. publishing a picture to the web for a blog post or sending a photo in an email to the fam).

Adjust Color in Preview

Adjust Color in Preview

Preview will also allow you to view all the Exif data/information about a photo through the Inspector tool (Cmd+I OR Tools >> Show Inspector). This is perfect for comparing aperture f-stop, shutter speed and ISO for the photos you just took. Just whip out the SD card in your camera, plug it into your MacBook, launch Preview and compare the photos. Or maybe it’s been a while since you took the shots and you want to see what made the difference between two photos of the same scene.

Inspector in Preview - Exif Data

Inspector in Preview - Exif Data

Another cool trick you can read about is creating a digital signature based on your written signature for digital documents using the camera on your Mac. You can read about how to create signatures using Preview from the Mac Observer.

One final thing worth noting is that with the release of Mac OS X Lion (10.7), Preview saves files in versions and the “Save As…” functionality no longer exists strictly speaking. Instead you have to duplicate a file and then save it with a new name. This might seem confusing and silly, but versioning is actually kind of cool, once you get the hang of it. I won’t discuss how to get around it, but you can read more about how to bring back “Save As” in Lion from Mac OS X Tips.

Install and Setup Cygwin

I recently started a new job for part-time work while in school. As with any new tech job, I went through the process of customizing my Windows box with all the settings, configurations and programs I like. As part of this process I setup Cygwin.

If you aren’t familiar with Cygwin as a Windows user, I hope you will be some day. Cygwin is basically a command line interface (CLI) and set of tools that emulates a Linux environment on Windows. I prefer Cygwin over the basic CLI that comes with Windows because I can use the programs familiar to *Nix users in addition to the autocomplete functionality with Git. I can customize my shell and thank goodness for that! It definitely makes me more efficient and feel more at home. If you’re still using the command prompt for Windows, it’s time to branch out and try something new. It’s valuable to understand how to navigate and script in the Windows CLI, but it’s also worth looking into Cygwin.

As I was going through the process I took note of all the details for future reference. Here’s a list of the packages I suggest you include in your installation of Cygwin:

  • openssh
  • git
  • vim
  • curl
  • bash completion
  • xinit & X-start-menu-icons (if you plan on using gitk)

Cygwin will tell you to install their various dependencies. Just do what it says :).

Here’s what my .bash_profile looks like. It’s a little bit different from the .profile on my Mac:

##################
### MY ALIASES ###
##################

# git command autocompletion script
source ~/bin/git-completion.bash

# navigate to C:\
alias cdc='cd /cygdrive/c'

# navigate to C:\Source\Certus
alias certus='cd /cygdrive/c/Source/Certus'

# git commamands simplified
alias gst='git status'
alias gco='git checkout'
alias gci='git commit'
alias grb='git rebase'
alias gbr='git branch'
alias gpl='git pull'
alias gpu='git push'
alias gad='git add -A'
alias gmt='git mergetool'
alias bdf='git diff'
alias glg='git log --date-order --all --graph --format="%C(green)%h%Creset %C(yellow)%an%Creset %C(blue bold)%ar%Creset %C(red bold)%d%Creset%s"'
alias glg2='git log --date-order --all --graph --name-status --format="%C(green)%H%Creset %C(yellow)%an%Creset %C(blue bold)%ar%Creset %C(red bold)%d%Creset%s"'

# ls alias for color-mode
alias ls='ls -lha --color=always'

# up 'n' folders
alias ..='cd ..'
alias ...='cd ../..'
alias ....='cd ../../..'
alias .....='cd ../../../..'

# processes
#alias ps='ps -ax'

# refresh shell
alias reload='source ~/.bash_profile'

###############################
### ENVIRONMENTAL VARIABLES ###
###############################

# Update PATH with private bin
export PATH="${HOME}/bin:${PATH}"

# Show clean/dirty state for Git in prompt
export GIT_PS1_SHOWDIRTYSTATE=1

# Change prompt
PS1_OLD=${PS1}
export PS1='\[\033[1;34m\]\!\[\033[0m\] \[\033[1;35m\]\u\[\033[0m\]:\[\033[1;35m\]\W\[\033[0m\] \[\033[1;92m\]$(__git_ps1 "(%s)")\[\033[0m\]$ '

# Display variable for gitk
export DISPLAY=:0.0

#################
### PROCESSES ###
#################

# Run XWin Server
startxwin >/dev/null 2>&1 &

As an aside, while I was using Git I realized there was no color for my git status (aka gstat) commands, so I turned on the color: git config --global color.ui true. For a list of other useful configurations to explore, checkout Customizing Git.

I also installed the Perforce’s P4Merge visual merge tool for resolving conflicts when using Git. You can read about how to set that up with Git from the same link above.

Back to School, Back to Note-taking

Simplenote As mentioned in my post about WorkFlowy, Simplenote is my preferred note-taking app. It was one of the first apps I downloaded on my Mac when I bought it back in 2010. It came as a recommendation from my brother as a “must-have” app, esp. for school.

Simplenote is a minimalist web app. It does a really good job at keeping things simple. There’s a limited amount of formatting (bold, italics, strikethrough). This might concern you. I know it drove me a bit crazy at first, but it’s actually something I’ve come to appreciate because it keeps note-taking plain and simple.

Key Features of Simplenote

Tags. Use tags to help organize your notes. You can also tag people to share with them.

Go back in time! Press the ‘clock’ button to access backup versions of your notes.

Share. Press the ‘send’ button to publish a note for others to see. All changes get synchronized. Share a grocery list with your family or housemates.

Pinning. Got a really important note? Press the ‘i’ button to pin it to the top of the list.

Trash. Deleted notes go in the trash. You can restore them if you want, or empty the trash to get rid of them forever.

Search. Search through your notes by title or content.

Secure. All your notes are synchronized securely via encryption; however, they are stored in plaintext so you can search them.

Apps

As of now, Simplenote can be downloaded for iOS devices. I believe they are currently developing for Android and maybe even Windows Phone.

However, there is more than one way to take advantage of Simplenote. A variety of other developers have produced apps to take advantage of Simplenote on Mac and Windows computers. Simply vist the Simplenote downloads page to view the comprehensive list.

In the past I’ve used Notational Velocity (Mac) & ResophNotes (Windows). Both are excellent and take advantage of the features of Simplenote. Notational Velocity is especially minimal. It comes with some extra useful features including:

Spell check. And auto-correction.

URLs. NV automatically recognizes URLs and makes them clickable.

Secure note entry and local storage encryption. Alternatively, instead of enabling local storage encryption, you can store notes as individual files so that they are searchable via Spotlight.

Unordered lists. Simplenote will automatically detect unordered lists if you add a symbol (say a dash “-“) to te beginning of at least two lines in a row and indent in at least one tab stop. Hit enter and it will add your symbol.

It might take a while to get used to the limited functionality. Admittedly, sometimes I really want to make a table or insert an image. But 90% of the time, Simplenote is just what I need. Not to mention, I can take notes anywhere and I always have them with me.

Notational Velocity

Looking for a New Note-taking App?

Last year I tried taking notes with Evernote, but it left me wanting. Evernote has some nice functionality, but it just feels….clunky…and bloated. I like that you can add tables and images, but…I don’t know. It just left a bad taste in my mouth. Since then I’ve realized even more the beauty of simple, basic note-taking. Thus, I switched back to my Simplenote/Notational Velocity combo, which I highly recommend. (Look for a post about Simplenote later this week).

Thanks to a my good friend Riley Jenkins, I found out about a new note-taking app on the block with great potential: WorkFlowy. At this point, WorkFlowy is only web based, but the creators have optimized it to work with mobile devices in web browsers. The web app’s key focus is note-taking and lists.

Key Features

Nested lists. Each item in your list can become the parent of a nested list. Simply click through to see the sub-content.

Indent. By indenting items automatically become part of the parent item’s sublist.

Expand/Collapse lists. Double click the title of the current list to expand/collapse all. Double click individual items to expand/collapse child items. Alternatively use the shortcut Ctrl + Down/Up Arrow or click the “+” or “-” sign to the left of the list.

Mark completed. Since WorkFlowy is task/list oriented you can mark items as completed. You can also toggle completed tasks as hidden/visible.

Tags. Use #tags to mark items for #today or as #important. Use @tags to label items for @Susie or @Dev. Clicking tags filters down items with those tags.

Create notes. Think of it as subtitles for each item. I’ve noticed these are useful as a kind of aside, reminder, description, details or for tags.

Share. Create a “secret” shared link and send it to a friend. You can also choose whether or not you want the viewer(s) to be able to edit or just view the content.

Export notes. In formatted or plain text. FTW!

Duplicate notes. ‘Nuff said.

How It Works

WorkFlowy works from a different perspective than most note-taking apps. Instead of having separate documents, all your lists are grouped in one view. The main view is a list of  all your lists, unless of course it is your only list and none of the items in that list have sub-lists. This is very cool because it keeps things simple and minimal. No extra clutter, no sidebars, no other views. However, your out of luck if you were hoping to organize/view things from the typical note-taking paradigms of OneNote, Evernote or Simplenote where you open a notebook or a group of notes or just one list at a time.

You can reorder your lists by dragging and dropping them. You can search through your lists using words, phrases and tags. It’s easy to navigate through your nested lists by clicking the “Home” link at the top or the name of another parent list. It’s nice to have that built in “complete” functionality so that finished items/tasks won’t show up in the list any more should you toggle them not to.

Sadly, WorkFlowy isn’t available outside the web, which is one thing I really like about the third-party apps developed for Simplenote. I can view my notes even when I don’t have an Internet connection. In my opinion, this is the way it should be since text based files take up so little room. Why not store them locally? The only hassle (from a developer standpoint) is making sure they sync appropriately.

In addition to local storage of notes, I think WorkFlowy could use some more shortcuts for adding notes to list items, completing items, toggling visible/hidden, etc. This would make the app experience much more fluid. I’ve found it a bit painful to go back and add notes to various items in a list(s). It just feels slow and tedious.

The app has a lot of potential and is really well designed overall.

Screenshots

WorkFlowy - Sample List

WorkFlowy - List Menu

WorkFlowy - List Tags

App of the Day: Cocoa Rest Client

The age old CLI tool curl is designed to transfer data to and from servers. But sometimes curl just isn’t what you’re looking for.

I love curl, but sometimes I need my output XML or JSON pretty printed. I want to be able to save frequent PUT and POST bodies for later and copy and paste from responses easily. Think of this as curl with a light UI.

Those are the developer’s words about Cocoa Rest Client. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Cocoa Rest Client isn’t quite as powerful as the mighty Fiddler for windows, but it gets some of the job done. Regardless, it’s a nice, light application that might be worth checking out for Mac users. The developer also has his project available for “forking” on Github.

Any other recommendations for programs that compare to Cocoa Rest Client? There’s always Wireshark if you want to inspect all sorts of traffic, but that’s a little overkill for working with RESTful APIs.

Can’t Sleep? Blame Your LED Backlit Screen

Blue Lightwaves Disrupt Sleep But Improve CognitionA lot of studies have explored the potential negative effects of light pollution and overexposure to light. Some studies suggest excess exposure is related to insomnia (this might come as a shock…not) and diseases like Alzheimer’s or Breast Cancer. With regard to light wavelengths, the blue wavelength is one of particular interest, especially for those of us who use mobile electronics on a daily basis.

Melatonin & Blue Light

The New York Times published an article that quotes researchers who discuss some of the effects blue light has on our eyes and the chemical imbalance of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that responds directly to any kind of light. As night approaches and the amount of light decreases, the body releases melatonin, which “promotes sleep and alerts a variety of biological processes to the approximate hour of the day.” However, when light strikes the retina, or back of the eye, melatonin is suppressed.

…there lies the rub. In this modern world, our eyes are flooded with light well after dusk, contrary to our evolutionary programming. Scientists are just beginning to understand the potential health consequences. The disruption of circadian cycles may not just be shortchanging our sleep, they have found, but also contributing to a host of diseases.

Scientists like George Brainard, a neurologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, have observed that blue light is especially effective at suppressing melatonin. Why is this relevant? Many backlit electronic screens implement LED technology that uses blue wavelength emitting diodes.

The Experiments

A group of researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland conducted a study using 13 men that were asked to sit in front of different types of computer screens before retiring to bed. During one week, they spent five hours in front a fluorescent, red-based screen that emitted little blue light. During another week, they spent five hours in front of a LED, blue-based screen that emitted twice as much blue light. Notice the first screen emitted barely any blue, so twice as much blue light is significantly more, but it doesn’t mean the screen was screaming blue. This is significant to me because it seems to indicate that the study was more realistic and not taken out of context from the kinds screens people actually look at. So what were the results?

Melatonin levels in volunteers watching the LED screens took longer to rise at night, compared with when the participants were watching the fluorescent screens, and the deficit persisted throughout the evening.

And this is the most intriguing part:

The subjects also scored higher on tests of memory and cognition after exposure to blue light, Dr. Cajochen and his team reported in the May issue of The Journal of Applied Physiology. While men were able to recall pairs of words flashed across the fluorescent screen about half the time, some scores rose to almost 70 percent when they stared at the LED monitors.

My first impression after reading that was that I’ll continue to study for tests using my computer. Maybe that explains higher tests scores when I do use my computer? I haven’t looked into it but it’s an interesting thought.

Takeaways

Again, why is this relevant? Because we are readily replacing old red light technology like incandescent bulbs with new energy-efficient blue light technology like LEDs. Most of our new electronic screens use LED technology (TVs, laptops, flat screen monitors, mobile phones, etc.).

Research isn’t absolutely conclusive since this is a relatively immature field of study, but the findings are starting to lead scientists to more concrete conclusions. Health agencies are starting to make statements. The World Health Organization concluded that irregularities in biological clock patterns “can alter sleep-activity patterns, suppress melatonin production and disregulate genes involved in tumor development.” The Journal of the American Medical Directors Association made conclusions regarding the boost in cognitive processes made by subjects exposed to blue light as opposed to red light.

Technological Solutions

If you’re a little paranoid about your health, or maybe you want to ensure you’re sleeping your best, there are some technological solutions. f.lux (Mac, iPhone/iPad, Windows & Linux) is a free program that automatically adjusts the amount of blue light emitted by your screen depending on the time of day. So in the evening the screen changes to redder tones. During morning hours, screen color is designed to emulate natural sunlight. Don’t worry, your whole screen won’t turn red; you’ll just notice a it feels a bit warmer with regard to color temperature. You can also customize it for the best experience by adjusting how fast it transitions, how much the color changes and what kind of lighting you are surrounded with.

I suggest you give f.lux a try as today’s mini-app of the day. I’ve found it rests my eyes a bit more in the evening if nothing else.

Another Mac only alternative is a prefpane app called Shades.

f.lux Screenshot

Examples of Other Light Related Studies

If you’re interested in learning a bit more you can check out the articles listed on Stereopsis’s research link (the group that developed f.lux) or read some of the studies listed below.