Interesting Ideas: “Knock to Unlock” software…

I’ve been using this for a little over a week now and while it does have some issues with the LE Bluetooth connection to my phone (iPhone5), periodically causing me to quit and relaunch both apps (on the Mac and iPhone)… I gotta admit, it’s pretty awesome when it works.

There is about a 10 second lag from when I open up my rMBP in sleep mode to when I am able to knock on my phone (yes, I timed it), but it actually seems much shorter than that. I imagine this would be quite handy for folks out there with iMacs that are always on, locked, with a screen saver. When my computer is sitting there, locked and at the ready? It works like a charm with no wait whatsoever.

Other things I noticed:

  1. People out there flipping out about knocking on an iPhone clearly don’t own one. You’d think they were hitting it with a damn baseball bat instead of the knuckles on your hand! Please calm down. You don’t have to knock that hard at all for it to work.
  2. The initial setup is a breeze once your computer recognizes and pairs with your phone.
  3. True to their site description, your phone’s battery life doesn’t take a hit at all. It is one of the first interesting (and awesome) uses of Bluetooth LE that I’ve seen to date.
  4. Check out their site: knocktounlock.com, there’s some fun stuff going on in there.
  5. Before you buy, make sure your computer and phone are compatible!
  6. If, for whatever reason, your computer doesn’t find your phone via BT, don’t worry, you can still type your password in. Though that admittedly will make you snicker and doubt your purchase.
  7. If this app doesn’t make you hunger for the day that NFC (near field communication) proliferates our lives and devices a bit more, I don’t know what will.

I really hope they continue development for this fun idea! As I said, when it works it’s a lot of fun to watch (not to mention it’s a legit time-saver)!

Sold!! Where do I get it?

  • For your Mac, it’s free here.
  • For iOS, you can find it here, for $3.99 USD.

Writing: Scrivener as a complete Blogging System

About a month after I used Scrivener to finally finish a novel I started years ago, I got the idea of trying to use it as not only a staging area for posts here on my blog, but also as an infrastructure and archive of it as well. My system is admittedly quite basic, but I thought I would share it as it’s become critical and amazingly helpful since I’ve set it up. I figured the more basic it is now, the easier it would be for you all to adopt; modifying it to fit your needs.

Here goes…

Each Project is a Year

Project Year

Start a new project in Scrivener (File > New Project or shift-command-N on the Mac), choose a project template (whatever you are used to), and change the title to the year you are writing in. I originally thought I would call it “Posts” but, for me anyways, it quickly became too unwieldy and chaotic. I wanted this system to be simple yet powerful, not muddied with years of content.

Each Month is a Folder

Folder Month

I chose to break my posts into months but it would be just as easy to make each folder a site topic or category. I personally like months because I can generally remember about when chronologically I wrote a post. Also, if I search my blog and find it, it makes the post that much easier to find in my Scrivener project.

This is also a great opportunity to shift to corkboard view and add notes to each month so that you can either see what you wrote about at a glance, or maybe attach a note about a life event that occurred that effected your writing at the time. It’s up to you (obviously). Sometimes I don’t add anything, but I am glad I have the option when I do.

Believe it or not, this is the core structure of my blog writing system in Scrivener – a project is a year, a month is a folder.  Once this is set up, open the month you are currently in and create a new document.

Each Document is a Post

Document Posts

Here’s where your writing comes in. You can keep it simple and write the entirety of your post, save it, and then copy and paste the text into your blog of choice. Or you also have the opportunity to leverage Scrivener to its fullest! A lot of folks use Scrivener for short and long form writing and they should, there’s nothing out there that is better for that. But one of Scrivener’s secret weapons is its ability to export MultiMarkDown into clean and precise html. Which is perfect for a blog’s built-in text editor.

If you are familiar with markdown syntax, it’s a huge shortcut for exporting your writing easily into perfectly formatted html code (what your browser reads and translates into a web page). If you are interested in learning it, you can find everything you need to know right here. The learning curve is far from steep and it could save you a ton of time going forward.

*UPDATE* 09/27/13 – If you are interested in getting Scrivener setup to export MMD markup, I posted a companion piece to this post walking you through how to do so.  You’ll find it right here.

Markdown Export

Of course if you are not into learning that kind of stuff, that’s cool too. You don’t have to. A lot of blogging platforms handle copy and pasting text from word processors into their WYSIWYG editors quite well now, parsing your pasted text into HTML the best that it can. Still, the clean code that Markdown generates eliminates a lot of guess-work (and potential html clean up when a blog editor translates your text incorrectly) and I am immensely grateful that the kind folks at Literature and Latte had the foresight to see a need for it from their customers.

Ok, enough about my love of markdown! There are other tools you can leverage that cater very nicely to blogging. Many of these I am sure you are already familiar with, but I figured I’d hit them anyways.

Word Targets

Word Target

When I blog I like to set a word count target. Generally in Scrivener this is a goal for you to strive for, but with blogging it’s particularly great to know when you should start wrapping things up or stop completely and jump into edit mode. I like to think of it as the warning track on a baseball field giving you a heads up before your run head-long into a wall, or in the case of blogging, becoming too verbose.

Synopsis and Document Notes

Synopsis Notes

I often like to use the coveted right column in Scrivener to add notes, reference external links/topics, or even other posts that this post is linked to on my blog… just about anything else that is useful to you the author, but not necessary for your readership.

It’s a little extra work for you, but helpful at-a-glance down the road.

Corkboard View For Your Posts

corkboard view

This is something that, once you use it, you are always giving yourself a high-five in the future for doing so. I can’t tell you how many times this view in Scrivener has saved me from digging into pages and pages of text to find that one post that I wrote about topic “X”.

On each card, I add the date it was posted and a very brief synopsis. Make it part of your workflow, you will not regret it.

ProTip – if you do utilize Scrivener’s right column and fill out the synopsis field, the cork board view uses that text as the content displayed on the card.

Meta-Data

metadata

I may be getting a little too much “in the weeds” on this one but, I thought I’d throw it out there nonetheless. As you add more and more posts, you may want to consider assigning meta-data or “tags” to the content you produce. This will help organize your content a lot more efficiently and make it all infinitely more searchable in the future.

Start with broad topics and then hone in from there.

Many of you won’t need this, but Scrivener does such a bang-up job of its implementation of it, I thought I’d mention it.

What You End Up With

As with my long-form writing, Scrivener provides me with a one-stop-shop writing platform for my blog. If it could actually export to my blog (WordPress), that would be amazing! But don’t let that tiny quibble keep you from trying this idea out. With a little bit of groundwork applied up front, you get all of your writing organized and searchable, post by post, month by month, year by year.

One last perk? Exporting a project and getting an entire year’s worth of posts in pdf or epub format. Flipping through a retrospective of the last 365 days of your creative life is surprisingly satisfying to view on a tablet or even printed out if you want to feel the literal weight of your work.

Sort of like a yearbook for your blog! Only without the awkward interactions of asking for classmates to sign it. ;)

Software: How and Why I Use Vesper…

UPDATE: On February 27th 2015, Vesper is officially universal! More info here.

UnknownWhen Q-Branch dropped its note taking app “Vesper” weeks ago, it caused quite a splash in the tech community. Mostly because of the design team behind it (John Gruber, Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus) but also because of how divisive it was on a functional level. Everything it did right (and there’s a lot) was somewhat obscured by everything it didn’t.

What I am NOT going to do…

To date, if you Google “Vesper App” you’ll get 589,000 results, most of which crab about the app’s faults and what’s it’s missing or extol it’s design achievements thoroughly. My opinion? For a variety of reasons, both camps are right, so I won’t waste anyone’s time going through the arguments on each side. You can read those elsewhere (don’t worry, you’ve got a lot of articles and posts to dig through).

What I wanted to do here is pose my argument for buying a note taking iOS, iPhone-only app that is beautifully designed but has no syncing capabilities (to iCloud or any other devices).

Where I fit in

On my iPhone I currently have about six text editors, Vesper makes that total seven. I am one of those geeks/writers who appreciates text editors for the experience they provide. For text that I need sent anywhere I go with the oft-mentioned Drafts . For long-form writing on iOS, I still use iA Writer and Elements. When I need to write a letter to someone, I use OmmWriter. If I have notes that I need to share with my wife I use iOS’ Notes app. Naturally I hedged on purchasing Vesper because if I am being honest, I really didn’t think I needed it.

Why I folded

In the end, it was all of the talk about the UI/UX that got the best of me. Everyone of those apps I listed above I use frequently and not because of the service they provide, but because of how they deliver it. For most people, that aspect of software isn’t all that important. For me though, it’s always had value because it assigns a purpose to its respective app. Because of this, I get better quality results out of different apps for different reasons. And it’s on this point where Vesper ended up performing a sneak attack on me – because of its design, I ended up finding a distinct purpose for Vesper in my day-to-day workflow.

Less is more

Aside from being an absolute joy to use (and the hype on this is thoroughly true), ironically, it was its lack of sync that ended up being the reason I started using it almost every day. Before smart phones and apps, we all carried around Moleskins to jot down thoughts and reminders and we were overjoyed when apps replaced that function; one less thing in the pockets right?

But, the thing is, those apps ended up doing so much more – syncing on other platforms, sometimes with other people. Dead tree notebooks never did those things: they were never backed up or magically synced to other notebooks. When they were burned or dropped in a swimming pool, they were gone completely.

Vesper is very much like that old experience and in a way I find that to be its biggest strength. As a simple app, it recreated that link I used to have with notepads and scratch paper.

Sure, there are excellently implemented search, in-app browser, archive and sharing features mere taps away and you can even tag notes (hallelujah!) and add pictures if need be. But those are options I find that I seldom use (outside of the tagging, which I admittedly use a lot) and I feel the app serves me better for that. Because of its stripped down approach, I don’t write “mission critical” stuff in Vesper. It’s all disposable and very temporary. And the fact that it’s in such a distinct silo (only in one app on my one phone) makes it easier for me to know where I wrote what. In other words, for me, in this case – less is definitely more.

Sledgehammers and tack nails

I am sure I am alone in this, but I actually hope they don’t add much more. Outside a few minor things (at the end of the day, I do wish there was a back up of notes to iCloud, if only for disaster recovery and getting a new device) I find this app to be one of those thoroughly complete iOS experiences that doesn’t really need much refinement.

It’s a total joy to use, is fast, stable as hell, intuitive to navigate, and does exactly what it was advertised to do: help you “collect your thoughts”. There are plenty of all-in-one text editors out there that do a lot of things Vesper doesn’t. But, for me anyways, many of those are heavy lifters and they are two clunky and complex for the tasks that Vesper accomplishes so well. Sledge hammers against tack nails. Some times you just need a tool that fits in your hand perfectly, is counter balanced just right and won’t potentially obliterate your target.

For me, Vesper is that tool for notes and I am glad I finally started using it.

Where you can find it: iOS App Store

Software: Literature & Latte’s “Scapple”

Literature and Latte's "Scapple" iconScapple is a mind-mapping desktop client created by the geniuses at Literature and Latte, the same folks who are the masterminds behind my go-to, long form word processing program, Scrivener.

I had every intention of writing what will probably be a ridiculously long review of Scrivener (I’ve literally written tens of thousands of words in it after all) before I even mentioned Scapple. But then Literature and Latte went ahead and announced today on their Twitter feed that they were taking Scapple out of beta next week.

So, naturally, I thought I would help spread the good word.

What it does:

At its core, Scapple exceeds most at being very easy to use. You double-click anywhere in the window to create text objects (blocks or “bubbles” of text, images, etc…), and then you drag these text objects on top of each other to link them together with a dotted (or solid, or arrowed) line.

Seriously, that’s it.

Of course if you dig a little, you’ll find that there is way more that you can do with this powerhouse of an app! But I love, love, LOVE the fact that you can launch it and, without a tutorial, be making very quick and versatile mind-maps of anything in under 5 minutes!

I’ve used Scapple for mapping out chapters in novels I’ve written, making diagrams of floor plans, any kind of hierarchy I can think of and, with its ability to export to PDF, I’ve even used it professionally in my day-to-day!

Just Get it…

Like Scrivener, its strength lies in its core simplicity. If you need it for anything beyond that, the tools are there, patiently waiting. For that aspect alone, I give it my highest recommendation.

Next week the finished version will be available for purchase (L and L says it will be under $15) on the Mac, so go out and support it folks. You won’t be let down. I promise!

Here’s the link to the beta download if you want to give it a try before the official 1.0 release!

UPDATE – Download links:

And, as an added bonus, they also released a video tutorial on the basics (and some more advanced stuff) of what Scapple can do. So if you need further incentive, check out the embed below:

Paperless: Digitizing Your Life and Going Paperless…

Last August, my wife and I decided to downsize our home situation moving from a 1500 square foot home, into a 500 square foot studio apartment.

That’s right… we moved into a home that was a third the size of what we were used to.

The reasoning behind this decision is worthy of another post entirely, but one of the results of this move was the act of us digitizing our entertainment, as well attaining a paperless lifestyle.

It certainly wasn’t easy and like all expected challenges in my/our life, I had to have a plan of attack from the outset. First and foremost we needed get rid of a lot of stuff! Physical CD’s, DVD’s and books take up a lot of space in your home (whether you notice it or not) and our new tiny apartment simply wasn’t going to have the room to house everything we collected over the years. So it didn’t take long before I decided that anything that could be transferred to a hard drive or cloud-based storage, would be.

Sounds simple enough right? It is actually. But, another problem reared its ugly head. After ripping and selling all of our music and DVD’s over the years, I knew immediately that this process would take time, and lots of it.

The good news though? It’s totally worth it. The even better news? There are a lot of ingenious services out there that will help make the process much, much easier. So I thought I’d share my findings with you all.

Entertainment…

With the advent of cloud-based services like iTunes Match and the low price points of external storage nowadays, it’s simple (and relatively cheap) to come up with digital backups of your entire entertainment library. I ended up subscribing to iTunes Match, transferring my entire music library there and buying a USB hard-drive cradle like this one for everything that Match wouldn’t cater to. By the way, if you have a lot of old hard drives laying around, this cradle is awesome, as it caters to both desktop and laptop drives.

On the software end, to rip our CD’s I’d used iTunes over the years and for the DVD’s, I used RipIt. Both apps are incredibly easy to use and I never ran into copywrite issues ripping the DVD’s either. Please note that the time this takes has EVERYTHING to do with the speed of your CD/DVD drive. I think collectively, I was at it for about a week, just evenings though. It’s boring “work” and you should find something to do between rips. As I mentioned, we were moving so I had plenty to do.

Once everything was ripped, I sold all of the physical copies on Craig’s List or gave them to friends and family. And no, that wasn’t easy.

The Dead Tree Stuff…

So, that obstacle behind me, I moved on to everything else. It didn’t take long at all to realize that digitizing your music and movie collection is dead simple compared to digitizing all of the paper that’s been in your life.

Next I dealt with the books.  The books weren’t that big of a deal. We basically kept our treasured copies (the ones you read more than once, or the ones that changed your life) and got rid of, or sold, the ones that were literally collecting dust. Then, after you have done that bit of curation, you look at the remaining stuff and see if it’s worth buying their e-book counterparts. It’s surprising how this simple process whittles down the bulk of your book collection. I am not going to lie, if you love books, this process is really hard to go through. Prepare yourself and steel your resolve. You can do it!

In the end, we sold the bulk of our book collection to used book stores around the area, but another great find was donating the rest to charity programs that routed your books to other countries or even prisons. If you have books after this process (I had an old HTML 3 book the no one wanted, can’t blame them either), at the very worst you should be able to recycle whatever is left.

Once the books were gone, we felt like we were really making progress! The house we were selling suddenly seemed downright cavernous! We were well on our way! But then we started opening our closets and saw all the white file boxes with Sharpie-scrawled years on them.

The Rest…

What was in these boxes were all of the documents we’d collected over the years. It was either important stuff (like tax info) or things that we thought we might need in a pinch (like service manuals for your vacuum). There was a lot of crap too that we simply didn’t need at all: it would all have to get recycled.

When it was all there, sitting out in front of us, it was intimidating thinking about everything we were going to have to do to make this work. But you start simple and go from there. We started the process by going through everything quickly, separating everything into two basic piles: the stuff we planned on keeping and the stuff we were going to shred and recycle. After that was done, it seemed a little more manageable which was great psychological booster. I went ahead shredded everything we were going to recycle and brought it in bags to the local recycling center. We actually used some of it for packing material too!

At this point in the process, we had gotten rid of about 60% of it all. It was time to digitize the rest!

How We Did It

First things first: move to paperless billing. Log into the respective site of any of your monthly bills, or give them a call and make that switch. Almost every service offers it now.  Just bite the bullet and make the change, I think you’ll find the adjustment period very short. :)

You also need to realize that you are not the first person who has done this. Today, there are TONS of resources out there. But if I had offer one to you? I’d recommend this: “Paperless Field Guide” by David Sparks.

This book is invaluable in breaking down the process of creating a paperless, workflow-based system in your life that is not only space-saving (physically and digitally), but is also immensely useful and reliable going forward. Sparks offers great hardware and software suggestions and his writing and overall approach to the subject matter is very accessible and not overwhelming in the slightest. He also offers excellent examples and though I found Sparks’ personal workflow system a bit overkill for me (he’s a lawyer, so it kind of needs to be), I ended up with my own, much simpler workflow; borrowing a lot of best practices from the book and adapting it to my life.

That’s what is so great about this book! It isn’t a blue print for what you need to do, it’s merely a guide.

Here is my paperless workflow, in a very barebones format:

  1. Find, or receive, a piece of information that’s worth keeping forever.
  2. Scan this document somehow (more on this below) into a PDF document, preferably with OCR (again, more on that below).
  3. Move this document into a predefined folder structure that’s easy to navigate through, with a predefined title structure. I went with “year_date_description” (i.e. “2013_0410_utility_bill”).
  4. Verify everything saved properly and get on with your life.

Sounds simple right? Well, it is, but not until you get a hold of the right tools.

What We Ended Up Using…

A Document Scanner of Some Kind: This is pretty crucial and, luckily, there are a TON of options out there. We bought an HP Scanner/Printer combo a long time ago for $50, so we used that. It doesn’t have to scan spectacularly, but it definitely should scan documents so that they are highly legible. The faster it scans, the more time you will save.

PDFScanner: This software works incredibly well with any scanner you plug into your Mac and, compared to it’s competition, it is very low-priced at just shy of $15. Just turn your scanner on, launch “PDFScanner”, click the “Scan” button”. That’s it! It will take your paper document and create a PDF out of it in no time.

Other things this software can do that are pretty invaluable are OCR – Optical Character Recognition as well as preset naming conventions (if you want the date it was scanned, inserted in front of the title every time you scan a document for instance). Both of these features are key, if you are trying to organize your documents so that they are easily searchable. “PDFScanner” can also mimic duplex printing as well, which is nice when you have a multi-page document that you want to transfer into one multi-page PDF document.

I was initially skeptical at the price, and while it’s more expensive counterparts can in fact do more, this software catered to my needs/paperless workflow nicely! I used it to scan literally everything we had left on file (read: 100’s of documents).

Dropbox: There are a ton of online cloud storage solutions out there. I use Dropbox because it’s flexible and I am already familiar with how it works. If you go with another one, make sure the service you choose supports folder structures. Most of them do nowadays, but I thought I’d throw that out there. PDF’s don’t take up much space, so I have been working with a free Dropbox account at the moment. I haven’t even come close to my 5gig limit, you/I can always pay for more storage if you run out.

JotNotPro: Mentioned in the “Paperless: Field Guide”, this is my mobile “Plan B”, for when I am not going to be near my home scanner anytime soon, or if I am just being plain old lazy. It’s an iOS app that you use to snap a picture of your document and then it automatically turns the pic into a pdf for you to send where ever you’d like. You can also link this app to automatically upload to a location on Dropbox as well, which made it no-brainer for me.

There’s a free version of this app that might suit you just fine, but I ponied up a couple of bucks for the Pro version. It provides extra functionality and it’s just a great app, so I wanted to support the developers.

Evernote: I’ve mentioned Evernote several times on this site. No bones, I love it. But as far as my paperless workflow is concerned, I use this only to file non-paper based things, like prescription and insurance cards, my license, my passport… you know, the important stuff that you need to literally have at your fingertips, tagged and in full color.

A lot of people use Evernote as their complete paperless eco-system/workflow. I didn’t only because I use Evernote for a lot of other digital-memory-based systems in my life and didn’t want my important/crucial documents getting buried in all of that. If this fits the bill for you though, go for it. You can’t beat free and their mobile apps are second to none.

Worth the Time and the Effort.

Whether your life necessitates it or not, digitizing your entertainment and important life documents, as time-consuming as it was initially, was an incredibly smart move for us. I no longer have to drag boxes out and leaf through a ton of folders to find my insurance info, past salary amounts or my tax info from five years ago. Now that it’s organized and searchable, I can find pretty much anything in a matter of minutes (at home, or on my phone even). That’s pretty incredible when you think about it!

Developing a good workflow makes this task WAY less arduous and having the right tools (hardware and software) can automate scanning and filing into a process that takes less than ten minutes out of your day.

The minute you need it and you see, firsthand, how much your hard work paid off?  I tell you, it really is a thing of beauty. And seeing all of that extra closet space you just regained?

Well, that’s pretty awesome too! :)