Some Notes on Bike Commuting

Last year I sat out the bike commute challenge at work. I was feeling resistant to bike commuting because I’d given it a try in late fall/early winter and had a really hard time of it. This year, I thought about it ahead of time and decided to set a goal of biking to work every day in September.

I started out July with a three-day-a-week goal and it was pretty easy to get up to five days a week within a month or so. The last Friday of August, I went on a 51-mile ride around east Portland (warning, PDF) as a sort of “if I can do this in a morning, I can surely do 24 miles a day” validation run.

Here are a few observations:

Handlebars matter

My last bike was a hybrid with mountain bike bars. It was very hard to ride for more than five or six miles without feeling some discomfort. There just aren’t many ways you can vary your grip, which makes it pretty fatiguing over time. My new bike has drop bars and “chicken levers” in addition to the normal brake levers. There are plenty of ways to shift around on the bars now, which helps beyond just resting wrists, hands and shoulders: It’s much easier to shift weight around in general.

A good bike fit matters

Puppet Labs paid for most of a bike fitting during the bike commute challenge, so I was able to have a specialist set me up and coach me on posture and positioning. My seat was riding a little high, and my posture wasn’t great. 30 minutes later, everything was adjusted correctly and I had learned how to position my feet on the pedals and hold my back. My ride has been more comfortable since.

Cleats are nice, but they take work

After a lot of back and forth, I bought clipless pedals. I had toe clips on my last bike, and they were fine but a little bit of a pain now and then. For September, I just used the pedals that came with my bike. They were fine except on wet days: I’d hit a few hills where I didn’t downshift enough and my feet would slip off.

I celebrated my 100 percent commute rate for September by buying clipless pedals and shoes. I was initially going to go with the standard Shimano SPD setup and possibly dual-use pedals (cleat hardware on one side, standard cage on the other), but noticed Shimano’s selling a line of clipless pedals and shoes branded as “Click’R.” They’re supposed to be easier to get in and out of, which was a concern for me because everybody said “if you go clipless, you’ll fall over some time in your first week.” So rather than going with the half-measure, I just bought Click’R stuff.

The Click’R line involves a slightly different pedal construction and standard SPD cleats, along with shoes that I think are a little more built for street wear. The pedals are also multi-use, so it’s possible to use them for short rides without cleats. The guy at Bike Gallery installed the pedals for me and set the tension very low. I went out in the side parking lot and practiced clicking in and out 20 or 30 times, then took off for work.

I haven’t fallen over yet, but clipless pedals weren’t completely trouble free to begin with. You have to set up your cleats with a little care to make sure the pedal is properly aligned with your foot. I set mine up kind-of-sort-of correctly and began to notice two things: My left foot was turned in a little (bad alignment of the cleat along the length of my foot), which caused me a little knee discomfort; and both feet were sore from my toes trying to grip something when I pedaled.

I paid very close attention to this video on proper cleat setup, made a few adjustments, and I’ve had a week of much smoother riding. No more inward turn, the knee pain is gone, and it’s easier to adopt the sort of shuffling pedaling motion you’re supposed to have when you’re clipped in. I don’t think about my feet, either. I just click in and start going and there’s no more foot stress.

The big difference I’ve noticed in my rides has come from better pedaling technique: When I’m doing it right, I’m exerting less force in a way that used to cause my upper body to move more when I pedaled. Now, with that shuffling stroke, my upper body has an easier time staying still and that makes for a ride that feels smoother and more anchored.

Lower gears are better

When I first got my new bike, I was pretty excited about how fast I could go on it. I lived up on the third ring and sort of mashed along at high speed. After a few weeks, I read that the middle cog is traditionally the cruising cog, so I dropped down to that, but still stayed up on the high gears. In the past few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with lower and lower gears, and I’ve found that spinning along around the middle of the middle cog is just about right for me. I’m moving about as fast as I was when I was mashing in the upper gears, but it feels better (and it contributes to the smoother ride I’ve been getting by improving my pedaling technique). It also makes hills less traumatic: one long pull on the STI shifters gets me down to a climbing gear, and three clicks at the top gets me back to a cruising gear that doesn’t take a ton of effort to get moving with again. There are a few hills I don’t even think about anymore because there’s less wandering around the gears.

You won’t please everybody

A short list of things I have gotten yelled at for on the Springwater:

  • Using my bell to warn people I’m coming up on them (“Whatever!”)
  • Not using my bell to warn people I’m coming up on them
  • Saying “on your left” before passing (“GOOD FOR YOU!”)
  • Not saying “on your left” before passing (that guy chased me for a block, yelling at me that he was going to kick my ass) (we were on opposite sides of the widest part of the trail with nobody else around)
  • Blinking lights (“disco, motherfucker!”)
  • Steady lights (“FUCK YOUR LIGHTS!”)
  • Yielding the right of way to a driver who had the right of way
  • Failing to cross against a signal

I had one close shave with someone who just turned across a bike crossing without looking, and I had one close shave from someone who yielded the right of way at an intersection, then rescinded the offer as I passed in front of them. I think someone thought the whole “lunge at the bicyclist with your car” thing was a playful joke I might enjoy. Good one!

But, you know, over 800 or so miles that averages out to someone being unhappy with me about once every 80 miles. I’ve since settled into just using my bell (people who are walking or riding along and talking or listening to music don’t hear spoken warnings without me shouting, which just makes them angry) and I’m firmly in the “your attempt at rules-of-the-road-negating ‘courtesy’ will get someone killed, so I’m not budging until your arm falls off from gesticulating at me” camp.

Lights are a conundrum. Too bright or angled too high, and they’re obnoxious. Angled too low and they make the Springwater at night a pretty iffy proposition, considering how many people there are on foot wearing nothing reflective, or salmoning up the trail with no lights. My takeaway so far: I’ve adapted to bright lights on other bikes by looking down at the side of the path until they’re past, and I just keep my light at the lowest of the three brightness settings.

What I got over three months

So, from a dead stop of having not ridden to work in 18 months in July, to biking into work every day in September (and so far in October, with the exception of a single work-from-home day), this is what I got:

I was pretty saddle sore the first week or two, even at three days a week. My back wasn’t always happy, and my shoulders were sore, even though my new bike let me shift around a lot more than my old one. After a month, I wasn’t thinking about saddle soreness at all. I even did a 10-mile ride from a coworker’s house in my jeans without getting too sore. By mid-September, I wasn’t thinking about my shoulders or arms at all.

My overall sense of wind has been steadily improving. Now that I’m spinning more than I’m mashing, I’ve been experiencing a much more profound sense of stillness on my rides. That extends from the steady motion of my body to the ease of my breathing. Clipped in, properly seated, and resting on the brake hoods, I feel anchored and connected to my bike.

There’s been some work stress, but that hour on the bike at night gives me a ton of space to process it and come through the door in a better place for my family. The hour on the bike going in gives me valuable time to think about what’s coming for the day and gear up for it.

Without paying much attention to my diet — meaning I just sort of went with it when all that increased activity meant I wanted to eat like a horse, and I haven’t been denying myself much since my appetite settled down — I’m also down a bit over 17 pounds.

I guess the big downside is that winter is coming and I don’t think there’s any alternative but to keep the routine I’ve established. It’s been too good for me to stop, even if it means I’m going to be getting wet a lot.

I bought my team copies of @shanley Kane’s book. I think you should buy it for yours.

The first piece of Shanley Kane’s writing I ever read was her essay, “The Marketing Chick.” I was a marketing dude at the time, and it turned my head around. Up to reading that essay, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself: People in the tech industry consistently make sport of their colleagues in the marketing department, and it’s gross.

Because I’d started out at the company as a tech writer, and because I had a background as a practitioner with expertise in the sorts of technologies we support, I got a little bit of a break elsewhere in the office. The jokes about being “on the dark side” were delivered with a little more of a smile. I was supposed to read the ribbing about “bad life choices” as gentle, I think. When things weren’t going well on the team, I had an easy time finding sympathetic ears because it’s marketing, and there’s only so much you can do with those people. And because it’s like Shanley wrote:

Ironically, but not surprisingly, men who do these jobs are almost never denigrated and insulted the way women who do these jobs are. In fact, most high-level marketing positions in tech are still occupied by white men. Funny how that works.

She’s right. The worst thing I could ever be called was “a marketing dude.” Never one of “those bitches in marketing.”

So reading Shanley helped me start thinking about how much privilege I was enjoying, regardless of how put upon I felt. It helped me understand what it meant when a female coworker confided to me that some of the women on the team hated to disagree with me, because they felt like they were at an automatic disadvantage dealing with a male who was “more technical.”

When I got a laudatory evaluation that mentioned the ways I’d “bridged the divide” between marketing and other teams in the company, Shanley’s writing helped me understand the ways in which a thing I thought was a virtuous outcome — I like being the guy who can walk into a room and help people make sense of each other, and it seems like a valuable gift to have — was perhaps the product of a bad gender dynamic.

Ultimately, I didn’t last on that marketing team. I went back over to technical writing — and a management role — and lots of people heartily welcomed me back. It was hard to be all “oh, thank god!” about it, because people always seem ready to believe the worst about marketing. If you believe in social justice, and once you see that gender dynamic exposed the way Shanley does in her essay, being welcomed back to “where you belong” feels slightly poisoned.

So, that was the first thing from her I ever read, and it changed the way I saw the world and thought about my work. As much as there were times in that marketing pod where I felt as profoundly alienated as I’ve felt anywhere, I was given a way to understand how much privilege I had.

I’ve read more of her stuff since. She has some wonderful insights into the responsibilities of management, how microaggression works and looks, how to identify the smells in your team communication, and more, including the wonderful “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management.” In the best of all possible worlds, she wouldn’t be considered a radical at all. In fact, there are substantial parts of that essay that wouldn’t be out of place in an Army leadership course. The fact that she sometimes is considered a radical, that she’d feel the need to label those ideas radical, just underscores how badly twisted our collective work culture has become.

So, I love Shanley’s writing. It’s direct, it resonates, and it should be all anyone needs to read to start asking the right questions. That’s why I gave myself her book. The reason I’m giving it to my team is perhaps more because of Shanley herself.

People have written about Shanley’s writing on Twitter as if they’re writing about a separate person. She’s relentless in the promotion of her ideals in the face of constant demands to just shut up and sit back down, and she isn’t at all cool about it. She reminds me constantly — sometimes painfully — that it’s not enough to read a few essays, sit back and ruminate for a bit. She demands allies actually act like allies, and that’s hard.

I’ve had to make a few difficult decisions over the past year. The combination of her lucid writing and relentless advocacy have helped me make the right decisions when I’ve gotten it right, and helped strengthen my resolve to do better when I’ve gotten it wrong. No, I don’t know her. She doesn’t know me. She certainly doesn’t write for me, but she’s one of those people with which I feel engaged, and who has a voice to which I feel answerable.

That engagement, for me, takes the form of constant reminders of the privilege I’ve enjoyed all my life. I’ve been profoundly privileged to be places where I could come across the ideas I have, and to know people who have been willing to deal with my myopic good intentions and misguided attempts at just behavior — people who have been so patient with me. I’ve caught break after break, and I’ve had the nerve to sit around feeling sorry for myself in the midst of a career I’ll never be positive I deserved; having walked away from ridiculous choices and one really solid attempt at just giving up.

And the thread throughout all that was privilege I didn’t even know I had. Did someone roll over me in a meeting, or treat me poorly, or do something I didn’t like? I’ve never had a doubt that the door of whatever authority figure was around was open to me. That even if it turned out I was wrong, at the very least I’d be soothed and reassured. Privilege is a place of “honest mistakes” and your good intentions mattering, and people affirming your essential reasonableness even when you’re mostly pissed off that you didn’t get your way. You get lots of do-overs. When you fuck up, people not only forgive you but they think up excuses on your behalf and then provide them to you. If you’re like me, you can even make it all the way to 44 before you have to apply for a job where you don’t have some kind of in — went to college with your new boss, had your name passed along by a friend, and on and on.

Consequently, privilege is a place of profound delusion, where you make excuses for other peoples’ suffering — when you’re even aware of it — and sometimes have the unmitigated gall to scold others for their “lack of civility” or “tone” because they happen to be mad as hell over things you wouldn’t stand happening to you, and that you’d be able to correct with a quiet word in the ear of the right person. Given all that, privilege cannot help but be morally distorting.

So I’m buying Shanley’s book for my team because in our relationship I enjoy more privilege than them, and I want them to have something more tangible than promises that “my door is always open,” or that “I’ll work very hard to be fair.” I want us all to have a shared toolkit so we can build the team we all deserve, and so there’s a shared sense of the standard to which I’ll hold myself accountable — to which they can hold me accountable — if I let them down. From her essay “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management:”

“Manager” is not an honorific, it is my job description.

My first and only priority is to make my team successful.

The honesty, safety, productivity and dignity of my team is more important than my personal comfort.

It should be common sense, but it doesn’t seem to actually be common sense, and I want it to be.

Here’s where you can buy your own copy.

You Just Go Out the Door

I’m on the “guesser” side of the cultural divide, I hate saying “no,” and it’s really hard for me to give people difficult feedback. I think most people who know me know all that.

Here’s something I remind myself of when I’m gifted with an opportunity to see that I’m heading for that territory:

I spent two years on jump status at Ft. Bragg. I wasn’t a super active jumper. I did the ones they told me to do to stay on active jump status and I went to a few weekend “fun jumps” early on. It got harder and harder to jump the closer I got to getting out; maybe because the stories of people being crippled or killed on a jump stack up the longer you’re listening for them, maybe because thinking about going home meant I also had to think about my future a little more. Either way, whatever for, it started getting scary.

So, there was this one sergeant — one of the jump masters — who didn’t think much of me. He’d let me know about it every once in a while. One afternoon he decided to make a thing about jumping:

“You’re such a fucking pussy. I saw you on that last jump, all tight-faced and afraid. Didn’t want to jump, did you?”

“No, sergeant.”

He laughed and hooted. “Called it! Called it! He even admits it. Fuckin’ scared.”

“But I jumped, sergeant. I’m scared every time, but I always jump.”

“Yeah. I guess you do.”

Mechanical Rabbit

i.

I always liked the idea of running. One day I was in the library and saw a book called The Zen of Running, so I gave it a try.

It had some sort of woo stuff I can’t remember, and it had some advice that was just generally good (remember to breathe, unclench your hands and hold them like you’re carrying a bag of potato chips you don’t want to crush).

So I started running.

There wasn’t such a thing as Couch25K at the time, so I just aimed to go 15 minutes without stopping. That would take me to a hill on a country road behind my house that I couldn’t quite crest at the 7.5 minute mark when I started (no time, no wind). Then I was able to crest it and then I was able to keep going.

I had terrible shin splints because I didn’t know about stretching. Stretching is either implicit to Zen or unknown to it, because my library book didn’t mention it. Some mornings they were so bad that I’d get down the stairs by bracing on the wall and the hand-rail and lowering myself. They got better over time.

We moved into town, just a few blocks away from a park with a jogging trail. After a while, I got as interested in how far I was going as I was how long I was going, and I learned that I’d settled into 5K routine without aiming for 5K.

I did that for a while, almost every afternoon after work. I’d go home, put on my evening rice, change, go running, come home, eat.

A runner friend told me I’d burn out doing it that way, so I alternated running with trips to the gym with her. She taught me how to stretch.

ii.

One day, as I was finishing up the last lap of my run, I wondered to myself if I could run 10K, same as my friend. So I just kept running. It was fine. 10K felt the same as 5K.

iii.

I enlisted some time in the fall of that same year. The recruiter was sort of an asshole about my philosophy major.

“We’re gonna take you out on a run. Pushups don’t tell me how strong you are in the head!”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sergeant Ritchie. Don’t you run a lot? I’m not sure if I can keep up.”

“I’ll take it easy on you.”

So I went home and got my running clothes on and came back as he was closing the office for the day.

“How far are we going, Sergeant Ritchie?”

“You have to go two miles for the PT test, so let’s go a little past that. That o.k.?”

“I’ll try.”

It seemed to me that two miles was about a third of that 10K I’d run, so it seemed I could probably go pretty fast up front and make my point.

I made him quit about 1.5 miles in. I nodded sympathetically as he made excuses for himself, then we walked back to his office.

iv.

I was really awful at pushups and situps in basic training.

One morning the drill sergeants were making us do this thing where you have to hold the raised pushup position for a really long time, until you’re shaking and sweating. I sort of toppled over and one of the drill sergeants got down on his belly and put his face next to mine and screamed “you’re so fucking weak in the head!”

I took the advice, obliquely offered as it was.

There was a morning where I wanted to sort of topple over and I decided instead to take a quick inventory. The main thing I realized, having checked myself over inside and out, was that it was just my shoulders that were hurting. They were hurting enough to make me shake and sweat and want to quit, but everything else was pretty much “systems go!” and my shoulders, on further interrogation, allowed as how they didn’t have to quit, they just wanted to pretty badly. So I stayed up and made it to the point where enough other people had sort of toppled over that we were all allowed to quit.

v.

I got a lot better at pushups over time. Good enough that I was usually pretty close to maxing out the pushup score on my PT tests. I remained terrible at situps. When I came up for a PT test in Korea, I was so nervous about situps that I tried to work on them extra hard and ended up pulling my back.

When the PT test came, I maxed out the pushups but couldn’t make it happen on the situps. My back hurt too much, and I fell short of passing by three or four.

I was so mad at myself for failing, and so embarrassed, that when it came time for the 2-mile run, I gave it everything. I was in front of everybody else in the unit in the last 200 meters or so, and it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I’d made any sort of point, so I sprinted. I heard someone yell, “holy shit, Hall!” as I crossed the line, and then I just veered off into the grass and threw up.

You couldn’t fail any part of the PT test and pass, even if you maxed the other two parts, so I failed, heroic vomiting and all.

vi.

At Ft. Bragg, I loved the long unit runs. I especially loved the ones where we could peel off and run circles around the unit as it made its way down the street.

I loved the 4-mile run they make paratroopers do and usually finished among the first 10 in the unit.

I joined the unit 10-mile race team, but a few weeks into training for that I had a pretty bad jump and ended up on a month-long no-PT profile that lasted until a week before the annual Ft. Bragg 10-miler.

I went ahead and did a few shakedown runs and then ran the race, and that was a pretty bad idea. I felt flat for most of the back half, and it affected my running for weeks after.

vii.

If we want to sum up the army running experience, I guess it’s like this:

I tried to never stop and never slow down, and if I ever felt like I had anything left toward the end of a run, I sprinted it out.

I tried to stay pretty amiable toward the people around me, but if someone talked shit to me or gave me a hard time, I found them during a run and I’d do my best to run them down.

I’d run past them and murmur, “weak.”

If it looked like they were going to fall out, I’d stay alongside them: “Don’t be weak.”

One guy passed out with me doing that to him right after one of our unit combat lifesavers had learned how to rehydrate heat stroke victims through their rectums, so I quit doing that kind of thing.

Since all that, I’ve come and gone from riding and biking, and I’ve had a hard time getting rid of that moment in Korea where I felt like I had to run all that shame and embarrassment out. GPS and stopwatches aren’t good things for me.

viii.

When I started to work at Puppet I tried to establish a biking routine, but I wasn’t very comfortable on my bike. I realized at points that I was just trying to push too hard: Too many people on the trail around me were sort of breezing by on their road bikes while I struggled along on my clunky hybrid.

I didn’t really stop to think about what it was that was bothering me about the whole thing. Looking back, I understand that what I wanted was a quiet, easy ride into work, but I couldn’t allow myself to have it. I kept pushing to go faster and got frustrated with myself when I couldn’t.

Last month, I bought a new bike that’s better built for commuting (drop bars, light frame) and started timing my rides. It was pretty easy to shave eight minutes off my 12-mile commute, and I found that it was also pretty easy to ride at a speed closer to the average commute pace for most of the bicyclists around me on the Springwater.

I started using Strava to record my rides because I liked the way it would break a trip down into legs and let me see how fast I was going relative to everyone else who uses Strava and travels across the same legs.

I had several weeks of continuing to not think about what it was I wanted from my ride, so I kept pushing harder and harder and experimenting with gears and all that stuff, then coming home sore and tired and not feeling super relaxed.

I don’t know what finally caused me to think it through, but I did. I couldn’t square the sweaty, panting guy rolling in at night with the guy I saw in my head when I thought about bike commuting and it finally occurred to me that maybe I could resolve that conflict.

So I just got on my bike one morning and settled it into a nice middle gear that allowed me to pedal along and easily imagine having a conversation with myself without panting. It was hard to maintain that pace. I got passed a lot. By the time I got to work, though, I felt a lot more composed.

I’ve been trying to do that ever since. My rides take six or seven minutes longer over 12 miles, but I feel much better at the end.

Better yet, I’ve been trying to get myself into decent enough shape to sustain a daily bike commute instead of just three days a week. I’d like to be comfortable doing daily commutes in time for September’s Bike Commute Challenge. Backing off the speed and effort makes that seem a lot more likely: Last week I rode in four times instead of my usual three. This week, I’ll try to bike in all five days.

I’m still recording my rides because I’m keeping track of calories and exercise, but I switched to Runkeeper Pro (which is far less social than Strava). If I were to add a speedometer to my bike now, I like to think it would be to make sure I’m going slow enough, not fast enough.

Three Activity Trackers, Quantified Self

Activity trackers really work for me, less for counting steps than all the stuff you do around them, like recording food and just generally thinking about activity levels.

Some of this will sound more complicated written out than it is in practice, but the benefits have been pretty clear because I’ve come to understand through observation and recording just how much activity, diet and sleep are key to my sense of wellbeing, how interdependent they are, and how being mindful of my general state where one or the other is concerned can help me make better decisions.

Three Pillars: Sleep, Food, Exercise

For instance, I know that I need about seven hours of sleep a night to feel well rested. Much more than that and I tend to be over-rested, and that triggers a bout of sleeplessness. So I try to keep my sleep steady: 6.5 — 7.5 hours a night is just right.

I learned how much sleep I needed by using a sleep-tracking alarm clock app that included a simple diary I could fill out at night (what did I do that day that might effect my sleep, e.g. caffeine intake, exercise, stress at work, working late, late use of computer/iPad), and in the morning (to record how rested I felt).

When I record my sleep and make it a habit to think about it, it can help me keep from making bad decisions. For instance, if I get only six hours of sleep, I can offset some of the fallout from that (feeling crabby and irritable) by getting some exercise first thing in the morning. Keeping track of sleep keeps me thinking about that dynamic, making it harder to say “oh man, I feel pretty bad … I’ll just skip the ride to work and take the Max in.”

Same thing with food: I know if I’m tired I’ll be more inclined to go after carbs and other cheap, fast energy. Thinking that through first thing in the morning really helps keep me from eating a bunch of stuff that’ll make me unhappier later in the day, when I crash from it.

That helps with mood and interpersonal stuff: Under six hours of sleep, and other people become pretty hard for me. Having that reminder that I’m probably not going to be receiving other people very well makes it easier to deal with things that might seem like provocations otherwise. And getting exercise generally lightens my mood.

In the big picture, it all comes together to help serve a longer term goal, which is losing some weight. When I’m in the habit of paying attention to all this stuff, I behave better, feel better, and I lose weight. When I stop paying attention, I behave worse, feel worse, and I gain weight.

The total amount of time I spend per day paying attention to this stuff comes out to maybe five minutes, tops: about .3 percent of my day. Seems worth it.

I’ve had three activity trackers in the past several years. Here are some notes in case you’re considering buying one for yourself.

Jawbone Up

I bought one of the earliest Jawbone Up’s a few years back. I don’t know what else was on the market at the time besides FitBit, and I think the Up was the first step tracker you could wear on your wrist (vs. clipping into a pocket) or wearing a giant, bulbous device on your arm.

Jawbone got a lot right about the Up: It looked nice, the iPhone app that came with it looked and worked really well, and the device integrated with calorie-counting services like MyFitnessPal or digital scales like the ones from Withings.

The Up could do a few things:

  • It could track steps, and if you tell it that some activity it tracked wasn’t walking but was actually something like jogging or riding a bike, it could adjust the calories it calculated you burned.
  • It could track sleep quality. Tell it you were going to sleep, and it would record periods of motion and let you know how well you were sleeping at night.
  • It could provide gradual alarms in the morning, gently vibrating you awake as you began to naturally stir at the top of your sleep cycle.

The Up was made of a textured rubber with silver highlights, and it looked pretty nice: Closer to a piece of jewelry than a step tracker. The FitBit Flex and Garmin Vivofit look pretty clunky by comparison.

The Up took input via pressing one of the ends of the wristband and it offered feedback via tiny embedded lights and vibrations.

In terms of ease of use, the first Ups were o.k. You had to snap an end off and plug it into your phone’s headphone jack to sync with the app. The caps become loose over time (especially if you’re an anxious twiddler who’s prone to fiddling with things like bracelet bits). Later models involved Bluetooth for sync but still require removal of that cap to charge the device (which lasts about 7 days on a single charge).

With all that stuff going for it, I wish I could still bear the thought of using the Up, but it has (or had, maybe it’s gotten better) one pretty big problem: It breaks a lot.

The issue appears to be endemic to the design. Unlike the Garmin Vivofit or FitBit Flex, which keep their guts in a discrete plastic lozenge with no moving parts, the Up hardware is built into the rubber bracelet. That means if you flex it too hard, you can break the innards.

“But Mike,” you’re thinking, “don’t flex it too hard!”

Sadly, since the Up is a bracelet with a pair of square ends that don’t clasp together, it’s quite easy to flex it too hard just by snagging it on something like a coat sleeve or a bag strap. I broke one tangling it up as I put on a backpack.

So, the first generation of Ups were pretty much a design catastrophe. Lots of people had problems with them breaking or just dying. Jawbone launched a trade-in program that it handled about as well as you can when everyone on the Internet is reporting that your product breaks when worn. I returned mine, got a replacement, and it broke, too. I returned the replacement and got another one, and it lasted a week before also breaking, at which point Jawbone just gave up and offered a refund to the entire world.

The first generation of Ups were so bad that Jawbone scuttled the product and went back to the drawing board, returning a while later with a new version that looked the same but promised to be more reliable. I broke two of those in the space of three weeks (I swear to god I wasn’t trying), and Jawbone — exhausted from its previous period of apologetic refunds — told me I could keep returning them during the warranty period or get nothing.

When the new Ups with Bluetooth syncing came out, I ignored them because a cursory glance around the ‘net showed people were still complaining about them breaking. It probably wouldn’t have mattered: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four more times after swearing to god you’ve figured it all out, shame on me.

Update: Just read the 1-star Amazon reviews to get an idea of how often they still seem to be failing.

Lesson: Cramming a bunch of fragile electronics into a container that’s comparable to a strip of thick garden hose in flexibility is pretty much a recipe for running an exchange program in perpetuity.

Pushback: Reviewers complain about the Up’s lack of a display or other feedback on where you’re at with your daily step goal. It didn’t really bother me. I would just do a sync at the end of the day and see where I came out.

FitBit Flex

After the Up, I got a FitBit Flex. Unlike the Up, the Flex puts all of its electronics in a non-flexible piece of plastic that slips into the pocket of a rubber wristband. It syncs via Bluetooth.

Where the aesthetics of the Up are sleek and somewhat fashionable, those of the FitBit are utilitarian and sort of dowdy. That’s the FitBit aesthetic in general, and if the life I got out of my FitBit is any indication, that’s as it should be. Sticking to a simpler design with less emphasis on making a pretty bangle means the things it would take to break a FitBit will generally involve taking it off your wrist and smashing it between large rocks or suffering an injury to your wrist that’s so severe you will not be wondering how many steps it took you to get into that situation.

Where the Up relies on button presses for input, the FitBit Flex takes taps. Sometimes that works o.k. For instance, it can tell you how far along you are to your daily step goal with a single tap, lighting up from one to five tiny LEDs. For sleep tracking, it’s not as good: You have to sort of tap-tap-tap-tap-tap the device, and it doesn’t offer the most meaningful feedback.

Since sleep and sleep tracking matter a lot to me, the FitBit fell a little short. Like the Up, you can tell it you’re going to sleep and it’ll track how well you rested. Unlike the Up, it doesn’t have a gradual wake alarm (though it can vibrate on your wrist at a set time).

Like the Up, the FitBit Flex is also a pretty good citizen of the wider fitness device/service ecosystem. It has an open API and it talks to smart scales, calorie counters and more. If you have a preferred app for tracking activities besides walking, the FitBit API can take that input and fold it into its reckoning of your daily activity.

The one complaint I have is that I managed to tear the wristband popping the little lozenge out of its pocket. That didn’t affect it too badly, but it did mean water had an easier time finding its way into that pocket. Digging a sweaty lozenge out of a rubber pouch doesn’t feel like the future at all.

Still, I had a positive enough FitBit experience that I really wanted to trade my FitBit Flex in for the next model up (the FitBit Force), which could display time. Sadly, people reported that the wrist band for the Force caused them to break out in terrible rashes. All that’s left of the Force today is artfully worded press releases that promise to get to the bottom of the matter.

One other Fitbit highlight worth noting: Lots of people I know have them compared to the other two trackers I’m covering in this entry. That makes checking leaderboards more fun.

Lesson: An open API goes a long way, even if the only thing you thought you wanted at first was a step and sleep tracker. So does a sense of reliability. I never really trusted my Up after the first two broke, and even though I loved the software and general UX, it really bothered me to think that my data would have gaps during periods where the replacement was in the mail.

Garmin Vívofit

Oh, man. The Vívofit. I’m wearing one right now and it’s a real love-hate thing.

Compared to the Up and Flex:

  • It takes a lozenge-in-a-rubber-pouch approach, like the Flex.
  • It displays the time.
  • It displays your actual steps and tells you how far you are from completing your daily goal.
  • It tracks sleep quality.
  • It uses button presses for input: Short press to switch between modes (time, date, steps, goal) and long press to activate sync or put it into sleep-tracking mode.
  • It syncs via Bluetooth or via a little dongle you plug into your computer.

One final, huge difference: It takes a standard watch battery that lasts for a year. No recharging every 5-7 days.

I really like the Vívofit as a step tracker and wrist watch. I kind of like it as a sleep tracker. Where it falls down is its API, which Garmin isn’t super interested in opening up. Garmin has partnered with MyFitnessPal, which acts as a sort of Switzerland to the many activity trackers out there by pulling in their calorie data to go with the food data you’re entering into it.

Other than that MyFitnessPal integration, the Vívofit doesn’t talk to the rest of the world much. There are services that try to sync it up with Runkeeper Pro and Strava, but they don’t work reliably. It seems to be willing to talk to my scale. In the end, if you want to get data from a bicycle ride or swim into Garmin’s Connect app, you have to enter it by hand.

The reasons for this are pretty clear: Garmin got into the activity tracker business to supplement its more lucrative GPS devices, which are under threat from GPS-enabled smartphones. Talking to a smartphone app like Runkeeper or Strava just means you aren’t going to be as interested in buying a Forerunner GPS tracker or Edge bicycle computer.

I completely get why Garmin’s got to do this, and if I were already heavily invested in their product line I’d probably be really happy with the Vívofit. As it is, I don’t need their other products, which makes their closed off Connect dashboard pretty irritating.

The things keeping me happy with the Vívofit are the watch function (I hate pulling out my phone during meetings to check the time … it feels rude) and the fact that the people sitting on either side of me at work are also using Vívofits, which means we can see each others’ step activity in our dashboards (though none of my biking activity — 75 miles a week at this point — can appear unless I key it in manually). It’s also nice to see my daily steps on the display.

Quantified Me

In the end, I pretty much live in MyFitnessPal to keep track of what my walking and biking activities mean in combination with my diet:

  • I use my Garmin for step tracking
  • I use Strava for ride tracking
  • I use a Withings scale to track my weight
  • I enter my food in MyFitnessPal’s diary

The Vívofit, Strava app and scale send data to MyFitnessPal, which reconciles their calorie information with its food journal. At the end of the day, I sync the Vívofit and close out my food diary, and MyFitnessPal tells me what my weight would be in five weeks if every day was like the one I just logged.

MyFitnessPal doesn’t care about sleep patterns, so if I want to see that data I need to use the Garmin app. Since I use a gradual wake alarm clock app (highly recommended), I can get the data from there, too.

#yesallwomen

This is a story of getting things wrong, and perhaps continuing to get things wrong, but not knowing exactly what to do besides what I’ve come up with.

prologue

When I lived in Bloomington, IN, some guy spent a week in one of the student neighborhoods attacking women. The one account I read from a victim was that he walked up to her with keys sticking out from between the fingers of his balled fist, slashed her cheek open, and said, “not so pretty now” before running off.

i.

A while back, before Ben was born, I took a few night classes. A few of us getting out of class together had to walk four or five blocks down a quiet side street to get back to a common parking area.

So, class would let out and we’d make our way down to the street. Throw in some random travel variables — like getting backpacks repacked or chatting with classmates on the way out the door or whatever — and you’d end up with four or five of us spread out over two blocks headed the same way down a side street after dark.

Most nights, there wasn’t much to think about: Out the door, down the street, into the car, home.

One night, I ended up falling in behind a woman from my class. She was about half a block ahead. I don’t think she noticed me at first, but I stepped onto a loose metal plate and it made a big noise. She glanced over her shoulder and appeared to notice me for the first time, and I think the next several blocks were very frightening for her.

Within a block, everybody else had headed down another street. It was just the two of us. She kept glancing over her shoulder, and I could tell I was making her anxious. There was no way it made any sense to pick up the pace to just get past her — I was engaged enough to realize that — but there was a smaller, stupider part of me that was pretty fixated on just getting to my car and going home. That part wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

Well, let’s not dissociate.

I wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

In the end, she ended up picking up the pace, she got to her car a block ahead of me, and it finally occurred to me that if I slowed down just a bit she’d be able to get into her car without feeling quite so much like she was racing me to get something between us but distance on a dark sidewalk.

So I slowed down and she got into her car and she drove away and I quietly congratulated myself for the five percent of our separate but shared walks where I had really thought about her and what she might be going through.

ii.

The next week, class let out and I went out the door with another woman in the class who’d been in my workshop group. We’d enjoyed each others’ work and we were talking about it. We walked out onto the sidewalk and I noticed we were headed the same direction. I didn’t want the conversation to end quite yet, so I pointed the way she seemed to be headed and said to her, “are you headed this way, too? I’ll walk with you.”

Her face tightened for a moment, but then she agreed. We walked a few blocks, she got to her car before I got to mine, and I had yet another belated realization that she’d been nervous the whole time. She couldn’t say goodbye fast enough.

iii.

So, when class let out on the third week it was back down onto the sidewalk and assorted variables came together to put me about half a block behind the classmate I’d walked with the week prior, just the two of us on the quiet and dark sidewalk. And — just like two weeks prior — she didn’t notice me until I made a sound. Then we spent a block with her looking over her shoulder at me, noticeably picking up the pace.

So I stopped and put my backpack down on the sidewalk to get my keys out of it, which helped her put a block between us. Then I crossed the street so I’d be on the opposite side from her, and slowed way down until she made it to her car.

iv.

I’ve done pretty much the same in similar situations ever since: If I end up behind a woman on a quiet sidewalk, I just go across the street. If I see that she’s noticed me behind her before I can do that and seems to be watching me, I’ll backtrack to the last intersection to do so.

It’s the smallest, saddest thing.

#YesAllWomen

9, 23, 25, 26, 29, 33, 35, 39 & 46

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
— Psalm 90:10

There is no safety in the threefold world; it is like a burning house, replete with a multitude of sufferings, truly to be feared, constantly beset with the griefs and pains of birth, old age, sickness and death, which are like fires raging fiercely and without cease.
— The Lotus Sutra

9

When I was nine years old, I borrowed a collection of Star Trek stories from my dad. It included this one, wherein William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly all end up in the 23rd century owing to some sort of freak transporter accident.

That was a pretty exciting premise to me. Since I knew that I was living in the 20th century and that Star Trek was happening in the 23rd century, I could do the math to figure out how long I had to wait to see it all for myself.

23rd century – 20th century = 3 centuries, pretty much.

So if it was 1977, then I was looking at having to wait around until 2277. I grabbed dad’s Commodore calculator (it looked like this) to help with the next part:

2277 – 1968 = 309 years.

So, dad being in seminary at the time and our family being church-going anyhow, I had some idea that some people lasted a pretty long time. Methuselah had a pretty good run. Hadn’t Noah made it to 900? Needed to check with mom, though.

Yes, she explained, people in the Bible lived a long time, “but we get threescore and ten years now.”

I knew how much a score was because Abraham Lincoln was my hero.

So …

1968 + (20 * 3) + 10 = 2038

and 2277 – 2038 = not even close, really.

Further away from now than last year’s bicentennial had been from the first Independence Day.

I just wasn’t going to make it.

21

My favorite grandfather is dying of a brain tumor. Mom goes down to Texas, hoping to make things right, but all she does is get in the way of the t.v.

23

I don’t think what I experienced was a “death trip,” exactly. I just remember that things got pretty morbid some time around dawn. I was in the tv room at the house in Indianapolis, looking out at the parking lot behind the back yard. Cody and Kevin and Bill were riding bikes in the morning fog, gliding in and out of view.

24

Hudson was so stupid and inept. They made him my buddy and told me if he didn’t make it out of basic, it’d be my fault.

The last week, we were out in the field under a tree. It was raining and Hudson had fucked something up and all he could do was cry. All I could do was put my arm around him and tell him it’d be fine.

25

Jump school seemed like a good idea. It never really occurred to me to feel frightened during the day, but every night I dreamed of falling and falling with no parachute. My subconscious mixed it up by letting me ride a mattress into the dirt one night.

26

The team’s up on the Richmond site outside of Taejon. It’s an old building behind a gate. We’ve put up the mast and we’re on the network. The team chief asks us what we’d do if the balloon went up. Oh … I know this one:

“We take our defensive positions and the one on radio watch burns the SOI and takes an axe to the COMSEC gear, then we all defend the site.”

The team chief says, “you do that. I’m gonna run my ass down the hill before it gets shot off. They won’t bother with soldiers anyhow. They’ll just dial us in and light us up.”

and

I arrive at Ft. Bragg the week a major in my brigade had a bad landing, broke his leg and the bone severed an artery. He bled out on the drop zone before anyone could find him and help him. I don’t know if he knew what was happening.

29

That last nine months I was on jump status, I was pretty sure each jump was going to kill me. If you could be on jump status, though, you were supposed to be on jump status. That’s how it was. The sergeant major would cut your wings off your chest in front of everybody otherwise.

33

They aspirated a lump in my throat on a Wednesday, the doctor fucked off on vacation before the labs came back on Thursday, and nobody would tell me anything until the next Tuesday.

It was fine.

35

Ben. He stirs some things up.

39

“I mean,” says my friend, “FORTY. Aren’t you freaking out?”

“I just don’t, I guess.”

It wasn’t a question for me though, was it? In retrospect, I regret the answer.

46

Here we are.

I still don’t.

Some days, I feel naive or clueless and I think to myself that I might be wrong, and that I might be giving the wrong answer on a cosmic test.

Some days I think, “you’ve taken advantage of a number of opportunities to consider it.”

Mostly I think we’re born in a house that’s on fire, and there’ll be a moment between flame and ash.

We’ll need to have been kind.

My Totalitarian Impulse

Carsten Dominik from 2008:

What people miss when they are new to Org-mode is this:

Don’t try to set up the “final” task managing system from the start. Because you have no idea yet what your system should look like. Don’t set up many TODO states and logging initially, before you actually have a feeling for what you working flow is. Don’t define a context tag “@computer” just because David Allen has one, even though you are sitting at a computer all the time anyway! Start by creating and managing a small TODO list and then develop your own system as the needs arises. I wrote Org-mode to enable this development process.

Yeah. That’s a tough impulse to battle.

I’ve been working on an “o.k. to take a small sliver of my 40 hours a week, best worked on over the weekend” analytics project, so I’ve been doing all the coding for that in Textmate. I don’t have the time to get Emacs into shape as my development environment.

I also made one of my personal goals for the quarter to pick something from among OmniFocus, Things, TaskPaper, Evernote, note pads, notebooks etc. to manage todos, and then stick to it no matter how much something about it irked me, and no matter what cool automation thing for something I didn’t happen to be using turned up on Pinboard or Twitter.

So I stripped my .emacs.d down to the point that it’s pretty much just an org-mode delivery mechanism, and fiddled around just enough to get mobile org working. (Yes, that.) There’s just no time to worry about picking the One True Tool for all tasks. Consequently, Emacs for me is pretty much the world’s most overpowered todo list manager. That’s cool!

I’m still using Evernote for most capture and as a ‘net inbox, but I just can’t make its reminders/todo system work for me for checklists, and about two days ago it hardlocked on my iPad and hasn’t really recovered despite numerous force-quits and a complete iPad restart. I should just delete it from the iPad, but I’m feeling stubborn: I want it to work through whatever has it in a funk or, having failed to do so, signal to me that I really don’t want to put as much weight on it as I have.

Meanwhile, my org files live in Dropbox and I’ve been enjoying using it again, and slowly layering on the capabilities, just as that quote from Carsten Dominik suggests. This morning on my commute in it was nice to realize I hadn’t done a mobile org sync but was still be able to open my org files in the Dropbox app and read them (because they’re always human-readable plain text, even if Emacs makes the plain text behave magically.)

Send the Current iTunes Net Radio Track to Evernote

I like to listen to ‘net radio stations like SomaFM and KCRW’s Eclectic 24. Sometimes I hear new stuff and don’t want to take the time to make a note of it. This little script captures current ‘net radio track info from iTunes and sticks it in an Evernote note with an embedded source URL of the current stream:

I used to have an rb-appscript that did this with Things. Here’s that in case you feel like fiddling with stuff living on borrowed time:

As with just about every little one-off script I write, I use FastScripts to hook it up to a keyboard shortcut. Pretty sure there are better (free) ways, but I’ve had a FastScripts license for years. I think you can get the same effect creating an inputless service with Automator that just runs the Applescript, then assigning a keyboard shortcut to it.

Making Evernote My Single Source of Truth

Restless today, but with no will to work on anything long, and with an abiding sense of frustration about all my little inboxes.

Spending some time observing how I do things when I’m not thinking about them much taught me that I go to Evernote pretty quickly for just about everything. It fills the space VoodooPad used to, before the iPhone came along and made “must do mobile” so much more important to me.

For instance, Evernote is where:

  • every expense receipt
  • every whiteboard session
  • every quick, ad-hoc note-taking session in front of a computer
  • every web receipt

goes.

Once something is in there, it’s searchable (including handwritten stuff). And like the old Emacs Remembrance Agent, it’s continually updating a list of notes related to what I’m looking at or writing in it.

Evernote has been getting smarter and smarter over time, too. Some time in the past several months I snapped a picture of a whiteboard during a meeting and noticed that Evernote had named the note for the title of the meeting I was in from my calendar.

It’s also got free clients for iOS, Mac and Windows (and the web interface doesn’t appear to be terrible, but I’ve never forced myself to use it for long).

It always feels a little risky trusting a company with something this important, but I kind of do. Evernote has definitely had a few screwups here and there, but the application itself continues to improve. It doesn’t feel like any worse a bet to me than many other applications, and it feels considerably more substantial to me than a lot of other cloud offerings. It’s also possible to get all the data kept in it back out should it ever prove to be headed in the wrong direction.

So I’m going to experiment with making it my single source of truth for a while, just to see how it goes.

Making It a Place for Actions

I’ve tried making general todos fit into Evernote, and it has a reasonable facility for making that work:

If you use cmd-shift-t in the text of a note, you get a checkbox. Then if you search Evernote for todo:true, you get a list of notes with unticked todo boxes. You can drag that search into the shortcuts in your sidebar, and you’ve suddenly got all your todo lists in one place.

That’s pretty good for when you’re sitting in front of Evernote specifically and you’re making a list. The thing it doesn’t really do for you is to turn things from the outside (e.g. bookmarks, email messages) into actions. You can sort of hack that in by editing a note created from an outside source and adding a single checkbox to it.

But that hasn’t really satisfied, and I was trying to use Evernote as a system of notes within folders, and that didn’t feel quite right. So I’ve been hobbling along with either Things or OS X Reminders or legal pads. As much as I’m not a super big fan of GTD as a religious movement, though, I completely get the value of a single source of truth. Because I put so much stuff in Evernote already, I’d like it to be where things can not only become records — things I want to get at and read later —but also actions.

What’s keeping me from that? Not much. Evernote’s a pretty decent inbox. It just needs a few things to make it better, it comes with an awesome AppleScript dictionary, and it has decent integration with ifttt.

So here are some ways to mix all that up and make Evernote a fairly complete inbox/action list.

Working With Paper

I like working on paper, but I don’t like living in paper. I hoped for the longest time that I’d be able to use my iPad as a notebook, but until something better than “draw words with your finger” or “use a stylus the size of an end of a hotdog” comes along, it won’t feel quite right.

I also don’t like dragging my laptop all over the office for meetings where I can get by looking things up on the iPad or jotting notes on a legal pad. Evernote’s all about that: I just snap pictures of my notes in its special document mode and it captures them fine (and even labels them with the name of the meeting I’m in from my calendar).

Working From the Desktop

From the desktop, the Evernote Clipper provides a decent tool for getting things into Evernote.

The clipper can be invoked with ctrl-cmd-n for typing in a quick note. Much like Notational Velocity, the first line becomes the title of the new note. The clipper can also be used to capture files ( cmd-c to copy the file, ctrl-cmd-n to invoke the clipper, cmd-v to paste the file into the clipper).

So that’s as good a way as anything to capture todos and things you want to act on when you’re right in front of the computer.

Working With Email

Lots of actions start life as emails, so I’m always curious about the ways a new tool can capture email in a way that helps me keep the information, but also get back to the original message (for followups).

There are a few ways to deal with email and Evernote:

  • Set up an email address with Evernote to which you can send/forward email messages to turn them into notes. I don’t like the way the resulting notes look (they’re forwarded, so they’re a little harder to parse). That’s still an option if you’re mobile and want to make sure you’ve captured the message.
  • Set up a ifttt recipe that turns any starred email into a note. The formatting isn’t great (linebreaks are removed) and there’s no link back to the mail. Not recommended.
  • Select all the text in the message, copy it, then use the Evernote clipper. This is pretty good, and if you’re using Apple Mail you usually get a link back to the message in the Evernote URL field (making it possible to recall the original message within Mail.app). The one downside to this is that it takes a few keystrokes.
  • Recommended: Select the message itself from the message list, copy it with cmd-c, then paste it with the clipper (ctrl-cmd-v). This copies the message text into the note, nicely formatted, and you get a link back to the message in Mail.app.

If you’re a Mailplane user, by the way, you can also use its Evernote integration to capture messages. It provides a link back to the webpage version of the Gmail message (not, sadly, the Mailplane version).

Working With Bookmarks and RSS (especially when mobile)

So, a few years ago I wrote this thing called panopticon. It was meant to help tackle the problem of turning everything I liked, starred, flagged or saved into an actionable todo item for later review. It knew about:

  • flagged email messages
  • new Evernote notes
  • new delicious bookmarks
  • flagged NetNewsWire items

I’d run it at the end of each day, it’d turn all the stuff into Things todos (with a panopticon tag for easy review), and I’d get a handy tickler list full of stuff I’d seen or had been interested in that I could then either turn into a proper action (or get back to at a later time).

I wrote it in rb-appscript, which was a fine decision at the time: I could automate the interrogation of desktop apps for whatever I was interested in without having to write AppleScript. Apple has since deprecated the APIs rb-appscript depends on, so there’s no point in going back to it for anything I expect to be using in another three years.

However, Evernote has an API and it talks to ifttt just fine. ifttt is purpose-built for this sort of automation. So I don’t really need Panopticon anymore. I just need to use services supported by ifttt, and that’s not a problem at all: I moved to pinboard a while back, and I do my RSS reading with tools that use Feedly as the backend. So I can make ifttt recipes that turn pinboard bookmarks and favorited Feedly items into Evernote notes and dump them into a folder of their own for easy review.

A Mobile Digression

That probably seems a little roundabout, and it is. But it helps with the mobile use case: Moving content around in iOS still completely blows. The built-in share tools involve email or social media, and you have to context switch for everything else. With pinboard and Feedly, however, bookmarks and starred items are usually just a tap away from Mobile Safari, Mr. Reader or Reeder, so ifttt makes it a breeze to capture things from those apps into Evernote on a mobile device.

Probably the real answer here is to start using Android devices. I read the ridiculous workarounds Apple enthusiasts come up with to make it easier to share/act on content in iOS using apps like Drafts, then I think about how unique and completely awesome OS X’s services API is, and I feel very sad. Android completely kills iOS in this area.

Special URL schemes aren’t really an answer here, either. Apps should be able to register as receivers with a global service broker, then be available to every other app that can share the kind of data they’re set up to process. The current system of “hope that the developer of app A agrees that app B is pretty cool and deserves a space on the share menu, or else that they provide a way to peck in a special URL scheme in their configuration tool” is stupid and broken.

Anyhow, ifttt makes it pretty painless to work around all that: Just set up a recipe and accept that the results won’t be instantaneous, but that if you star something on the train, it’ll be in Evernote by the time you finish the walk from Union Station to the office.

And From the Command Line

I recently found Geeknote, which provides a command line interface to Evernote. You can designate the editor you prefer to use (e.g. vim or Emacs) and create notes from the shell. Alternately, you can pipe output into Geeknote and turn it into Evernote notes.

My current use case is weekly analytics reporting: I built an analytics framework in Padrino that I currently use most via the command line and Ruby scripts. It’s dead simple to do this when I need to generate a new report:

ruby recent_posts.rb|geeknote --title 'Recent Posts - 2013-10-12'

and get a new Evernote note with the last 30 days worth of stats.

But What About the Action-ness of This Stuff?

So, that’s all toward getting things into Evernote in a readable format for later review. And I briefly noted that there are ways to make todo lists in Evernote. That doesn’t quite get us to the actionability of these things.

Earlier this year, Evernote introduced reminders. With reminders, you can take a note, append a reminder to it, and optionally assign a due date to it. At that point, it becomes sort of special: It appears in the reminders list for a given notebook where it can be marked as completed. If it gets a due date, you can get alerts via Evernote itself or email.

The UX on this isn’t really ideal yet. Evernote hasn’t yet wired up a keyboard shortcut to turn a note into a reminder, so you have to manually click a link in the UI, then click another link to add a date. It’s a little better in the mobile app, where you can bring up a dedicated reminder view and then create new reminders from there.

Still, you can do some good things with reminders. For instance, if you select more than one reminder in the special list Evernote provides at the top of each notebook, Evernote presents an option to “Create a Table of Contents Note.” Click that, and the resulting list of reminders appear in a new note with links to each reminder. Change the title of the note to something like “Todo:” then press cmd-shift-d to auto-insert the date into the title, and you’ve got an action list for the day.

It would be nice, though, to be able to make notes into reminders without having to reach for the mouse, or do several clicks, so I wrote a quick AppleScript to help with that:

I bound the script to a keyboard shortcut in FastScripts, and now it’s possible to select a batch of notes, press ctrl-cmd-r, and turn them all into reminders with a due date of one day from now.

Systemitzing

So, all that goes toward getting things into the inbox. There are a few ways to think about organizing it all beyond that.

I’m leaning toward tagging items with project names, then dragging project tags in and out of the shortcut bar as I work on them/complete them.

The reminder list at the top of any list of notes always reflects the organization of the main note list, whether it’s based on a tag, a folder or search results. So putting the “freelancers” tag in the shortcut bar means that when I click on that link, I’ll get a list of every actionable note tagged that way at the top of the window, then all the not-necessarily-actionable notes (research material, for instance) also tagged that way at the bottom.

Elephant Graveyard

Here are some things I’ve thought about and/or tried and/or even used for a while, and why I don’t care to use them:

  • OmniFocus: Way too heavy, and its sense of “notes” is too bolted on for my tastes. There are ways to improve the way action item notes present, but I prefer Evernote’s rich text editor. Also, Omni Group is going to be holding its hand out for OmniFocus 2 and OmniFocus 2 for iPad shortly.
  • Things: Slow development (goes toward not really trusting the developers), and it has been crashy recently.
  • TaskPaper: Too simple, and a little crabby when it comes to tabs/whitespace. Also not great for capture of anything more than simple text. I’m also not fond of the author’s meandering development pace.
  • Notational Velocity (or whatever that Markdown-centric fork is): Seems fine, but I don’t get the impression you can leave it open on one machine then open it on another without risking some confusion or corruption. Don’t think it’s good for much more than simple text, doubt it’s good for capture.
  • org mode: I think I’ve been clear on this.
  • VoodooPad: Capture isn’t quite right on the desktop, and it doesn’t have a super useful mobile app.

Wishlist

Which isn’t to say Evernote is perfect. Here are some things I wish it could do:

  • Use Markdown for notes or …
  • at least use styles on top of structured text. I’d like to be able to designate a level 2 heading or a level 3 heading instead of fiddling with physical styles
  • Provide an outline mode inside notes. It doesn’t have to be much, but being able to collapse or expose lines in an outliner would be pretty handy
  • Provide wiki-style linking (you can link to notes now, but it’s a drag and drop operation)
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