tech

ifttt, Dropbox and the panopticon

If This Then That (ifttt) can be used to create rules that append arbitrary text to a file in a Dropbox folder based on triggers from things like social networking or bookmarking accounts.  A few years back, when I sketched out Panopticon, I was thinking about stuff in terms of getting recent bookmarks, flagged mails and other stuff into Things where they’d become reviewable items. 

I don’t use Things anymore, find myself unable to muster a ton of enthusiasm for its closest competitor, and am not generally interested in anything that’s not going to be stored in a  simple plaintext format. That mostly leaves me with an informal format of my own devising, one of the simpler human-oriented formats (e.g. Markdown or TaskPaper), a human/machine format (e.g. YAML), or something else. 

Right now I’m really enjoying org-mode for outlining and to-dos, but I’ve also got a soft spot for TaskPaper. Either can work pretty nicely with ifttt to create a lashup Panopticon for a lot of different services. I’ve got ifttt recipes that log a few social actions, starred Google Reader items and other bits and pieces going into a plaintext file in my Dropbox account. 

To review, the point of this logging is pretty simple:

If you’re one of those people who needs to stop at the end of the day and turn out your pockets, making sure you put your keys in the key place, and your change in a little bowl, and loose receipts wherever you put those, that’s what panopticon is doing for me: Helping me put everything I’ve accumulated from the ‘net over the past day in a little glass bowl. That way it won’t get run through the wash or carelessly emptied into the trash.

It’s a big tickler file for the next morning, so I can say “Oh, right … meant to follow up on that” or “meh” or “yeah, I was there,”  then either do something about it or just mark it as “done” so I don’t have a feeling that things are quietly piling up behind my back. They’re still piling up, but the difference is that I’ve decided it’s o.k. for them to do that as long as I observe them doing that.

The one thing I wish ifttt would do (and in a brief Twitter exchange they said it’d go on the list) is write to a plain text file with an arbitrary extension. Right now, it assumes that your filename should end with “.txt,” which makes it a little harder to automatically open the log in org-mode in Emacs. On the other hand, that’s what Emacs’ `auto-mode-alist` variable is for:

(add-to-list ‘auto-mode-alist ‘(“\\Dropbox/org/.*\.txt\\'” . org-mode))

That just tells Emacs to treat any .txt file opened up in my Dropbox “org” folder in org-mode, which includes the file I’ve got ifttt writing to for my log.

Notes on migrating to an open system plus omnioutliner2orgmode

I’ve been fiddling around with Mountain Lion since a day or two after it landed. Every new release of anything provokes some anxiety among people who were used to the previous version, and Mountain Lion has not been exempt from that.

What’s driving the anxiety for a lot of people this time around is how Apple’s vision for user experience on a Mac is converging with its vision for UX on an iPad or iPhone,  the ways in which Apple is deciding things in favor of “the average user,” and whether or not the next iteration of OS X will push things even further along a path that eventually involves people having to jailbreak their MacBooks to get any real work done.

I don’t think we’re quite there yet, and I’ve been pretty pleased with how well Mountain Lion has been running on both my 2009 iMac and 2010 MacBook Air. That doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with everything I’ve seen, and it means it’s time to start making sure I know how to get off a platform that may make changes I can’t accept when it comes time to decide whether to re-up. 

I had a chat with my boss about this last week. As I was talking about the things iCloud makes pretty convenient: Automatically synced Safari reading list and tabs, synced notes, synced documents between iPad and Mac, he argued that there has to come a point where you don’t really want to cede too much to Apple to make “just work,” because you could eventually lose control of the things you care about most based on Apple’s whims. I think a lot of people have hit that in the past: You get to love some feature, a new release comes out, everyone insists there are no barriers to upgrading right now, and then you discover that nobody telling you to come on in because the water was fine cared about that one feature you loved that is now gone, maybe taking the data you kept in it with it.

That’s why I haven’t really allowed iCloud to get at anything I can’t easily export into a more open format. To Apple’s credit, there are a number of things that are easily converted into something useful by other software. Calendars, addresses and bookmarks can all be exported from a user-accessible menu. The new Notes app doesn’t have an export option, but it’s got a scripting dictionary. The new Reminders app is similarly provisioned. iWork allows users to quickly export any of its files to their Microsoft Office analog format. 

At the same time, Apple’s new sandboxing rules, and the way it is restricting what can be sold through its Mac App Store (MAS) suggests that things could get dicey for apps more complex than a notepad or reminder list. Developers who depend on a freer run of the computer than Apple is willing to grant can always just sell outside the MAS, but they’ll be competing against products that might be willing to trade away some functionality to stay in the MAS. What’s good enough for the bulk of MAS users may not be good enough for me, and that gap will widen as we bring in apps that address more sophisticated functionality. That will have to place some pressure on developers. We don’t know what that’s going to mean, but that’s enough uncertainty for me to be thinking about what might have to be next. Which gets us to the point of this post: 

I’ve started working on an outline that sketches out the issues I see involved in moving from a closed system (like a Mac, but it could easily be Windows) to a more open one (like Linux). This isn’t a new set of considerations for me: Keeping my data portable, or in apps where it can be easily exported, is something that has always been important to me, but I want to start thinking about more practically about how to make the move to a more open system in a way that doesn’t hamper my ability to keep getting work done all through the process, and that doesn’t force me to renounce the wonderful utility I get out of my current Mac software. So, the outline defines some terms and provides a place to think about the issues and also serves as a very practical inventory for the software I’m using, what its analogs are in the world of free or open source software, and whether those analogs are good enough yet.

It’s also a work in progress. I started work on it in OmniOutliner (which is excellent), but in an early effort to test OmniOutliner’s own export to more open formats I learned that its export/import capabilities are a little limited (maybe due to gaps in the OPML spec, maybe due to an oversight). I also didn’t want to pay $20 for an iOS version when document syncing still isn’t there and I’m not sure what my upgrade costs would be to get that syncing when OmniOutliner 4 comes out. So I decided to move the outline to Emacs’ org-mode, which uses flat text files and, as I’ve already been half-sorry to discover, has an iOS app.

I could have copied and pasted the plain text export of OmniOutliner into an Emacs buffer and reindented it, but it was easier to write a few lines of Ruby:

It doesn’t, obviously, do anything besides tack some asterisks on to the front of each topic row and drop in a row note if it exists, but it saved me some fiddling around.

I guess I really, really hate that Blu-ray player

Ben wanted to rewatch Poltergeist last night, which entailed a quick trip into the garage, where all the DVDs live now. We don’t have a lot. There’s just one Ikea Billy’s worth, plus a small amount of overflow on another shelf. The collection consists almost entirely of plain old DVDs, but includes exactly five Blu-ray discs (one Blade Runner plus four Cohen brothers movies from a box set). 

It’s not the most consistently thought out collection in the world. A  chunk of it could count as curated, were the collection not hidden from everyone in the garage, and that chunk represents things loosely classed under “will want to see again and again and again until dead,”  “believed to be important and so need to have on hand,” and “sentimental favorites.”

With the advent of streaming video rentals, the calculus for inclusion has changed some, so the classification “will want to watch again” has become more stringent. An iTunes or Amazon rental is $3 – $5, so for the average DVD under consideration for inclusion, “will want to watch again” has become “will want to watch again at least four or five times.” Probably more, for reasons I’ll get into below. Having no idea how long I’m going to remain alive, but believing — based mostly on the sort of anxious grandparent math people start doing some time in their 30s — that I’m getting close to “over the hill,” there aren’t a ton of movies that can tumble into that designation with much grace or conviction.

The other chunk of the collection — the things that are not Star WarsThe Godfather, or a number of things from 1999 (the year I noticed that Hollywood was suddenly not in the early ’90s any longer) — is less well considered and reflects a period after my four-year-long post-army slump when plunking down $20 for a movie I’d sort of enjoyed in the theaters and figured I might some day enjoy discovering again during a fantasized period of silver-haired maturity seemed like a fine value. An investment, even.

One thing I’m glad of, I guess, is that the collection doesn’t seem to include much of anything I thought I should have, which is maybe surprising when you consider this:

Over the past several years I’ve been periodically taken by how much stuff I’ve got. Lots and lots of it.

I think back to the winter of 1994, when I left for Ft. Knox with a small gym bag that had everything I felt I needed and a number of crates scattered around two houses that had everything I figured I’d get back to some day. I think back to some time in 1995 when I told people we might think of as executors for my last life that I was fine having a lot of that stuff consigned to a burn pile. That was not a bad place to be, where stuff is concerned. In fact, I’d say be that it would be better to be without most of it.

But from 1997 on, I began the process of re-accumulating. Here we are 15 years later and I’m back up to lots of stuff. Well … almost back up to it, because I’ve been shedding stuff again. Nothing like asking people to burn it for me while I hide out in Korea, away from the smoke and flames of burning consequences and encumbrances, but the Woodstock Goodwill has been writing out a lot of receipts lately.

So, for a few years I’ve been thinking about the whys of having all that stuff. One uncomfortable thing I see out of the corner of my eye now and then, when I relax and don’t look for it, is the idea that a lot of things — books, movies, discs — are assertions. “I’m the sort of person who likes this thing.”

That creates complications, because I don’t want to be a person about to whom that motivation can be ascribed.  It’s just a terrible reason to make life harder with the weight of stuff that must be maintained, placed, kept track of and kept out of the way when unneeded. 

Anyhow, that’s not what this is really about. It’s mostly about the fact that  there’s a big, problematic collection of plastic in the garage that takes up space, and Ben wanted to find part of it to watch it. Great. For the record, Poltergeist is a good thing for the collection. I think it’s there honestly. Not for the stilted “you only moved the tombstones! You didn’t move the bodies! You only moved the tombstones!” bit that briefly reminds us that we live in a world where people needed to hear that to better understand a swimming pool full of coffins, but for the better moments before everything goes completely wrong. 

So we went into the garage and started looking. Then we fed the disc to the Blu-Ray player, which spent an inordinate amount of time wheezing and vibrating before actually playing the movie, reminding me that it was only the movie’s relative age and the studio’s treatment of the content as a passing opportunity for a few bucks —not as part of some marketing gestalt—that kept us from being held hostage by no-skip commercials or  a ridiculous and unnavigable menu structure.

There was a moment, too, after the initial moment of “this technology sort of sucks because it exists to do more than just show a movie” grunting from the player that I felt myself become nervous because a number of discs Ben has enjoyed have been handled with less than archival delicacy and I wondered if this would be one of them. It had taken us a while to get around to deciding on Poltergeist, and I didn’t want to have to pick something else. 

So when Ben got up to go the bathroom, I went into the garage and picked out five movies Al and I have agreed we must watch again some time soon and started feeding them into Handbrake, which in turn handed them off to MetaZ, where I could tag them and drag them into the archive drive, where iTunes will serve them up to our Apple TV when we’re ready to watch. It seems to take about 3/4 of the running time of the movie to make a version that will look pretty good when streamed to the AppleTV (I’m still trying to fiddle with the settings needed to get the darker scenes and blacks a little better) and comes in at under 2GB. 

In some ways, this is a project that will complicate other things while slowly relieving me of the weight of physical objects. Instead of imaging a be-sweatered and silver-haired me walking into the library to retrieve a disc, I have to imagine a be-sweatered, silver-haired me noticing that the backup drive is making a funny noise, or realizing that the switch behind the t.v. has blown a port. There are other possible horrors, too: What if a space goat eats all the world’s knowledge of playback of an mp4?

NPR, Cut and Pasted

I used to stream OPB live on my morning walks, but after spending a little time looking for interesting things to listen to, I turned to the NPR News iPhone app. It’s pretty nice:

NPR News App

It includes a list of the main NPR news shows — All Things Considered, Morning Edition — along with a selection of others you might think of right away — Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Weekend Edition — and a few you might not recognize. The app will tell you if the program is being aired somewhere and allow you to stream it from an NPR affiliate of your choice, add it to your in-app playlist, or get it as a podcast from the iTunes Music Store. 

Those options are all great, but my favorite part is the way many of the programs — particularly the two major news shows — are broken into their individual stories, each of which can be added to an in-app playlist. So before a morning walk I can open the app, go to the Morning Edition section, pick the stories I’m interested in (with an eye to filling up the 30 minutes I’ll be walking as closely as possible) then start playing my queue. 

The “pick a segment” capability works with a few other programs. For instance, I can get just the book, music and movie reviews from Fresh Air without dealing with any interviews I’m not interested in.

The one thing I noticed about my sudden ability to control the items I was listening to was that I had to think twice about a few things. Wednesday morning, for instance? I really just didn’t want to hear anything at all about the Wisconsin recall vote and I caught myself skipping that item. I finally decided that I needed to go back and make myself listen, because all I really knew about the story was what I’d picked up from Google News headlines just before going to bed the night before. So I made myself listen. I didn’t like what I heard: The cheers from the winning side were aggravating, and the moans from the losing side were pretty hard to hear. But I made myself listen, because not listening would have felt like I was  allowing it all to matter a little less. 

The Quacking of the Skypes

Adium duck

I like Adium for IM on Macs, and we use Skype for just about everything at work. I sort of don’t like having two IM programs running, so I’m pretty happy to know about the Skype API plugin for Pidgin/libpurple/Adium.

You don’t avoid having to have Skype on your machine: For the Adium plugin to work, Skype still has to be running. But once the plugin and Skype are talking, you can do all your Skype IM stuff through Adium. You can even link statuses, so if you set yourself away on Adium, the Skype app picks that up, too. It also turns custom Adium status messages into Skype “mood messages.”

Prowl icon

Another sort of cool thing I came across a while back and have started using a little more is Prowl, an iOS app for use with the Growl notification system. You pay your $1.99, set up an account, then install a Growl plugin on your Mac. Prowl then becomes a display style you can use as you would any other Growl theme, except it sends push notifications to your iPhone. It goes well with Adium, which includes the ability to tack Growl notifications to any of its numerous events. I like getting a specific push notification to my phone for the initial message from a new chat or a Skype call, in case I’m in another part of the house when they come in.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.