A Week With Backpack (Part 1)…

OK, so I have been talking about this now for weeks and it was finally released today. I really wanted to write about my first experiences with Backpack, the new web based organizational tool from 37 Signals, Therefore, I had to delay this week’s “Week With” and will post the followup a day late accordingly (Saturday).
Backpack allows one to gather notes, lists, reminders, links, images and files all in one easy to use web based application. What makes it even more innovative is the way in which you can add items like notes and to-do items. Besides being able to simply add them from within Backpack, you can e-mail notes and items to yourself. In turn, you can create reminders which can be e-maiiled to you or sent to your phone via SMS. All very useful to a forgetful organization fiend such as myself.
I will be attempting to use Backpack for all manner of personal items and work related items. While I doubt it will replace Now Up-to-Date for me quite yet, I will attempt to use it this week for as many things as possible. Those who know me know I am constantly looking for that one über-organization tool to rule my life. Could this be it? I will also use it for all of my Carleton related to-do items and reminders as I have been quite lax on keeping a system to track those to-do items for lack of wanting to take the time to develop one(All of the while needing to do so).
I also have another project that I am working on that is a good fit for Basecamp, a web based project management tool by the same company. Therefore, I may also do some comparison and contrast of features and uses. All in all it should be a fun ride. Tune back on Saturday week for Part 2.

Taking Note

Since upgrading to paper is all the rage amongst us technocrats these days, I have seen many a blog post elsewhere about note taking systems, hacks and other useful ideas. Therefore, in order to add to the banter, here is the way I have been using my Moleskine notebook and the evolution of my note/list system.
I largely use my Moleskine as what I refer to as my Core Dump. This is the “inbox for the stuff in my head”. Basically, anything that is floating in my mental RAM gets dumped into the acid free pages of my notebook. Most of these items are to-do type action items (Get Dog Food, Organize Monthly Bills, etc.) but some of these items are not. Some could be ideas, quotes, things I want to post to the blog, telephone numbers, etc. Then, as the actions get performed and the other items appropriately processed I mark them off as such. While this may sound simple enough, it kind of started off a little clunky. The actual method I started using is nothing like the way it is now. Like any good system, the more I have been using it the more it has evolved to better fit my needs. Here is how that evolution unfolded.
System v.1
I started out dividing up each of two facing pages. The left hand page would be for non to-do items. The right hand page for to-do items. This worked well enough for a while. The non to-do section was like scratch paper. The to-do section had dashes before the items to delineate them and, as items were completed, I placed a check mark on the right hand side of the item in a different color (preferably red). I did this so that the checks would stand out and the “open loops” would be readily apparent to me.
The first problem with this system… I was always forgetting to use a red pen for the checkmarks. Therefore, the ones I marked a check next to with a regular pen constantly caught my eye as a non-completed item when doing a quick scan of a page. It did not stand out enough. So I came up with this…
– Non Completed Item
+ Completed item
In other words, action items still have a “dash” that proceeds and, thusly, separates each item. When the item is complete, I draw a vertical line through the “dash” thus making it resemble a “plus”. This makes the dashed items stand out quite well despite the fact that the same color pen is used.
System v.2
I went with this for a while. Same page layout but with a different to-do/action item marking system as described above. But there was still something not quite right. It took me a while to put my finger on it but when I did it seemed so simple that I almost kicked myself for not getting it right away. I was making things more complex and convoluted than they needed to be.
See, many of the non to-do items actually had to be processed as well. For instance, an address or telephone number needed to be entered into my contact database. Passwords needed to be entered into my password manager. Blog ideas needed to be posted. Web sites bookmarked… You get the idea. In other words, these were action items too. This was not readily apparent to me but there they were. Therefore, why am I separating these items? Why am I using two separate pages. Why not just mark these items down and treat them like the action item they really are?
System v.3
I now have all items, no matter what they are, as action items to be processed. They follow the same dash/plus system as mentioned above. When any item is processed beyond the boundaries of the page it is marked as such and separated by date. It looks something like this:
– Get Dog Food and treats for Roy
– Prepare proposal for new Mac purchases
+ Blog Idea: My note taking/to-do system
– Doctor’s appointment to Calendar
+ Call Tom Miller re: Dinner
        • 612-555-5555
– Deposit Check
You get the idea. This not only is more user friendly but also gives me a kind of daily journal of my activities. Even though it may seem only slightly different than when I started, I am much happier and more productive with this version of the system. Proof that even the smallest changes can have a powerful impact.
Other Tweaks
There are a couple of other Moleskine Hacks that I employ. I do use a Post-it™ index tab to mark the page I am currently at because while the built in ribbon page marker is quaint I find it not as efficient. I also keep some small Post-it™ notes (the 2 inch square size) on the inside back cover near opposite of the pocket so that I may have somewhere to write a note to pass to someone else.
Future Needs
No system is ever perfect and this one is no exception. I would like to come up with and easy and non obtrusive way to mark the date I process or complete an item. These do not always get done on the date that they are listed under ( I never claimed to be as productive as my obsession with productivity would dictate).
As always, I am interested to hear of other peoples systems and tips, tricks and tweaks. Feel free to post them in the comments if you have them.

A Week With Firefox (Part 2)

I doubted at first that I would be able to make it a whole week without using Safari. In fact, the very reason I chose to this this project as the first one in my “A Week With” series is that I knew it would be one of the toughest to do. Despite this, I managed to use Firefox for the whole week without ever launching Safari. So, now that the week is over how did things go? I really like Firefox! It took a little configuration to get things just right but now that I have it the way I want it I do not see myself going back. As a matter of fact, I have even removed Safari from my Dock and put Firefox in it’s place.
The first thing I had to do was import all of my bookmarks from Safari. There are quite a few bookmark exporting tools out there for Safari so this was not an issue. I simply imported that bookmark file into the Firefox bookmark manager and, with a little reorganization soon had both my toolbar bookmarks and bookmark menu items in the proper place. I will make the comment that the Firefox bookmark manager leaves a lot to be desired (especially the ability to move items around). If you are constantly futzing with your bookmarks then Safari definitely has a leg up on Firefox.
Next, I had to improve that god-awful PC like interface. The buttons and widgets all look like they were designed for Windows 95. Thankfully, one of the other features of Firefox is the support for themes that allow you to change the look of the browser. There are hundreds of themes available. I chose one called Safarish that was recommended by a great article on Mac OS X Hints that tells you how to make Firefox more “Mac Like”. This was much better.
The other powerful feature of Firefox is it’s support for plugins and extensions. These allow the user to add features and functionality to Firefox. For instance, Sage is an integrated RSS reader that is leaps and bounds over the new Safari RSS features in Mac OS X:Tiger. Another, called Down Them All allows you to download every linked item on a page. useful if you go to a page with several files you need to download. This will do it with one click. Because Firefox is open source there are literally hundreds of people writing things like this.
The biggest feature of Firefox for me though is speed. It is markedly faster than Safari and that is saying a lot because Safari is pretty fast. What is better it that you can make it even faster by modifying a few lines in the config file. After doing this pages load so fast you barely even notice them doing so. As a matter of fact, the config files hold many secrets worth looking into.
All in all, I am very happy with Firefox as my default browser now. This weeks experiment was well worth all of the effort and was a rousing success!
Now I wonder what crazy idea I will come up with next week. Tune in on Monday to find out.

A Week With Firefox (Part 1)

In coming up with the idea for my first “Week With” experiment, I wanted to try something that I knew would really affect my computing life. What better than to use a different web browser. Since I use my web browser more than any other single application on a daily basis, I knew that using a different one would have an impact worth writing about.
I have used Safari as my default browser pretty much since the day it was released. I love Safari. I am very used to it, it’s keyboard commands, the way it renders pages, the handful of tweaks that exist for it. I have tried to use other browsers, even Firefox when Gmail would not work with Safari, but I quickly run back to the safety and comfort of my beloved Apple supplied security blanket.
So, why even think about change and why Firefox? Well, first of all because of the buzz. So many people I know and people I read on the web sing it’s praises, even over Safari. They praise it’s speed, it’s security, the fact that it is open source and therefore has literally thousands of developers and is easy to write plug-ins for that extend it’s functionality. Secondly, since I am forced to use both a PC and a Mac at work and since Firefox is the only sensible (see: fast, safe and secure) solution on the PC, I would like to try using the same browser on both platforms for all of the obvious reasons. Lastly, I figured that since I am so tied to Safari and use my web browser so much it would make for an interesting experiment to see how I do using something else for a week.
Tune in on Friday to see my report on how things went.

A Week With…

First, an apology. I have done a horrible job with keeping up with my Monday Mac Tweak. Part of the reason for that is not only a lack of time but also running out of cool tweaks to post about. Therefore, I have decided to temporarily suspend my Mac Tweak series so that I may introduce another regular series that may end up doing a better job of keeping up with it’s spirit.
New series, I dub thee: A Week With…
I am sure by the title alone you can begin to get the idea. I will spend a whole week trying out a new thing. In most cases it will be software but it could be something else. Maybe a new piece of hardware or a new web based application or website. I all cases it will be something i am genuinely interested in trying and/or have been thinking about trying but have not gotten around to yet I will then tell you about how that week went and what the future holds. I will announce the item on Monday and tell you a little bit about it. Then, on Friday (or sometime during the weekend if Friday gets busy), I will post my experience. Make sense? Therefore, tune in on Monday to see what crazy thing I am doing first.

Adobe and Macromedia and You

My initial reaction to news of this merger was one of shock. The news has so many ramifications on the publishing industry, both traditional and web, that it is almost mind-boggling. I think part of the reason for my previous lack of direction on this matter has been that I am not quite sure how I feel about it.  
On one hand, these are the two most dominant creative software forces in the publishing and pre-press and web content creation industries. While there were certainly areas where they overlapped and were competitors (Dreamweaver vs. Go Live or Illustrator vs. Freehand for instance) more often they really do have two different audiences. Adobe has always been more focussed on the traditional publishing industry (Illustrator for design, Photoshop for graphics editing, InDesign for page layout and Postscript for printing) whereas Macromedia has been more focused on the Web and Multimedia (Dreamweaver for Web Editing, Flash for media rich web content, etc.). Therefore, the combined strength of these two should benefit users greatly by allowing them to produce more seamless integration between these two areas which means more flexibility for the designers and end users they serve.
On the other hand, this merger creates what essentially will be the Microsoft of publishing and media creation. Adobe will have a monopoly over the design world. One company will control the software used for the content of almost everything we read and see and output to both traditional print media and the web. Like Microsoft, having one company with that much power can’t and probably wont be a good thing.
To sum it all up, I have very mixed feelings. From a technological standpoint this will mean very exiting possibilities for those who use any of these software products. I just wish it did not come at the expense of competition.

Running Your Company On Web Apps

Evan Williams discusses running your company on web apps.
Key Quote:

“The improved efficiency of having these apps available, and not having to install and maintain servers for them is huge. At Pyra, we wrote our own discussion board at one time (not that there weren’t other available) and, later, I wrote a support management tool, because I couldn’t find anything like Kayako (or Neotonic — which Google bought and took off the market). And I was dying for email management, like FogBugz has.”

As I mentioned last week, this is becoming not only possible but increasingly attractive; especially to small groups in disparate locations.