On Evernote

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

I am, of course, referring to Evernote, a tool that’s designed to remember everything you throw at it – then provide access to your information from virtually anywhere.

If you’re unfamiliar with the tool, this video will give you a quick picture of what it does:

Despite the obvious awesomeness of its sync/access capabilities, earlier iterations of Evernote failed my acquired-information management criteria on numerous counts:

  • It couldn’t accept basic documents like PDFs (flexibility fail)
  • It wasn’t scriptable (extensibility fail)
  • You couldn’t import/export data en mass (openness fail)

But the Evernote team have been hard at work, and with the recent addition of scriptability and an API, it’s worth a serious second look.

Accessibility: 9/10

Accessibility is undoubtedly where Evernote shines: you can access your data on the web client, your Mac or PC, or your iPhone or Windows Mobile device – and it all stays synchronized. Ergo, you still have your data when the network goes down. (The mobile Evernote clients act more as search/input portals into your Evernote data, though the latest iPhone version now stores your “favorites” locally so you can access critical notes offline. Also, if you prefer to keep some data private, you can selectively opt out of synchronization.)

Besides being Evernote’s killer feature, accessibility is also the cornerstone of the product’s business model: Evernote itself is free, but if you need more than 40MB/month you’ll need to upgrade to the premium version ($5/month or $45/year). The most exciting Evernote use cases will probably be mashups that use its API, which means increased bandwidth needs – and, therefore, subscriptions. (N.B.: Evernote’s API documentation describes the bandwidth elements as the “accounting structure”.)

Flexiblity: 4/10

Evernote accepts text/RTF files, images, web clippings, PDFs, and audio notes. To get files in, you can drag-and drop files onto the desktop client, email them to a special Evernote email address, or use the bookmarklet to clip content directly from any web browser. Handily, if you have part of a web page selected, the bookmarklet just saves the selection. Read: Evernote is most in its element when used for web clippings.

In addition, images can be snapped from your webcam or iPhone camera. More on this later.

Unfortunately, Evernote can’t handle many common document types, including Word documents (though RTF documents work passably). Most other filetypes (mind maps, outliner documents, etc) are out of the picture as well.

In the Mac client, the built-in content editor is little more than a glorified text editor. Text formatting is limited to font/size, bold/italic/underline, and alignment, though you can also attach images. (Not to mention the insulting font selection, which includes Arial but not Helvetica – shame!) The Windows client also provides some drawing tools (useful with a tablet PC), a broader font selection, and outlining functions. Update 11/10/08: Version 1.1.6 for Mac introduces orderd/unordered lists and tables.

Scalability: 6/10 (est.)

I haven’t thrown a tremendous amount of data at Evernote yet, so it’s unclear how performance is affected by a large data set. (I was hoping to put it to the test via the Delicious bookmark import, but Evernote just imported the bookmarks as links, rather than scraping the bookmarks’ targets.)

From a user interface perspective, scalability may be a problem. Items are accessed by browsing (by tags and metadata) as well as search. Aside from the ability to use multiple “notebooks”, there is no standard hierarchical organization. Users with a large number of tags or documents might become frustrated by this.

Searchability: 8/10

Basic search functions are solid, though generally unremarkable (no regular expressions, no advanced operators). You can combine search terms with tag filters.

In addition, Evernote has a couple search tricks up its sleeve:

  • Images pass through Evernote’s OCR engine when synchronized, turning image text into searchable data. This even works, to a large extent, on handwriting – slick!

  • Evernote metadata includes standard text tags as well as optional location data, so you should be able to search by location as well as content

Extensibility 7/10

The Mac client now includes a basic AppleScript dictionary, which allows for integration with other apps. No content-level scripting, but the most important feature – note creation – is available.

One example of extensibility in action: Justin adapted my NetNewsWire » DEVONthink batch archiving script to work with Evernote, including tagging and notebook selection. Check it out here.

In addition, the Evernote API provides full access to Evernote data. I’m not aware of any Evernote-based applications yet, though Pelotonics is planning some level of integration. If useful integration emerges, this is will be a big win for users.

Openness 4/10

Disappointingly, despite claiming export options as a feature, Evernote maintains a tight grip on your data. Need to send a file to your colleague? Forget drag-and-drop: you’ll need to go through Evernote’s export or email functions.

On the Mac side, the only export option produces a proprietary Evernote-formatted XML file with document contents embedded. The Windows client can also export in HTML, web archive, and text formats.

When emailing files, Evernote wraps most notes in an ad-encrusted PDF document before sending. (Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds. Look for the “Plain text note” here. That PDF is what you get when you try to email a text file.) Mercifully, you can email PDFs in their original form – though whether this is by design or oversight is unclear. What is clear is that Evernote doesn’t make it easy for you to use your data as you wish.*

A third option is to share your documents in a public notebook (like this one). This of course not the same as export, but it does provide a refreshing level of social openness uncommon in tools of this nature.

Final thoughts

Evernote deftly handles web clippings and snapshots, and ubiquitous access makes it a viable tool for web research and data management.

Perhaps paradoxically, Evernote’s impressive accessibility also limits how I use it. Synchronizing data through Evernote’s server means I won’t use it for sensitive data. So although it’s hard to imagine a situation in which I won’t have access to my iPhone, Mac, or a web browser, it’s also hard to imagine a situation in which said access is truly critical. So I typically use Evernote for less important (but nonetheless useful) tasks:

  • Clipping captioned images and business cards for OCR
  • Jotting beer-tasting notes
  • Snapping photos of the same
  • Misc. data capture when I’m away from my computer

Bottom line: despite its limitations, Evernote is a great tool. At the free price point, you’re unlikely to find a more robust tool… so give the elephant a whirl.


*Comparisons could be drawn to DRM-laden music purchased from iTunes: it’s quite likely that you’ll never want to use it outside the iTunes/iPod ecosystem. But if (or when) that day comes, you won’t want to deal with their restrictions on your data. Same principle.

1Password for iPhone » no more login bookmarklets

Update: 1Password bookmarklets are back, so please disregard this post.

The 1Password iPhone application is now available for download from iTunes (link here). The benefits of the iPhone app are clear: true data synchronization; intuitive interface with multiple levels of security; robust enough to handle thousands of passwords.

But there’s a catch: the updated 1Password desktop app will no longer export to the login bookmarklet. iPhone users: the 1Password app doesn’t integrate with Mobile Safari, so using the iPhone app will box you into its integrated browser. Firefox users: you’ll need to use the less convenient web page export.

Fortunately, Agile Web Solutions makes old versions available for download, so you can always revert to version 2.7.2, the latest version to support bookmarklets. At present, you can switch back and forth between versions (though I can’t say this won’t cause issues) to get the best of both worlds.

Brainstorm in XMind, work in OmniFocus

It’s the best of all possible worlds! Now you can brainstorm in XMind and import directly into OmniFocus via Udo Gaetke’s clever AppleScript. The script creates a project from your map’s root node and actions (or subactions) from the other nodes.

Thus, this:

XMind plan

Becomes this:

OmniFocus Plan
Via Skitch

Get the script here (forums.omnigroup.com)

Notes:

  • Although XMind isn’t scriptable, the XML file format is open; his script digs into the XML structure to pull relevant data

  • The script contains a property called import_folder. You’ll need to create a folder in OmniFocus with this name before running

  • The script contains a “rm -f” operation. This deletes a temporary XML file created by the script. You may want to peruse the script yourself before running

Access 1Password data on your PC via Firefox

5/26/10 update: I haven’t tried this in a couple years, so consider these directions outdated. If you have any luck, feel free to leave a comment.

Important: As of 8/6/08, version 2.7.2 works interchangeably with the current versions, but this may change without notice.

Updated 7/28/08 to address truncation issues with Safari

1Password, the acclaimed password manager for Mac, recently introduced an iPhone export function that provides on-the-go access to sensitive data. This is accomplished by creating an encrypted bookmarklet in Safari, which is in turn synchronized to your iPhone. Excellent.

Firefox recognizes this bookmarklet as well — meaning that Windows-by-day users no longer have to suffer without their critical logins. (Note that this trick does not work with Internet Explorer.)

To accomplish this:

  1. In 1Password, click on the “Sync to iPhone” icon in the toolbar and choose an access code for encryption. (This will create the bookmarklet in Safari.)

    Setup Sync
  2. Switch to your Safari bookmarks, where you will find two new categories, each with a bookmarklet. The 1Password bookmarklet enables a browsable list of all your 1Password data; the 1Password Logins bookmarklet provides a one-click login to the current page.

    Bookmarklets in Safari

    The data in the Address column is what you need to copy to your PC; however, Safari only lets you copy the first 32,000 characters of a bookmark’s address field, so copying from here is likely to fail. To work around this, drag the bookmark to Firefox on your Mac (either directly or via the Finder) to copy the data there. Then, in Firefox, select the bookmarklet properties. This is what you’ll see:

    Bookmarklets in Safari

    Hit Tab once to select the Location field. Copy the text into a plain-text file, and email it to yourself.

  3. Get it onto your Windows machine. (Easiest method: email it to yourself using the aforementioned plain text file.)

  4. Finally, create your bookmarklet in Firefox. To do this, first bookmark any page to your Firefox bookmarks bar. Then, right-click on the bookmark and choose “Properties”. Rename it as desired (“1P” suffices for my needs), and replace the Location field with the long string you emailed to yourself. For the 1Password bookmarklet, you’ll want to select “Load this bookmark in the sidebar”. For the 1Password Logins bookmarklet, leave it deselected.

    Create Bookmarklet

Firefox now has a secure, functional bookmarklet with your passwords and other data available.

1Password Logins bookmarklet in action: 1Password Logins bookmarklet

1Password bookmarklet in action:

Secure Entry Interface

(Use of the search function is recommended here as the tool sorts web forms by name)

1Password also provides a full-fledged html export, which you can keep on a thumb drive or upload to a server. (I wouldn’t recommend uploading the file — out of 6 billion people in the world, surely someone is bound to find the file and start playing.)

Bonus: For even easier synchronization, install Foxmarks to synchronize your Firefox bookmarks between your Mac and PC. Now you can copy straight from Safari to Firefox on your Mac and let Foxmarks do the synching. Update: Foxmarks didn’t work with the 1Password bookmarklets the last time I tried it; your mileage may vary.

Quickly file Exchange-based emails using Entourage

Managing the torrential flow of work email used to be an onerous task, but a healthy combination of email habits and scripts simplify the flow greatly. Personal experience has demonstrated that email is best handled with a GTD-inspired triage system, à la this one. Spotlight on the Mac and Copernicus on Windows make dredging up old emails a cinch.

Even with a simplified organization structure, it can be time-consuming (or RSI-inducing) to triage your inbox. I find that when it takes longer than a second or two to file an email, I’m more likely to just leave it in my inbox — defeating the value of the system.

Although Outlook in Windows is my preferred professional email client, I use Entourage for email triage because it’s just faster. With a few simple Applescripts, filing any number of emails is a single keystroke away.

property destFolderName : "@ACTION"
property exchangeAccountName : "CHCSII"


tell application "Microsoft Entourage"
        set destFolder to folder destFolderName of Exchange account exchangeAccountName
        set currMsgs to (current messages)
        move currMsgs to destFolder
end tell

Save the script as “Action \ca.scpt” in your Entourage Script Menu folder (located in ~/Documents/Microsoft User Data/) and you can activate it instantly with Control-A. Change the “\ca” suffix to change the shortcut.

Bonus #1: Change your Caps Lock key to Control in the Keyboard & Mouse control panel (under “Modifier Keys…”) and the script is even easier to activate.

Bonus #2: If you have Growl installed, add the following code below “end tell” in the above script and you’ll get an unobtrusive confirmation that your email has been filed in the right folder (useful for the oh-shoot-did-I-just-move-that-to-the-right-folder moments):

tell application "GrowlHelperApp"
       
        set the allNotificationsList to {"General", "Move message", "Error"}
        set the enabledNotificationsList to {"General", "Move message", "Error"}
       
        register as application ¬
                "Entourage AppleScripts" all notifications allNotificationsList ¬
                default notifications enabledNotificationsList ¬
                icon of application "Microsoft Entourage"
       
        --      Error Notification...
        if (count of currMsgs) is 0 then
                notify with name ¬
                        "Error" title ¬
                        "Error" description ¬
                        "No message selected." application name "Entourage AppleScripts"
        end if
       
        --      1 Notification...
        if (count of currMsgs) is 1 then
                notify with name ¬
                        "General" title ¬
                        "Exchange Notification" description ¬
                        "1 message moved to " & name of destFolder application name "Entourage AppleScripts"
        end if
       
        --      Multi Notification...
        if (count of currMsgs) > 1 then
                notify with name ¬
                        "General" title ¬
                        "Exchange Notification" description ¬
                        "" & (count of currMsgs) & " messages moved to " & name of destFolder & "." application name "Entourage AppleScripts"
        end if
       
end tell

XMind Review (XMind 2008 Professional for Mac)

XMind is a recently introduced mind mapping tool available for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. I purchased XMind several weeks ago and have found it to be a robust and rewarding tool, though it’s certainly not without its issues.

Basic features

Data entry – The ability to quickly add and edit information is the single most important feature of a mind mapping tool, and XMind makes input fast and painless. Return inserts a sibling topic, while Tab inserts a subtopic. (This is a faster interface than MindManager, for instance, which requires command-Return to insert a subtopic.) Return inserts a sibling topic. Command-Return inserts a parent topic, and Shift-Return creates a sibling topic before the selected topic.

Navigation – With a single-button mouse, click-and-hold on any free space in the map to drag the map around. Even easier, right-click drag for instant dragging.

Labeling (tagging) and Notes – Labels can be added to any map item and used to quickly filter large maps. One suggested use would be to attach names to action items. Rich-text notes can also be appended map items, and edited in the map or a sidebar.

Visual editing – XMind includes a wide array of layout and editing options. Topics can be displayed with a variety of orders, from diamonds to callouts. Line options include simple curves, hard and soft elbows, straight lines and more. Spiny (thick) and rainbow lines are available as well.

Numbering options are basic but functional; for each level of the mindmap tree, you can select Roman numerals (I, II, III), Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3), and capital and lowercase letters (A, B, C or a, b, c). In addition, each sheet/tab can have a separate background color or image.

Visual Themes – Most usefully, XMind supports visual themes, which can expedite editing multiple documents. To create a theme, simply edit your document as desired, then select “Extract theme”. A new theme will be created to match your current document styles.

Audio notes can be added quickly to a topic. They’re saved in MP3 format, although currently there doesn’t seem to be a way to extract your audio notes.

Killer feature: embedded layout options

For me, the killer feature of XMind is the ability to utilize multiple layout structures within the same map. Options include traditional mindmapping structures (map, left tree, right tree, logic charts, org charts) as well as 2D chart (analogous to a spreadsheet clipping) and fishbone diagram options.

Structure options.png

Although other mappers have this feature, its XMind offers more flexibility than its Mac OS-compatible counterparts.

Embedded structures.png (Click for full size)

Quirks

Editing

At present, there is no way to create a parent topic with multiple siblings selected; you must create the parent topic for one topic and drag other topics into it.

More frustrating, there is currently no keyboard-only option to edit a topic; typing overwrites the selected topic, so you need to use the mouse for this purpose. (XMind team: please fix this in an upcoming release!) [UPDATE: F2 now enters editing mode for the selected node.]

Format lock

While XMind readily imports from MindManager and FreeMind, it provides no way to save in other formats (MindManager, FreeMind, or even OPML). That said, if you desperately need to share your data, you can copy and paste into OmniOutliner. From there, export to OPML. Other programs can read this format quite easily. [UPDATE: XMind now exports to MindManager 7 format.]

That said, XMind documents have worked flawlessly between my Mac and PC.

Audio Notes

In the map area, you must double-click the Play button to play an audio note. Odd. [UPDATE: A single click now plays the note.]

Printing – caveat emptor!

[UPDATE: Printing has been improved significantly. Retaining this section for historical context, but note that many of these criticisms have been addressed.]

Printing in XMind is seriously flawed. To start, there is no Page Setup dialog box. Any page setup options are performed via a combination of the print dialog box and printer-specific settings. (To get a horizontal page layout, for instance, you have to go select the printer options setting, which brings you first to the OS X-standard Page Setup dialog box, then a Print window. Clicking “Print” from here does not print the document, as one might expect, but brings the user back to the Java print window.)

Worse, XMind has yet to learn the concept of a centered document. Printing with the default 5mm margins yielded a printout that was both off-center and clipped. I tinkered for a while and finally got a well-centered document with a 40mm left margin and 0mm right margin — though the built-in preview has no bearing on the final product. For example, this XMind preview:

Print 4.png

…resulted in this print job:

Print 5.png

To see what your document will actually look like without wasting paper, go through the printer options setting to the OS X dialog box. Instead of selecting Print, choose Print Preview. Although this will return you to the Java print box, when you finally choose Print you’ll get the Mac preview.

A note about Java

I expected Java to be a major issue for me. On the Mac, I want Mac-like apps with Services support, AppleScript options, etc. That said, XMind has done an amazing job harnessing elements of the Mac OS interface. Notably, it uses the native Mac open and save dialog boxes (failure to do so would have been a deal-breaker for me), and can summon Apple’s Color Picker utility instead of the standard Java fare.

Final thoughts

Although XMind feels like a late beta product, it’s a strong contender for the cross-platform mind mapping market. If on-screen editing (rather than printing) is your intended primary use, give it a whirl.

Also, to their credit, the XMind team have been very responsive — they have responded to several separate email requests and seem intent on improving the product.

Pros:

  • Extremely robust mapping options
  • Responsive customer support
  • Strikingly adept Java implementation on the Mac

Cons:

  • Printing is extremely frustrating
  • Java-based means no Mac OS Services; no AppleScript support
  • No industry-standard export options
  • Quirky

MacBook as an accelerometer

On a recent bus ride from work to the Vienna Metro station, I noticed the ride was rather rough and decided to take a closer look. Using SeisMac, a tool that uses my MacBook’s sudden motion sensor to take motion measurements, I recorded some key parts of the ride.

Because the computer was on my lap, the Y axis served as a crude accelerometer; when the bus accelerated, the front of the bus was raised a little (and I was therefore pitched back a little, causing the Y-axis reading to increase), and when the bus slowed down I was pitched forward, causing the Y-axis reading to decrease.

Exhibit 1: I-66

Getting on I-66, we began accelerating significantly at about 6:17:25. We hit traffic pretty abruptly and slowed down at 6:17:45, and then hit some rough potholes around :53 (see the Z-axis)…

78B364A9-82F2-4E1C-8C11-FC60D0DA5255.jpg

Exhibit 2: Vienna Metro

Exiting I-66 to pull into the Vienna Metro station:

vienna.jpg

At 6:22:29, the bus was in a 3-way-stop traffic pattern at the Metro station (note how I was so violently pitched forward and backward). About 6:22:42, the bus made its final acceleration before letting the speed bleed off, coasting into its spot at the station.

Note: I originally posted this at livandan.com