The Less Paper Home

I can remember all the stuff about the “paperless office” quite well, and even at the time, I didn’t believe it. Nor did I necessarily think going totally digital was a viable option for me. I still don’t.

I like paper.

It’s portable and doesn’t require electricity for operation. I can write just about anywhere with a notebook and a pen.

High quality paper, as any Medievalist will tell you, is durable and if stored properly, makes a decent archive media.

High quality paper and printing are sometimes easier for me to read than the screen; it depends a lot on the typesetting, the local light conditions and how heavy the thing is I’m reading.

But much as I enthuse about paper, I don’t want to have to keep filing bills and receipts. For one thing, it’s time consuming, it takes up physical space we really don’t have, and it’s hard on my hands.

We already receive as many invoices and statements as we can via email / .pdf. I’ve started scanning and OCRing the others. I’ve tried using my iPhone to photograph and OCR cash register receipts but it’s not worth the effort; they’re often just too hard to read as digital images, never mind OCR. So cash register receipts I need to retain are going into envelopes by month and date, and they’re going into a shoebox (I know, just like grandma !) after the data goes into a spreadsheet.

My goal is to create a backed-up, cloud-synced, searchable archive of digital business/tax related documents, where I scan it on receiving it (or as soon after as possible), and store the digital version as a searchable PDF.

Once I’ve wrangled the secular materials into a digital archive with redundant backups, I’ll start on a digital migration for scholarly files.

NewsIsFree

NewsIsFree may be freely used for personal and non-profit purposes, as their terms of service statement explains. The site allows you to customize your pages on their server much as you would pages on Yahoo or some other portal. After logging in, you choose the sources you wish to “subscribe” to using the built in links to the “News Center” on the right side, opting to browse the sources either by Category or by Name, or you can Search for specific topics or sites.

Select the sources you want to subscribe to by clicking the check boxes. At the top of the list is an “Add” button and a drop down menu which lets you choose an extant page (by default you have two, “New Sources” and “Random News”) or create a new page (you’ll probably want a new one).You can then name your page, and decide on the layout you want for the news items you’ve subscribed to. You can also customize the order and layout in which your pages are presented though preference settings via the My Account link at the top of the page, if you change your mind.

One of the really nifty options at Newsisfree is the support for sources in 26 languages, including languages like Danish, Persian, Arabic, Russian, and Estonian, as well as the usual Western European and Japanese you’d expect. You should opt out of any languages you don’t want to be included. My Mail lets you choose any of your customized pages to be emailed to you automatically. There’s even a My Blogs page that lets you post from NewIsFree to your own blogs, using the Blogger API; this works with Radio, Moveable Type and Blogger, among others.

News Aggregators

In his piece on news aggregators, Dave Winer defines them as:

software that periodically reads a set of news sources, in one of several XML-based formats, finds the new bits, and displays them in reverse-chronological order on a single page.

News aggregators, like Yahoo and other web portals, use RSS or other similar web services that “wrap” HTML data in a way that allows content providers like web sites and blogs to publish their html data in a “feed.”

UserLand’s Radio includes an aggregator in the application’s tool suite. Radio’s aggregator is very easy to use, and it’s geared to easily finding, reading, linking and posting commentary about the news items to your Radio-driven web log. The way the aggregator fits seamlessly with the blogging tools makes Radio extremely powerful, for all failures in terms of ease of use.

There are other news aggregators out there. I’ve looked at some of the ones available on the Mac, or that are browser based, rather than using a browser in tandem with an external application. There are some Windows aggregators reviewed here.

AmphetaDesk written in Perl by Morbus Iff, is a free open source cross-platform (Mac OS 9 and earlier, Mac OS X, Windows, Linux) customizable aggregator that fetches the news you’ve indicated you want and presents the individual items in a web page. It’s very simple to set up on Mac OS X, and the number of sources or “channels” you can subscribe to is enormous. There’s a nifty Cocoa-based outline “skin” for AmphetaDesk from l. m. orchard.

Brent Simmons has written a nifty Cocoa application, MacNewsWire, that aggregates the Mac news sources from his Macintosh News aggregator web page. I don’t think he could make it any simpler to use than it is. It’s got one of the most OS-Xish, intelligent, logical interfaces I’ve ever seen. It “just works.”

PostalCode offers Pineapple. Pineapple, currently at version 0.3.1, is a shareware ($14.95 now, $20.00 upon release) beta application for Mac OS X. Pineapple fetches the headlines from web sites that syndicate their content using rss, sorts out the articles you haven’t read and presents them to you in an easy-to-browse format in your web browser. It’s a little tedious to set up, relying as it does on dragging-and-dropping included XML files for the sites you wish to “subscribe” to onto a window in Pineapple, but it’s not difficult, and it allows you to have multiple “sets” of subscriptions. It includes clever features like “feed packs” and a scratch pad that make it very useful for people who read and then write about what they’ve read. Granted, Pineapple is a “work in progress,” but it strikes me as both useful and worth following closely.

NewsIsFree is web-based, so all you need is a browser. If you’re not a commercial user or site, you can create a free account that will let you browse headlines from thousands of sources in many different languages, search for the latest news, create custom pages with your own choice of news sources, arrange them in boxes or scroll lists, send headlines to others by email, or post headlines to your weblog or read them in your news aggregator (Radio and AmphetaDesk are both supported, as is Blogger) via syndication. Similar commercial services are offered by NewsKnowledge. Unfortunately, there isn’t much built in help, though the FAQ is a helpful start. At the same time, I suspect that this is largely a labor of love, and it’s worth keeping in mind that it is a free service. There’s a lot of potential for NewsIsFree, so I want to devote a later entry and more time to it.

Moreover.com is another web-based aggregator, also free for non-profit, personal, higher educational institutional use, as their terms of service stipulate. If you belong in their not-for-profit category, you can create a free “feed” here. Moreover works slightly differently in that you use their on-site “wizard” to select your sources either via a keyword search or by using their categories, then you select a template for display (the template is customizable), then Moreover sends you code you add to your site. When you incorporate the code then send you (you can also copy it from a web page) a script runs that fetches data from Moreover’s database, and sticks it in your web page using the template you selected. You’ll have to go through the Wizard again if you lose the email, so be sure to keep it. There’s a web developer’s help page for Moreover here,that explains how to customize the code they send, and how to incorporate more than one “Category” into your “feed.” Another Help page offers assistance for those using WYSIWYG editors. You can see the Moreover page I created using Archaeology as the keyword for my category and the plainest template here.

Commenting Code

There’s an interesting thread on SlashDot about when and how to comment code.

Lots of programmers seem to think that comments are a waste of time, but when I interview a programmer I always ask about how and when the programmer comments. I’ve been known to ask a programmer to walk through commented code, explaining what it does. If you really know what you’re doing, and your code, you should be able to explain it to someone who knows the basic concepts of programming and understands the task at hand.

I think comments are important, not only for future maintainers, but as a help to the coder who writes them. You will forget what you meant a particularly brilliant bit of code to do when you come back to it six months later, or even the next morning after an all nighter. Comments will help you remember. Make them descriptive, and specific, and you’ll find that thinking about what the code does will often help you stream line as you discover flaws in your “narrative strategy.”

Yeah, I know, code doesn’t have a narrative strategy, but are you sure? Think about it. There’s an order in which steps must happen, a process, with a defined beginning, middle and end. Use comments to gloss the process. User short descriptive variable names, not, please, Polish variable names, as one programmer I worked with did, unless of course, you’re coding in Poland. I’m not a programmer, but I’ve looked at a lot of code, and worked in a few scripting languages. I usually write some comments first, outlining the basic parts of the routine, to help me organize my thoughts. I learned that from the person who taught me to use my first scripting language, and it does help.