• Productivity,  Software,  Writing

    Workflow Changes

    Given the release of Yosemite for OS X and iOS 8, I’m taking the opportunity to re-examine and revise my writing workflow. I write a great deal, not only books and articles for publishers, but blog posts and email. I am an Admin for a number of large Websites. Two of the Websites include not only site Admin, but Managing Editor tasks, including answering questions from readers and general user support for contributors. Both of these Websites involves email either to individuals or to one of several private email lists. One of the Websites, Absolute Write, also has a forum. Absolute Write is a large, vibrant community for writers and supporting the community requires a fair amount of user / member  support, including writing (and answering) FAQs, emails, private email lists, local message systems, and the Absolute Write Website and blog.

    And then there are the Websites I admin for various writers, and my own Websites.

    It’s a lot of daily writing. And it’s fairly constant throughout the day (and night).

    I have some workflow tools in place:

    • I use TextExpander on all my iOS and OS X devices. Smile TextExpander is a huge labor and keystroke saver.
    • I use filters or “Rules” in Mail.app, but even so, I receive around 175 emails from individuals a day, and send about that many or more. (I’m increasingly considering an alternative to mail.app, at least on iOS, just to reduce mail-management frustrations.)
    • I use custom scripts and and droplets for many of my frequent tasks.

    Changes I’m considering:

    • I generally draft my shorter articles and blog posts in BBEdit using HTML. I’m going to look more closely at using Markdown, especially because Markdown is thriving on iOS, and BBEdit has built in support for Markdown.
    • I already use iOS a great deal for email triage (especially via my iPhone); I’d like to do more with email on iOS, especially responding to email on the iPad.
    • I’d like to try writing more of my shorter pieces on iOS. I can write longer pieces on the iPad more easily now with the Brydge + iPad keyboard.
    • I do a lot of writing in Google Docs/Google Drive, but for book-length pieces Google Docs is not optimal. I’d like to move to Apple’s Pages as my primary word processor, particularly given the newly released version of Pages with collaboration and sharing via the Web/iCloud and Pages for iOS, as well as on OS X.

    I’m sure I’ll discover more ways to improve my workflow as I continue.


    Buy me a Coffee! If you find this post or this site interesting, and would like to see more, buy me a coffee. While I may actually buy coffee, I’ll probably buy books to review.


  • Productivity,  Software

    Calendars

    I’ve been interested in online calendars in support of teaching and learning for years. In the nineties I used Excel and Claris Organizer to create sign up sheets and calendars for my students. Pretty much every LMS claims to have a calendar tool, but I’ve yet to see an LMS with a decent, usable, publishable, shareable, printable calendar. Most of them are appallingly stupid in terms of actual usability. But there’s some hope for the near future.

    I’ve been watching the Mozilla calendar project for a couple of years, and was interested enough to download Sunbird. Mozilla, like Apple’s iCal, uses the iCalendar standard. It’s increasingly clear to me that the iCalendar standard, WebDav, RSS support, and a combination of javascript, server side scripting, and XML are the most likely tools for what I want. I’ve been very intrigued by the various Ajax implementations like CalendarHub, Kiko, Trumba, and HipCal.

    As Dori points out, much as I like iCal, it’s still not simple to use; nor is it as easily shareable as most consumers would like. Sure, you can publish, export, and subscribe to calendars, but you can’t make appointments on someone else’s calendar, a basic requirement not only for families, as Dori points out, but an exceedingly useful feature for students and teachers. Just think about how much simpler managing office hours would be if students could eaily create and cancel appointments using blocks off time that the owner makes available. (Yes, I know, Outlook for Exchange sort of does this, but only sort of.)

    I’d like an LMS calendar that would let a teacher or student automatically load their class schedules, accept or reject invitations by others, based on access privileges set by the calendar owner, and export, import and publish calendar data with control over the visibility of entries—sort of the way LiveJournal privacy settings work.

    In the meantime though, there’s a nifty script here that lets you submit a .jpg image (or use one from Flickr), choose a month, and produce a .pdf calendar you can print on 8.5 x 11 paper.

  • Pedagogy,  Productivity,  Software

    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.

  • Commentary,  Productivity,  Software

    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.

  • Commentary,  Productivity,  Software,  Writing

    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.

  • Commentary,  Pedagogy,  Productivity

    More Open Source for Education

    Yes, I’m still looking. I’ve found a couple more sites that are collecting information about open source projects of interest to education. There’s an article in NewsForge about SchoolForge, but the stuff that looks viable to me is mostly at the more traditional sites like Fresh Meat, or CPAN, the mother lode of Perl modules. Which reminds me, there’s now a well organized site at perl.org, for learners.

    Software doesn’t have to be New to be Good

    Lately I’ve been talking to others in IT who are, like me, interested in solid products with good interfaces,and are taking advantage of stable but geeky standard protocols and unix tools and applications but putting a web front end on them.

    I’ve been thinking about doing this with an NNTP server. Network News Transport Protocol is what makes UseNet newsgroups work, from a server perspective. Most of the discussion board products are monolingual; UseNet News is not, and readers are designed to support pretty much any language someone would post to UseNet in. News is threaded, and there are a number of ways to integrate HTML front ends. Why not use News as a discussion bard?

    There are scads of News servers, but I keep hearing about DNews News Server, which runs on Macs, among other platforms. It’s particularly interesting since user authorization controls allow read and/or post access to be restricted for particular users or newsgroups; NetWin, the developer, also offers dBabble, chat server and webNews, a .cgi for a web front end to a news server. NewsRunner is a neat Mac application you can point to your News Server, and it will convert posts to HTML, text, digest form, email, or database and archive them. We were early adopters of Web Crossing, which supports UseNet news groups via the web or a client, email, private discussion boards with customizable templates, chat, and ssl connections.

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