May 2008 Archives



Troy Kitch, from View From the Dock, has started a very interesting series of posts comparing some Personal Information Managers (PIM). As I'm committing more and more of my data to the digital world, this is a subject that is dear to my heart. Troy has planned to study Yojimbo, DevonThink, Together, EagleFiler, and VoodooPad. This is a very fine list. In fact, I'm currently using two of these (EagleFiler and VoodooPad), and I've used Yojimbo and KIT (the predecessor of Together) in the past. There is however a tiny thing that has been bugging me in this list, and after thinking quite a bit about it I've finally decided to write this post. What bothers me is that I don't think VoodooPad should be there.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I love VoodooPad, I think it's a great application and I use it every day. It's just that I believe it's not the same kind of application than the other four. In other words, I don't think one should choose between VoodooPad and EagleFiler and may very well use both.

After thinking about it, I've realized that the problem may be that the name Personal Information Managers is not precise enough, and that it covers different approaches. My goal here is to propose a criterion one could use to distinguish things further.

Broadly, I see two main kinds of PIM applications: those that help you organize existing data, and those that let you create new data. I put VoodooPad in the second category, and the other four in the first.

Organizers are all about taking existing documents, and adding some information about them to link them together. This can be as simple as storing the documents in different folders, and as complex as adding tags, notes or labels to the documents. An organizer should also provide ways to use this metadata, typically by letting one search for it or by building smart collections, i.e. saved searches that update live. One of the simplest organizer I know of on OS X is simply the Finder: it provides hierarchical folders, labels, spotlight comments (where one can store tags or notes), and even arbitrarily extensible metadata. It also has a fairly complete search feature, through SpotLight, and saved searches. The main problem of the Finder is that this power is very raw and not made easily available to the user. Several applications have been developed to fix this, from simple tagging and searching application to full-fledged organizers, such as the ones Troy is looking at.

Creators, on the other hand, help one organize data that is being created. There is still the organization angle, but it does not apply principally to documents. I'll take three examples of creators that I actually use, going from the one using the most constrained structure to the least: OmniOutliner, VoodooPad, and Curio.

OmniOutliner is an outliner, that is an application that let you create lists containing sublists containing subsublists... Outliners typically provide additional features, such as ways to fold lists to only see their first element, additional columns containing extra information, and sometimes ways to embed or link to documents. Outliners can be great to structure notes, when the result must be something that has the shape of a list, and when one may have to move big list chunks from one place to another.

VoodooPad is a much more flexible creator, as it takes the form of a personal wiki. Here, the user creates pages containing text. Each page has a name, such as GiftsToBuy, and as soon as one types the name of an existing page, a link to this page is automatically created. A pad, a bunch of such linked pages, thus forms a web of text. I use VoodooPad a lot, as it's freeform enough to let me enter text without thinking about structure, yet I can easily create links to organize all this text. The first page of my main pad is in fact a list of links to the pages I access the most often, and where I store information about games I've played, recipes, tips for using tools (typically subversion but more recently git), and random bits of informations I still need to sort. What I really like about VoodooPad is how it's always in flux: as I enter and look at data there, I arrange it a little bit better, but it never has to be finished. And its good searching capabilities make sure that I always find what I need. VoodooPad also lets one create richer pages by embedding images and documents in the flow of the text.

Curio, finally, is the most flexible creator. A new Curio document is just a blank canvas, like a white board, where you just drop stuff. It's not even constrained as text, it's really a free two-dimensional area. One can add lists, mind maps, documents, images, text, drawings... I use when I'm researching a subject, such as a long blog post or an article: I drop ideas, web links or images of related information, and create (and very often draw) links between the different parts. I then rearrange them, as I would rearrange a bunch of index cards on my desk, to uncover some relation or highlight them. When I'm done with this phase I often move to a more structured or specialized creator, such as OmniOutliner, LaTeX, or KeyNote (if I'm doing a presentation), and I archive away the Curio document.

You may have noticed that all these creators are fairly generic: they may offer some constraints in the way data is entered or managed, but the data could be about and for anything. Specific creators, such as MarsEdit to create and manage blog posts, or Scrivener to write long texts, do not fall in the generic “Personal Information Manager” category. They are very useful tools, and I use some of them, but for me they belong to the same category than KeyNote: I start using them when the research has much progressed.

The difference between organizers and creators is of course not so clear cut, and most of them provide features from the other category. Most organizers let you create notes, which are typically simple RTF files, from within the application. Organizers may also extend the notion of documents, like Yojimbo with its storage of serial numbers, or EagleFiler with its mail archival feature. Symmetrically, most creators let you attach or link to files, thus letting you organize them. But even though their feature sets intersect, I find them complementary. To prepare for a course I've recently given, I've used Curio to brainstorm what I would be talking about, linking to web pages, dumping pictures, makings lists and mind maps. But I've stored the Curio document, along with many slides I was given and some web archives I wanted to use in a folder in EagleFiler. My final slides were also stored there, and I may not have used the Finder at all to navigate this data. The great thing is that if I ever need it again, it's all tagged and labeled, ready to be found.

To summarize, I'd say that creators let you manipulate data, whereas organizers let you manipulate metadata. And VoodooPad is mostly a creator, not an organizer. But a real good one, for sure!

One of the things I do is maintaining the web site of Notre Dame de Clignancourt, a church in Paris. I'm not going to give the link to the site because its design has not changed since I've started it, back in December 1999, and it's ugly hand-coded html (I did not know CSS existed at the time). But it does the work.

My work flow for this site is fairly simple: every week, I receive the newsletter from the church, which I then basically convert to html and put online. And every year I update the information about the different services that the church offer. I've never really bothered about keeping an history of the site as it corresponds to the newsletter, which I archive. And I was also thinking that since I'm now using Time Machine, it would keep the history of my local version of the site in the future.

But for some reason, maybe the warning that my Time Machine disk was getting full and old backups would be erased, this has started to bother me. So I've looked at what I could do to keep an history of the site, starting from now. I realized that this could also be a good occasion to learn git. (Why git and not subversion? As you'll see next, there was no copying to do, just a couple commands to run.) As I could not find any tutorial explaining how to do this (blame my lame google fu) and had to resort to git's manual, here is a quick post on how to do this.

First, get git. There are installers of recent versions for Leopard. I did not use their script for adding the paths, I simply created a file in /etc/paths.d and /etc/manpaths.d with the correct paths. (See man 8 path_helper on Leopard for more information.)

Second, initiate and populate the repository. I simply followed the manual, and did a

$ cd project
$ git init
$ git add .
$ git commit

Third, remove any unwanted files. (There may be a clean way to do this in step two, but I did not think about it. Maybe creating the .gitignore file before the initial add would help.) I simply did a git rm thefile for each file, and added a .gitignore file specifying the files to ignore later on.

Then any time you change files, simply tell git that you want to commit the changes: git add file_changed followed by git commit. See the relevant section of the manual for more information about this.

And this is it. Pretty simple, isn't it? The price: the size of the project has about doubled. But now I have history, without relying on Time Machine!

Using a delay debit card with MoneyWell is fairly simple. The bit I found a little tricky is setting things up.

First, what is a delay debit card? Is is a payment card whose balance is automatically debited on some other account, the "main account", at a specific interval, typically every month. If this card has its own statements, you don't want to enter the transactions paid with it directly on the main account as it will make reconciling problematic: these transactions won't appear in the main account statement (there will just be a global monthly payment for the card), and cherry-picking these transactions when reconciling the card statement is not fun at all. And I can attest for this: this is how I used to do it with my previous finance manager.

Using MoneyWell, the simplest way to proceed is to create a new account (of type Credit Card) in which transactions paid with the card will be entered. Relevant expense buckets are also assigned when entering these transaction. At any moment, the due balance that will be paid at the end of the month is simply the current negative balance of this account. To reflect the automatic payment when it occurs, simply enter a transfer from the main account to the card account without giving it any bucket. This way, both the main account and the card account exactly reflect the statements.

The part I found tricky when setting this up was when dealing with the initial balances and buckets. I did not want to wait until my card payment occurred to start using MoneyWell, and I did not want to enter past transactions: I only wanted to get started immediately with the current balance. The simplest solution I've found (and it may be so simple it does not warrant a post) is just to do what I've just said: start with the current balance.

To be more precise, when creating your main account, enter its current balance, even if there are pending transactions on the card. Assign this balance to one of your income buckets, as it is money you have ready to allocate for spending. At this point you may say: "But I've already spent some of it with my card!" And you would be right, we're going to take care of this next.

The second step is to create and set up an account for the card. The creation part is straightforward: click on the gear button MoneyWell-Gears.png at the bottom of the window and choose "New Account". (You can also directly type ^⌘N.) A sheet will then appear, where you can enter the name of the card, change the account type to "Credit Card", and enter a negative initial balance corresponding to the current amount you have already charged on the card. You then need to assign a bucket to the (negative) starting balance, by selecting the starting balance transaction it in the Credit Card account and changing the bucket in the right panel. Simply choose the same income bucket as before: this way, you make sure this is money already spent that you won't be able to allocate anymore. All your accounts are ready, you're all set to go!

MoneyWell-New-Account-1.png MoneyWell-New-Card-1.png

This post is part of a series of tips on MoneyWell. The previous posts included an overview of why I chose MoneyWell and suggestions on how to track spendings in MoneyWell. For the list of all posts, explore the MoneyWell category.

I often read horrid tales of customer support, with broken products, refusal to repair products under warranty, and so on. But I have here a happy tale to tell, where I went from good surprise to better.

It all started a little less than 2 years ago, in August 2006. I was going to Philadelphia for a work week, and I decided to do a little shopping there. Among this shopping were what would become the earphones of my dreams: a pair of Shure E2c-n.

I am not going to review them here, I'll just quickly highlight why they work so well for me. I use earphones quite a lot, about one hour each day, and often in noisy environments. For instance, I currently take the bus or the train to go to work, and then I have a 15 minutes walk when I get there. During these trips and in general, I listen almost exclusively to spoken word, typically podcasts, and most of it in foreign language (English or Italian, trying to learn it as concerns the latter). So I want a comfortable listening experience, and I want to avoid cranking the volume up to protect my hearing. Sound isolating earphones seemed the way to go. Shure is a well-known brand, and its product are know to be of very high quality. Their earphones are pricey: I paid $80 for this entry level model, and I got a pretty good deal, but they are definitely worth it. So yes, for me, Shure sound isolating earphones are the way to go.

Most customer support stories start with a problem, and mine does not default. Back in January 2008, when I was in San Francisco (California), I noticed that the wire of one earphone was starting to break, fairly close to the earphone itself. The break was occurring at the point where the wire is most stressed, at the top of the curve behind the ear. As I could start seeing the metallic wire inside, I quickly fixed it with a piece of tape and started to worry. A couple weeks later, in Etretat (Normandie) this time, the wire of the other earphone also started to break, at the same spot. I fixed it the same way and started to think hard as to what to do. As I was planning on visiting the USA in June this year, I thought I could buy a replacement pair. But first I would contact Shure to make sure they were aware of the problem and had fixed it in recent versions. I dutifully wrote this down in my OmniFocus GTD document, and forgot about it until mid-march, still using patched earphones.

It was in March that I realized I should start moving, not knowing how long it would take to get an answer from Shure. So I went to their website, and started to search if they talked about wires breaking. And lo and behold, they do! I did not learn whether the problem was addressed in recent versions, but that it is under warranty, the 2 years long warranty. Suddenly I was not shopping for new earphones, I was trying to find a way to apply a warranty.

Now I was far from out of the woods: I had bought the E2c in the USA, my receipt is stored with our stuff back in France, where I was not planned to return from Italy before September. So here I was, with potentially broken yet under warranty earphones, but without a receipt beyond an confirmation email.

Nevertheless, I contacted Shure, asking them about the procedure. They answered fairly quickly, and forwarded my support request to Sisme, an Italian company that does their support here. Sisme emailed me the necessary documentation to fill, where I would state what the problem was, to mail them along with the earphones... and the (missing) receipt.

Here Christelle got a great idea. She suggested that I contact directly the company where I bought the earphones, Electronics Expo, to ask for a copy of the receipt. And it worked! I had to ask a friend in the USA to forward the fax to me (they could not fax abroad) but that was the only tiny wrinkle.

I then mailed everything to Sisme, who patiently answered my emails, telling me that yes they had received the package, then that yes it was under warranty and would be replaced. Two weeks after sending it, a package arrived, with a brand new pairs of Shure SE110. I've been using them for the last couple weeks, and I find they are even nicer than the E2c (for instance when running).

This is the happy end of my tale, that went much butter than I thought it could. I now realize that the steep price of the earphones did not only buy me good quality, but also good service. I thank Shure, Electronics Expo, and Sisme for their great help and support. Great job!

Oh, and about the problem with the wires? Two reasons lead me to believe the problem will not occur again. First, the wire is much more flexible, mainly because it is thinner, so it should stand better the curvature when the earphone is worn with the wire behind the ear. Second, another potential cause of the wear may have been the carrying box itself, which includes inside a cylinder with a gap to let the earphones sit in the middle. The location of the wire that broke seems to be fairly close to where the wire was going through this gap, and the problem may be related. The new carrying box is a simple soft pouch, that comfortably holds the earphones and the accessories. In any case, I'll let you know if I have to change them before 2 years go by!

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from May 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

April 2008 is the previous archive.

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