In praise of the clipboard manager

A clipboard manager is an insanely useful bit of productivity kit. It’s one of those things that you may not know even exists, but once you start using it, you can never go back.

A quick reminder: the clipboard is the bit of memory on your computer (or phone, tablet, fridge etc) where the content you have just copied or cut from the screen is store, so that you can paste it elsewhere.

One of the drawbacks of the clapboard is that it can only store one bit of content at a time – it overwrites itself every time you cut or copy something new.

However, with a clipboard manager, your history of cut and copied content is available to you whenever you want it – so you’re no longer limited to that one clipping!

Here’s an example of when this is handy. Say you’re copying lots of bits of text from one document to another. Normally, you’d copy a chunk, flip to the other document and paste it in; then back to the original, copy, flip, paste, and back again.

With a clipboard manager in place, you just copy all the different chunks in the original, then flip to the destination document and paste them all in.

It’s so easy! You’ll wonder how you ever coped without it.

I use Alfred on my Mac to manage my clipboard (it does a load of other neat stuff too). If you’re on Windows, Ditto seems like a good option.

The brute force of money

David Weinberger on the purchase of Mendeley by Elsevier:

I seriously have no interest in judging the Mendeley folks. I still like them, and who am I to judge? If someone offered me $45M (the minimum estimate that I’ve seen) for a company I built from nothing, and especially if the acquiring company assured me that it would preserve the values of that company, I might well take the money. My judgment is actually on myself. My faith in the ability of well-intentioned private companies to withstand the brute force of money has been shaken. After all this time, I was foolish to have believed otherwise.

It’s best not to rely too much on any vendor of any service – you never know what might happen. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them, but have a backup plan and keep a hold of your data.

Outliners are cool!

Do you use an outliner? Have you even heard of them?

An outline is a load of text, organised into a hierarchy. It looks like a bulleted list, with content at various levels, but proper ones do a bit more than that.

You can use Microsoft Word to make an outline, but dedicated tools are usually better. I use OmniOutliner on my Mac, although there are many others for every platform.

A proper outlining tool lets you open and close levels of the hierarchy to make it easy to navigate around it, format different parts of the outline, add extra columns for additional content and annotations.

OmniOutliner also lets me embed links to other documents in my outline, so if I want to expand on outline items in much more detail, I can do in a seperate text file, and just link to it in the outline.

Undoubtably the king of outliners is Dave Winer, who is also famous for being a pioneer of blogging, and RSS too. In fact, he has managed to combine all three, so he blogs within an outlining tool – which of course generates an RSS feed. Neato!

Winer has just released a new outliner, which you can use for free in the browser – it’s called Little Outliner. Give it a try!

I find an outliner most useful for:

  • planning presentations
  • designing a strcture for website content and navigation
  • planning acitivities in a project
  • making notes
  • planning reports and other long form bits of writing
  • organising a huge bunch of apparently random thoughts into something a bit less random

Outliners are another example of the excellence of open standards on computers. So I can export my outline in a file format called OPML, and then import it into other applications – such as a mind mapping tool for instance, to get a more visual overview of what I’ve been writing.

Outliners are a bit like spreadsheets to my mind – a simple tool to make much, much easier on a computer an activity that when using pen and paper would be difficult and annoying.

Do you use an outliner, ever? If not, might you be tempted now?

Tools for writing

I use a ridiculous number of apps for writing stuff down digitally. It all depends on the context!

Rough notes, ideas and that sort of thing tend to be stored in Evernote. It’s easy, and ubiquitous and everything gets kept in one place.

Blog posts are written in MarsEdit, an offline editor. My local drafts folder is full of half-written, half-baked posts which occasionally get resurrected later on.

Any coding I have to do usually happens in BBEdit, or occasionally something like Nano in a terminal window.

Proposals and other documents which I’m the only person likely to ever edit are done in Pages, and then exported to PDF for distribution. I just like the way Pages works in terms of laying things out and so on.

Documents and reports that I need to share in an editable format with colleagues or customers have to be written in Word. Since upgrading to the 2011 version on the Mac I have found myself getting angry much less!

Longer documents, such as various guides and handbooks I am working on tend to be planned using an outliner tool. My favourite at the moment is OmniOutliner.

I sometimes use a mind mapping tool to plan a document though, which is a bit more visual. My favourite mind mapping app is MindNode.

(As well as for documents, an outliner or mind mapper is really useful for planning presentations.)

For the actual writing of bigger documents, I use Scrivener. This lets you break down the document into smaller bits, which can then be dragged around and re-ordered. Scrivener then sticks it all together into one document for you when you’re ready to publish. It’s great!

Whether using OmniOutliner or MindNode, I can import my outlines into Scrivener by exporting them to an OPML file, which then loads into Scrivener, giving me all the headings under which I need to bash text.

One type of editor that I don’t find myself using are the stripped down, distraction free apps like Writeroom or Byword.

What apps do you use for writing?

The victory of the app store?

I just downloaded the latest update to Apple’s computer operating system, Mac OSX, which brings with it an app store, like the sort on your mobile phone, or iPad.

It means that I can browse for, pay for (if necessary) and download software for my computer without having to search the web for it, then do another search for reviews to make sure it’s any good, etc.

There are clear advantages for the consumer – but also for the smaller developers of apps who can now get a shop window on people’s desktops.

As Adrian Short noted on Twitter, there are cost savings to using the app store as compared to, say, buying software on Amazon:

I note that the next version of Windows, 8, will also feature an app store.

This is addition to the web browser based app store that Google have released for Chrome, which I blogged about last year.

App stores aren’t new, and originated on the desktop with the software repositories on Linux systems. But it certainly seems to be a concept that is now reaching the mainstream.

There are different models for app stores, with a principle difference being how open they are. Apple, for example, curate theirs with a iron fist, only allowing apps through which meet their stringent criteria for quality and usability.

The Android store, on the other hand, is an apparently lawless place, with many apps of dubious provenance and quality.

A further interesting development is the Amazon app store for Android – a third party creating its own app store for someone else’s platform!

It will be interesting to see what wins – sheer number of available apps, or better curation through central control? I suspect the latter as user experience ought to be key.

What about public services?

Should there be an app store for government? There are two potential scenarios here.

Firstly an app store for public sector workers to use to get applications onto their work computers (or perhaps just their web browsers in the Chrome model). A trusted source of apps to give people greater flexibility in terms of what they can use on their computers.

The advantages of this are considerable. No more pleading of the IT department to let you install Tweetdeck. No more finding that Evernote is blocked. Not sure how likely it is, though.

The second model would be to provide a store for apps for non government people to use to interact with public services.

There would be a number of things that needed to be worked out here, including ensuring apps were available on a range of platforms and devices.

Also, who would run it? I recall David Wilcox’s ideas for a social app store as being a centrally-located but not controlled place where civically minded digital bits and bobs could be used by others to make their place a bit better.

I still like this idea a lot – decentralised, government able to take part and contribute but not own, useful and hopefully not requiring vast amounts of money to build and run.

I’d certainly be interested in others’ views on where an app store might fit into public services, what it would look like and how it could work.

Update: Just come across this interesting post from Stephen O’Grady which is well worth a read: Who’s Going to Build the App Store for the Enterprise?

Update 2: How could I forget? The Knowledge Hub will have an app store in it.

Back up your Flickr photos!

Following the announcement that Yahoo! don’t care too much for Delicious anymore, I’ve been worrying away about Flickr. I know a few others have been too.

Phil Bradley points out that a great tool exists for backing up all your Flickr photos, so if Yahoo! decides to flickr the switch to off, you still have all those memories.

It’s called Flickredit and is an open source effort, and well worth trying out.

While you’re at it, think about the content you have on other services and have a look for ways of backing it all up, just in case.

My setup

One of my favourite bits of technology porn is Shawn Blanc’s series on sweet Mac setups. It basically just gives dorks like me an opportunity to drool over other people’s kit.

But there’s another purpose to this, which is that it makes you think about the technology you use, and how it might be improved, in terms of fitting it in around the way you work.

Here’s my setup.

At home:

24″ iMac with another 24″ monitor (a Samsung SyncMaster P2450) on dual screen. Wired Apple keyboard and a Magic Mouse.

This is the beast which sits on my desk in my office at home and is where I spend most of the working day, when I am not on the road. It’s super fast and has plenty of storage (1TB hard drive) so it’s where all the electronic media the family owns lies – ie music, photos, video etc.

Having two screens is great productivity wise, though I do find myself wasting it at times, by having just Twitter on the second screen, for example. I often find myself wishing I had three screens, which is absurd.

Even just having the one big screen is a massive bonus though, just being able to easily have two documents open next to each other to work from is a revelation – especially compared to what I had to work with when I worked in government.

I also have a Kodak ESP 9 all-in-one printer and scanner thing, but I hate it like I do all printers. Frankly it only really gets used for printing boarding passes these days.

On the move:

My portable machine is a MacBook Air, with 2gb RAM and 120gb solid state storage. It’s isn’t particularly quick or grunty but is spectacularly light and small. I try to keep the number of applications and files stored on it to a minimum, and the Air does tend to slow down quite badly at times – especially when playing video for example.

As a travelling machine, though, it’s fabulous. Previously I had a 15″ MacBook Pro which could handle pretty much anything thrown at it, but was just too big and heavy to lug around all the time (maybe I’m just lazy).

The solid state drive is awesome too. No moving parts like a traditional hard drive, it’s quick and silent – and robust too. I should think every laptop I buy from now on will have this.

Other stuff:

Phone is currently a Nexus One, as described here. I also have a Dell laptop running Windows 7 and a desktop PC which dual-boots into either Windows 7 or whatever the latest version of Ubuntu is – this machine rarely gets turned on though.

Backup:

I backup both the iMac and Air using Time Machine on a 1TB Apple Time Capsule, which also acts as a wireless router at home. I’m not actually convinced this is working terribly well, however, but am too scared to fiddle with it in case it breaks completely.

I also backup the iMac to the cloud, using Carbonite, and of course important stuff sits on Dropbox too.

Software:

Here’s a list of the bits I am using most often at the moment.

  • iWork – Pages is a lovely word processor and Keynote a delightful way of throwing presentations together. I don’t do spreadsheets.
  • Chrome – My browser of choice since it became stable on the Mac – so much quicker than Firefox.
  • Evernote – I’ve written about this enough, I think.
  • Dropbox – a vital tool for anyone who regularly uses more than one machine, it’s also an awesome tool for sharing large files with anyone
  • Parallels – great bit of software for running virtual machines on a Mac. I use it rarely, mostly for running Windows XP for testing stuff in IE6
  • MarsEdit – A blog post editor that lets you compose posts offline before publishing them online. Nice keyboard shortcuts makes editing in source code view quick and easy.
  • NetNewsWire – I flip flop between this and Google Reader all the time. NNW is currently winning because of the lovely user interface.
  • iTunes – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my music and podcasts sit
  • iPhoto – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my photos sit
  • Transmit – an FTP client that works just fine
  • Pixelmator – I have Photoshop (Express) but find this cheaper alternative does what I want it to and quicker, too
  • TextWrangler – serves all my text editing needs. Would love to have an excuse to buy TextMate, but haven’t found it yet
  • Skype – invaluable for keeping in touch with colleagues, and I use it for most of my landline calling too, nowadays.
  • Skitch – screengrabs made easy
  • Screenflow – screencasting tool. Need to use this more often.
  • MindNodePro – mindmapping, simple and easy.
  • Tweetie – prefer this to the Adobe Air based apps.
  • Safari – find myself needing another browser open a fair bit, usually just to be able to use two Google accounts at once
  • MS Office – I do my best not to. But sadly, so many other people do that it’s almost imposible to avoid it entirely. Word in particular on a Mac is a total dog.

If I could have my time again…

Whilst this setup works pretty well, in terms of having processing grunt on the desktop and lightness on the move, it isn’t perfect.

The main problem is keeping software and files up to date across the two machines. Tools like Evernote and Dropbox help massively with this – in fact I think I probably would have gone mad by now if I didn’t have them.

For instance, having to buy two copies of every bit of software I use is a pain and an expense I could do without. Likewise, knowing there are some files on another machine – and not saved to Dropbox – that I need can be a real pain if I can’t access them.

So what would I do if I had some money to recreate my office IT? I think I would go for a one machine solution. Probably a high spec 13″ MacBook Pro which is still fairly small and relatively light, but which packs a bigger punch than the Air.

When at home, I would plug it into my Samsung screen and use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse thus giving me the solidity of a desktop type experience. I’d probably get some sort of stand or riser for the MacBook so I could use it as a secondary screen without breaking my neck.

What’s your setup (Mac or otherwise!)? How would you improve it?

Using a PC

I’ve had a pretty settled tech line-up for a while, which works really well for me. Essentially – 24” iMac on the desktop, MacBook Air for the portable and an iPhone for the really portable.

The iMac is fine for the grunt work, sitting at the desk ploughing through pretty much anything – with 4gb RAM and a 3.06ghz Core 2 Duo crunching through video doesn’t present too many problems (though I am at times tempted to up the RAM to the full 8gb).

The Air is not a performance machine, but it handles the web ok as well as basic stuff like Word, and is light enough to lug about and use on trains etc without too much bother. The battery life on it is disappointing, I only get between 2.5 and 3 hours out of a full charge. It’s limited to 2gb RAM, which isn’t that much these days, and things can slow down when you have a lot going on – Flash content can be a problem.

Some stuff you need Windows for, so on the iMac I have a virtual Windows XP machine, which I tend to use for testing stuff in Internet Explorer 6 and the odd bit of Office work which, for whatever reason, Office on the Mac can’t handle (sometimes it does very odd things with formatting).

This setup has done me proud, and with the brilliant Dropbox providing the glue that keeps all these machines stuck together, it’s been easy to work on stuff whichever device I’m using.

Sadly though, my Air has had to go into the Apple shop for repairs – the iSight webcam stopped working, and that means the whole screen-half of the machine needs replacing, and it will be gone for a week at least.

This left me laptopless, which given that I am out of my office a few days a week, would cause some major productivity problems. Luckily team Learning Pool came to the rescue and kitted me out with a new laptop.

It has Windows on it.

To be precise, Windows 7 running on a Dell Vostro v13. It’s a lightweight portable laptop, a step above a netbook, but no workhorse machine. My model has 2gb RAM and a 1.3ghz Celeron processor – plenty for web browsing, emailing and Office stuff, but not a machine you’d want to do any video editing on, for example. Also, if you have too many apps open at once things do slow down quite  bit. In other words, it’s a bit like the Air.

Like the Air, it’s also a lovely looking thing, thin and light and perfect to carry around a lot. I’m finding Windows 7 a real improvement on Vista, but it still takes too long to boot up, shut down and wake up after going to sleep.

The battery life on the Vostro is as awful as it is on the Air, if perhaps a little worse. 2.5 hours seems to be the best it can do. Carrying a power lead will be necessary.

Most of what this review on Engadget says is about right, I think. What I have found I miss most from the Air – apart from all my favourite apps (see below) – is the trackpad. Using multitouch has just become second nature to me, and as I tend to do a lot of scrolling – in Google Reader, for example, or on general web browsing – having to constantly switch between trackpad and cursor keys is incredibly annoying and counter-intuitive.

In terms of software, the Learning Pool guys installed Office for me, and Skype, which is handy to have. Of course, with the Windows version of Office I get Outlook and I’m giving it a go (we use Google to handle our email and calendar at Learning Pool, and it seems to play pretty nicely with Outlook. On the Mac, I stick to the web interfaces). It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.

Bits of software I have added include my favourite RSS aggregator, FeedDemon which is superb, especially with the Google Reader synchronisation. NetNewsWire, the Mac equivalent, has nowhere near the richness of features sported by FeedDemon.

I installed Dropbox, so all the files I have shared using my other machines are now available on this one too.

I found that Live Writer was preinstalled, which is cool as it is a neat offline blog editor (I’m using it to write this post) and probably better than any of the Mac options.

I need an FTP client, and for that I downloaded FileZilla, a free open source cross-platform application that seems to work nicely enough, but doesn’t have the great usability of Transmit, which I use on the Mac. Any suggestions for a better app are welcome.

I’m using Notepad++ at the moment as a text editor, which is useful enough but I am yet to find a genuine equivalent to the likes of TextMate or BBedit on the Mac. If anyone has a recommendation, do let me know.

For Twitter, I installed the native Windows app by Seesmic, so as to avoid having to install Adobe Air, which can be a bit resource intensive on these less well-powered machines. I didn’t like it though, so also installed Air and Tweetdeck. Paint.net is a good little free image editor, and I downloaded Chrome for a browser – I couldn’t contemplate using IE, and I find Firefox is a bit slow and bloated these days.

Windows 7 comes with something called the ‘Snipping Tool’ which may replace Skitch on the Mac – if not then there is always the likes of SnagIt. The way Windows handles archive files like .zip seems really slow, and doesn’t match the speed that OSX seems to handle these things. I suppose something like WinZip would solve this.

Generally I would say Windows 7 is pretty good, probably the best version I’ve ever used, but it doesn’t come close to the ease of use of OSX. The system is often a bit sluggish to react and sometimes it isn’t terribly obvious to know what to do to accomplish certain tasks.

Organising yourself with Evernote

EvernoteEvernote is a nice little app that I have mentioned a couple of times before. It’s a note taking and organising tool, which exists in three main forms: a website, a desktop application for your computer, and an iPhone app.

This approach is becoming increasingly important for any service I use on a regular basis. It needs to be present in a usable form wherever I am and be accessible offline as well as off. It’s one of the reasons that Dropbox has become so invaluable too.

Evernote let you create pages on notes, using text, images, video or audio and to embed documents and even web pages as well. Notes can be collected into notebooks, enabling you to bundle things on similar topics together, and notebooks can even be published publicly, turning Evernote into a simple CMS.

For example, my default notebook, where note are stored if I don’t specificy another one, is simple ‘Stuff to sort’ and notes don’t stay in there for long. I have a notebook for blog posts ideas, one for  reports and documents to read, and another for project ideas.

I’ve recently started using it in another way – which I wouldn’t have really thought of before I found myself doing it! When I am at events, I pick up loads of business cards from people. Before, I would take them home in a big pile, then after a while I would go through them, trying to figure out who people are etc. Now, I photograph them on my iphone as soon as I get them, and send them into Evernote. I can then add notes to them, such as who they are, what they are interested in, where I met them etc all in one place. These all get synced up to a ‘business cards’ notebook so I can find them easily and it acts as a simple CRM.

I’m not the only fan of Evernote at Learning Pool – my good friend John Roughley uses it regularly too – here’s his take:

John RoughleyI found Evernote by chance when looking for a way to collect and organize the sheer amount of technical information I come across on a daily basis. I needed an easy way to collect text, images, and web pages. I looked at various options but found that Evernote offered the flexibility I needed. For me, one of the big advantages was the ability to tag information, making it easy to search for.

So what do I collect? In a word everything! Well, everything that is of use to me in my job at Learning Pool.  This mainly consists of information from moodle.org, capturing text, sometimes long pieces or short posts on the forum. Anything that I think might be useful, it’s much easier than bookmarking every page that might (or might not) be useful in the future.  Plus you only capture what you need. Images are easily captured with a right-click, then tagged in the same way as you would with anything else.

Gathering all this information is great, but is of no use if you can’t share it with anyone. Another cool feature is that you can share the information with anyone, by simply entering their email address. They can then view the information through a web browser.

So there you have it. Evernote is dead handy.

Do you use Evernote in an interesting way you could share? Or do you use a different app? Would be great to know about it if so!

Adventures in open source land

UbuntuI had a load of fun yesterday being a total geek and installing Ubuntu on a netbook I’ve have for a little while and which doesn’t get used an awful lot. It’s a Samsung NC10, which, as I mentioned in this post, is a nice machine for social reporting due to its small size and light weight. Since I got the Macbook Air, though, I’ve tended to use that for general laptop use and for reporting at events – leaving the NC10 sat on the shelf.

I’ve wanted a Linux based machine for a few months just to play with, really. For the uninitiated, Linux is an open source operating system – in other words a replacement for Windows, or Mac OSX. It’s the bit of software that makes all the boring stuff work behind the scenes, and provides the launchpad for the applications on your computer to do their stuff, like surfing the web, or writing documents, or editing photos.

Now, Linux comes in many different flavours. Some you have to pay for, others you don’t. There’s Fedora, or Mandriva, or Suse, or Debian, or many, many others. I chose Ubuntu as it is one of the free (as in beer) ones, and because it seems to be one of the most accessible – ie it’s easy to install and easy to use. I do think that the plethora of choices is probably something that holds people back from trying Linux though. It’s a bit like trying to choose what to drink in a coffee shop!

Even better, there’s a sub-flavour of Ubuntu known as Netbook Remix, especially designed for use on small and slow laptops like the NC10. As you can see from the image above, open source doesn’t mean you lose out on eye candy – it’s a lovely looking system, with a netbook-friendly user interface that’s dead simple to use.

Installing it wasn’t too hard in the end, though I did run into problems. This is because the NC10 lacks a CD or DVD drive, meaning I had to install via a USB stick. I downloaded the Ubuntu software as an ISO file (which you would normally burn to a CD), then had to download another bit of software, recommended by Matt Jukes, called Unetbootin. This allowed me to ‘burn’ the ISO file to a USB stick. The next job was to tell the NC10 to boot from this USB stick – rather than the internal hard drive – when I restarted the machine. This proved tricky, and only worked when I completely removed the hard drive from the priority list of devices to boot from.

After I fixed that, though, installation was pain free, and the computer attached itself quite happily to my home wireless network – which was something I feared might go wrong. Other stuff like the built in webcam and microphone worked fine too, which was great.

Once Ubuntu was installed, it was a case of finding what extra software was needed to be added. Ubuntu comes with a great range of open source software out of the box, with everything most people would need, from Firefox for web browsing, Evolution as an email client, OpenOffice.org for productivity stuff etc etc. Indeed, the whole idea of netbooks is of course that you use web based tools as much as possible, so having lots of software installed on the system is kind of missing the point.

Point missing being a stock in trade of mine, I set about adding a bunch of tools to the computer. This can either be very simple, or a bit tricky. There are two ways you can do it simply: first by using the Ubuntu software centre to add open source software to the computer. This is great – you literally just search for what you want, and then in a couple of clicks, it is installed and ready to use. Some software isn’t available from the centre, but is still easy to install, usually just by downloading and running a package from the relevant website.

The tricky bit is when the software you want to install contains propriatory elements, and so doesn’t qualify to be a part of the Ubuntu software centre. I found this with Skype, and to install this, I had to get my hands dirty by using the command line – quite a strange experience in 2010 (I know there is a terminal available in Mac OSX, but I have never found the need to use it). However, one of the strengths of the open source community is the huge amount of documentation available, and Ubuntu is no exception. The support is generally excellent, and these beginners’ problems are covered in depth.

The extra software I have installed includes:

  • Google’s Chrome browser
  • Skype for voice-over-IP calls
  • Filezilla – FTP client
  • Dropbox for online file sharing across all my computers
  • Liferea – an RSS reader which can sync with Google Reader. This seemed to struggle with my subscription list though – perhaps due to a lack of processing grunt and memory on the NC10
  • Tweetdeck – which also needed Adobe Air installing first, which was another command line pain. Like Liferea, Tweetdeck ran quite slowly on the NC10, so I gave it up for a web based client
  • The GIMP for image editing
  • Quanta Plus for HTML and PHP editing

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the results. This will have breathed a bit of new life into a machine I had little use for before, and it has been an interesting experience to find out how easy it is to use Linux based software. In many ways the operating system argument is irrelevant these days as more and more services are made available in the cloud. This is certainly the aim for Google, whose Chrome operating system will do little more than connect people to the web through a browser. But it is nice to know that you don’t need to have a high spec computer, or a load of expensive software, to have a mostly easy to use, and very nice to look at, computing experience.

Big thanks to Matt Jukes, Mark O’Neill, Harry Harrold, Tony Malloy, David Wenban, Adam McGreggor and others for their Twitter support throughout this process!