Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ubuntu Productivity Apps: Freemind

Ubuntu is a new experience for me (at least, new outside of the Mac). With previous Linux distros I was always fiddling or fixing some niggle, with Windows I still find myself either trying (usually in vain) to get something working the way I want it, or just trying to ignore the irritation. The Mac isn't particularly configurable but the defaults are good and usually what I would want anyway.

But the big difference with Ubuntu is that it works so well out of the box that I can really concentrate on getting stuff done, while still being configurable enough to be personalized.

With this in mind I am going to start talking about some of the applications I use on a regular basis that give me a real productivity boost. Many of these applications will work not just on Linux but on Windows and Mac too (making them even more powerful in my opinion). The first of these is FreeMind.

If you are not familiar with the concept of mind-mapping, the idea is to capture thoughts, structures, outlines and so on in a semantic diagram - similar in many ways to outlining but more powerful (mainly because it is less strictly structured).

I really adopted the technique when I started writing articles for a while back. I had used outlining and mind-mapping techniques a little before that, but the article writing was the real impetus behind making it part of my routine. That's when I discovered the Java application Freemind which is a completely free and open source solution for mind mapping.

The podcasting book I am currently writing was fully outlined in Freemind before I started the process of actually writing it, and it really helps keep the flow of writing going. Of course, things change during the writing process, but Freemind has some good features for re-arranging the maps easily with drag and drop, so it is not just a static item once created.

Freemind is not the only option - some related interesting applications include Conzilla which is closer to a diagramming organizational tool, and another one that I just can't remember the name of (used it for a little while then dropped it due to bugs) which was more like TheBrain from windows, but free and written in Java.

In truth though, FreeMind is the best of the options (at least for me). It is fast and easy to use and these days I don't write anything longer than a couple of pages without using it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

GTD on the go - the Treo

The beauty of using web services for GTD is that they follow you around. Other GTD systems like kinkless GTD or the tiddlywiki based options (the former being a Mac OS X omni-outliner based solution, and the latter is based on a javascript wiki which runs entirely in a browser without needing a server to be installed on) mean that you have to take them with you - in the case of kinkless, you have to carry your mac with you - in the case of the tiddlywikis you can put the wiki and a suitable browser onto a jump drive which definitely makes things a lot more portable.

However, both of them require you to be in front of a computer - you can supplement them with paper (and many people do), making hard copies of the tasks, and writing down new ones as the occur to you later.

I take a different approach. By using both gmail and google calendar, both of which have some rudimentary level of integration with my treo, the treo itself becomes my connection to my organization tools while I am away from computers.

Since gmail is also where I keep my todo list (see earlier blog entries), it is easy for me to add todo items simply by emailing them to myself using the +todo address from my treo. I can also check my current todo items, and of course my mail (there are instructions for mobile gmail here)

More interesting is the calendar interaction. Firstly, google calendar offers an SMS interface - this can ping you when an appointment is looming, but also (and not a lot of people know this) has a two way feature where you can add appointments too. The quick add rules apply, so you can use plain language to describe the appointment - like "Dinner with ralph tomorrow from 8pm to 10pm at Psychos" - just SMS this to the 48368 number (you will have to "connect" your mobile to google's services first - but if you get SMS reminders already you are there).

The final piece is neat - the web browser in the treo can render simple HTML pages (i.e. it is not limited to WAP or xHTML). It doesn't cope with really big HTML pages very well, but smallish, plain HTML ones without loads of javascript work fine.

Google calendar has a plain HTML view available of your calendar from the calendar settings screen - it's right there next to the iCal and XML icons - by using the private one, and selecting the agenda view, you can take the resulting URL and put it into your treo as a bookmark. By using the bookmark you will get a nicely formatted agenda view of the next few days of appointments.

The integration is basic, but works. I never even sync my treo any more (well, except for addresses, but I tend to keep them on the treo anyway), the google mail and calendar integration are fine for everything else, and a lot less hassle. You do have to be connected to the internet with the treo to make it work, but if I am out of range of a connection, the chances are I am not wanting to get stuff done anyway...

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book Writing - it's not the writing that takes the time

Right now I am in the middle of writing a book about podcasting. This is the first book I have written and it is interesting where the time gets sunk.

You might think, for example, that the writing takes time, and it does, but once I get into the flow of that I can actually get a lot done in a fairly short time.

No - with writing, what I find takes the time is double-checking what you are writing about. I want everything to be accurate and I certainly don't want to make any stupid mistakes, so I tend to actually do the exercises I am writing about while I am writing - so when I write up how to do a particular operation in Audacity for a podcast, I have Audacity open and running, and I try everything out. Much of the time I will take a few screen shots as well to put in the book - another thing that takes a surprising amount of time to get right (editing down the shots, making sure that the right things have focus, etc.).

The latest chapter I am working on is about setting up the podcast feed and submitting it to various directories, including the super-critical Apple iTunes podcast directory.

The problem now is that I want to get some screenshots of this, and run through the process, but in order to do that I need a feed that hasn't been submitted yet. Unfortunately (and here I think is a real limitation with the iTunes podcast directory), I cannot go back and edit the settings in my current podcast feed - it is very hard to change details or even inspect them once you have created the directory entry in the first place.

So - in the end I settled on making this blog into a fake podcast feed in iTunes, using the mp3 from the latest installment of the Java Posse (an interview with Steve Northover - the SWT guy - as it happens). I will link it up from here and hopefully that will enable me to run through the process and get some screen shots along the way. The chances are that I will pull the mp3 from here pretty soon after the exercise is complete, but if you do want more of the Java Posse content, you can of course go to the Java Posse site directly or subscribe to the feed in iTunes.

Oh, and here is the link to the latest podcast episode.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Spooky Synchronicity

So - what I learned from yesterday is that Steve Jobs reads my blog, and Apple Engineers are really, really fast :-).

OK - so just kidding, but I find the synchronicity amazing about the new "Spaces" feature in the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 - Leopard. It's virtual desktops, done right on the mac. In fact, the marketing spiel is good enough that if you didn't grok how useful virtual desktops could be from my description yesterday, I suggest you go and watch the movie - it will give you a much better idea.

Still no indication that Vista will get virtual desktops yet, but I imagine people will be asking now that the mac has them (got to keep up with the Joneses). I did find another option for windows- Virtual Dimension after a quick look around yesterday. So far it seems to work OK (don't expect miracles, but it beats the pants off not having anything).

Anyway, I am very glad to see that my observations about virtual desktops appear to be bourne out by others (notably Apple and the many Apple users happy about spaces). I also note that the default number is four - no surprises there - it has always seemed like the natural number of virtual desktops to me.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

GTD Ubuntu: It's the Simple Things

OK - back on the blogging train again, even if I have been a bit lax this week. If there's one thing you learn quickly with having too much to do, it's letting the less important things go for a while until you sort out the big things.

Although it's not very official yet, I am actually in the process of writing a book about podcasting based on my experiences with the Java Posse podcast and hopefully getting a few more people into podcasting. Of course, I am using Ubuntu to write the book (and 2 - more about that another time). Doing this kind of thing really re-inforces the reasons I love Linux for just getting things done.

When writing (I have written a few articles for as well) I use a really good thought organization tool called Freemind. It's a mind-mapping and outlining tool that helps me get stuff organized before putting it down on paper, and I am using the same approach on the book.

Having the mind-map right there to refer to at all times is, of course, essential to writing like this, and I like to have it full screen to get the overall picture. I also like to have Open Office Writer open full screen as well (full screen apps = less distractions - a tip I picked up from a lot of different Mac oriented sites).

The big advantage with Linux is that virtual desktops are normal, and as a result extremely well executed. I have tried virtual desktops on Windows and on the Mac and there always seem to be enough glitches to just make them a little annoying.

A virtual desktop is a bit like having a second (and third, and fourth...) monitor but without the physical monitor. You get more than one desktop, and you can switch between them instantly. I use four, and tend to keep the four screens for certain uses. Desktop one is my primary work desktop, in this case with Open Office writer running full screen on it. Desktop two is the support work desktop, in this case with the full screen mindmap on it. Flicking between these two screens is instant and mapped to keys that are very quick to switch between them. This is faster than alt-tab selection of windows (at least for me), it's just instant to switch back and forth.

Desktop three tends to be my email and org screen - gmail, google calendar and other organization apps are running on there pretty much all the time my computer is on. Desktop 4 is for web browsing and miscellaneous stuff. Linux will let me have as many virtual desktops as I want (I think compiz maxes out at 32 or something crazy), but any more than four and I really lose the muscle memory and it ends up slowing me down.

Anyway, this setup really works for me, and Linux just executes it better than any other Operating System I have used. I don't get held up, I just switch back and forth and keep the work rolling.

I must investigate if the virtual desktop options have got any better on the mac. The best I ever found for windows was JSPager, but it got broken by a windows update at one point and I just gave up. Windows just isn't my choice for getting a lot done - in fact after really clicking on Linux for a while, windows is just frustrating and awkward - it feels like wading through syrup. The Mac is obviously a lot better, and ahead in some areas, but for me (and I accept that it is just me), Linux still has the productivity edge. If you want to give virtual desktops a try, there are options for Mac OS X and Windows (incidentally - the "official" windows one that comes with the powertoys stuff is pretty bad but it might work for you - sadly JSPager seems to have disappeared into the mists of time).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Firefly - the best damn sci-fi in ages

I know I need to get back onto the getting things done with Ubuntu, and will as soon as I have time (ha ha, if you get that this is a GTD joke, well, you are probably a bit of a GTD geek).

Anyway, while catching the latest Chad Vader episode at lunchtime on youtube, I stumbled across this gem - it's a 5 minute teaser for the Joss Whedon's Firefly series - I won't even try and describe it because it won't do it justice - suffice to say that it is (or was) the best sci-fi series on TV - and the movie Serenity is based on it.

If you like action sci-fi, watch this and if it doesn't make you want to watch the series, I would check your pulse. I have to say this is an excellently executed teaser.

Incidentally you can buy the firefly box set for under $40 (under $20 sometimes if you shop around) for all 14 episodes, and check out the serenity movie as well.

Oh, and should watching the show make you a huge fan (it tends to do that), definitely check out "The Signal" podcast - it's all about getting a sequel baby.

Back to the regular blogging soon, I promise.