TODO Lists – The Final Answer

I’ve spent years looking for a task management system that suits my way of working, but I have never found anything that I’ve really been happy with.

Over the years, I’ve tried everything. Text files, Outlook tasks, my own custom database and most of the new fancy web-based systems (Asana, Trello, Wunderlist, etc, etc.)

Nothing really worked perfectly though. I just wanted a list of everything outstanding that I needed to do, both at home and at work.

I had never really sat down and thought about why these systems didn’t work for me. I just spent the time faithfully entering my tasks, ticking them off when done, and trying to make the systems bend to my way of doing things. I was fickle and unfaithful, changing services whenever a newer, shinier one came along. My online accounts lie abandoned, full of half-done tasks. They will probably float around in the cloud for many years to come.

A few weeks ago I had an epiphany. I don’t have a single, discrete list of tasks to do. I have list of lists, and they come in many different forms and from many sources. I was spending too much time converting these items into the format required by whatever task management software I was using at the time.

Not only that, but I only really need task management for work. My home life is simple enough that a few occasional reminders are all I need.

Once I’d realised this, my first attempt at a new system was using Outlook (as I said, I’d tried it before, but mainly for assigning tasks to staff members.) My company is a Microsoft shop, and Outlook is the standard method of communication in the office. It’s also how I receive a lot of my tasks.

I dutifully categorised incoming emails, and flagged them as tasks. I used the Outlook task pane to check on what I needed to do, ticking each item off when complete.

After a week or so of doing this, something still wasn’t right. My task list was getting stale. Items were sitting around undone for far too long. It just wasn’t working.

So I thought I’d have a go at using Evernote. I use it for pretty much everything else (although Springpad has taken over some of its duties – see a future post for detail on that) and it seemed like it might work.

It does. I now have a system of managing my tasks that works for me. Here’s how I do it:

I’ve created an Evernote notebook called “todo”. Every time I get a new task (or list of tasks), I send it to this notebook. Mostly, this is by email. You can find details on emailing notes into Evernote here. I direct it to the correct notebook by appending @todo to the subject line. I also tag my tasks as I send them. This is done by appending #tagname to the subject line. Note that you cannot create new tags this way, they must already exist.

I use the following tags in my todo notebook: now, later and pending. These are pretty much self-explanatory. I will occasionally add tags related to a specific project too.

Mostly, I want to see what I need to do NOW. I achieve this with a saved search, as follows: “notebook: todo tag:now”. This shows me everything I need to do right now. If I’m working on a specific project, I will also add the project tag in there.

When a task is complete, I’ll remove the now, later or pending tag, and add a new one: “completed”. This has the effect of keeping a timeline of all the tasks I’ve finished, and when they were done.

And because it’s all in Evernote, I can access my tasks from any device at any time. Perfect!

mnews – A usenet Newsreader

Introduction

mnews is a Usenet newsreader for Windows that I wrote some years ago and abandoned, unfinished. It does work but comes with no guarantees whatsoever.

History

Ah, Usenet. It seems like a lifetime since my first post

Many years after that first post, and many years ago, I decided to write a newsreader. Or, to be more accurate, a Usenet reader. Of course, fast-forward about thirteen years to 2014 (time of writing) and I don’t actually read Usenet directly. If I do read newsgroups, it’s through Google.

Anyway, there were (and probably still are) loads of good readers around, but none of them was quite right for me. The itch that started the project was that I liked to subscribe to groups from various servers, and most other readers either didn’t support this at all, or if they did, didn’t present the UI quite how I wanted it. And yes, before you ask, I did try Xnews, but it wasn’t for me.

Technical Stuff

At the time I started mnews (around 2000, I think) I was working a lot with C++ and MFC, so that’s what mnews was written in. I had no previous experience of writing network code, and it probably shows. I also shied away from threading, to make my life easier.

The program does work, and I used it to read newsgroups for some time. Eventually though, I just stopped working on it due to other commitments and projects, and also because Usenet became irrelevant for me.

Here’s what I can remember about the code:

  • The message threading is a C++ implentation of jwz’s algorithm. I’ve got a feeling that part of it doesn’t work properly, but I can’t remember what!
  • I quite possibly used some GUI plumbing code from where I was working at the time, but I can’t honestly remember what.
  • I used the Boost C++ library for regex support.
  • I wrote a pretty good tree class for storing the messages (or at least, it seemed good to be at the time – I haven’t actually looked at it much since). I think I grabbed the sorting code from elsewhere though.
  • it doesn’t handle binary groups at all, purely because that wasn’t what I wanted it for. Everything is considered plain text and displayed as such.
  • There’s some kind of scrolling bug, where the tree UI gets confused and selects/displays the wrong node.

I’m releasing the code now, not because I think it will be especially useful, but it seems better than it languishing on my hard drive for the next 20 years. If anyone manages to get any use out of it, great. If not, never mind.

If by any strange chance you do want to use some of the code, I’d be grateful if you would mention where you came from, and drop me a line as well if you can.

Building

I have updated the code to build with Visual Studio 2008. However, you will also need msxml.dll available for import, and a copy of the Boost libraries – any version from the last decade should do!

servers.txt

mnews reads from a file called servers.txt in your c:\mnews directory. This is a : (colon) separated file with the following fields:
ServerName, Port Number, Display Name, Date Last got Groups, Max Num Connections, Needs Authentication Flag, Username (optional), Password (optional)

profiles.txt

Similar to servers.txt, fields are:
Full Name, Email Address, Reply To Address, Organisation Name

Source Code

I’ve put the code on github, as seems to be the modern way. Get it here

RAGE

The Trouble with RAGE

This is an article that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. Various drafts have been sitting around for ages, so I thought I’d knuckle down and make something of them.

DOOM

The original DOOM was scary – I’d never seen anything like it before. Running around a realistic, solid three-dimensional world faced with all manner of demons and monsters. It changed gaming forever. The gameplay wasn’t all that complicated – it basically came down to: find the key, open the door, repeat until level complete. But this was 1993 and that was fine.

DOOM

DOOM

id Software further refined the formula with DOOM II. It was basically more of the same but with a few new monsters and weapons. It was still great fun though, and with the wow factor that caused even non-gamers to stop and admire what was going on.

 

QUAKE

While DOOM II was in development, id’s code-meister John Carmack was hard at work on the next-generation engine. This would eventually power Quake – another revolution in gaming. Now we had a full 3D world where we could look up and down and have rooms on tops of rooms. Granted, the game design was a bit confused, but the game itself was great fun. The multiplayer mode popularised deathmatch gaming and helped to kickstart the world of pro-gaming.

Quake

Quake

 

 

A couple of sequels followed. Actually, that’s glossing over a few points. Before that, a 3D-accelerated version of Quake was released, and also a version with better netplay. These versions (GLQuake and QuakeWorld) contained innovations that were rolled into the sequel – Quake II (1997).

Quake III (1999) was a programming tour-de-force, combining curved surfaces, shaders and fast-paced gameplay into a perfect package. The fact that it was multiplayer-only made it a huge success in the online community. Indeed, it still lives on today in the browser-only version known as Quake Live (2010).

 

Return to DOOM

Following Quake III, id announced that they were making a sequel to the classic DOOM games. It would be another five years before DOOM III (1994) saw the light of day. By this time, the world of 3D first person shooters had changed. The Unreal Engine had come to dominate the licencing market and the massive success of the Call of Duty franchise was just around the corner.

DOOM 3's lighting was incredible

DOOM 3′s lighting was incredible

 

The game was (as always for id) a technological marvel, but the gameplay was heavily criticised for being repetitive and boring. Valve’s Half Life (1998) had raised people’s expectations of what a shooter should offer and DOOM III was seen as old-school. However much you dressed it up, the gameplay still came down to: find the key, open the door, continue.

It was a big enough success though, and after the obligatory mission pack, id retreated to work on their new franchise, RAGE.

 

RAGE

RAGE (2011) was released seven – yes, SEVEN – years after DOOM III. By the time it came out, the gaming landscape had moved on again. Consoles were king and the PC was only used by hardcore gamers. Granted, RAGE’s technology was impressive, and the shooting mechanics were solid and satisfying, but it wasn’t enough.

The MegaTexture technology had been much-hyped, and it did indeed work (apart from some appalling driver issues that hurt the PC launch badly), but was it enough?

The game was touted as including RPG elements, but these really boiled down to buying and selling ammo and equipment. It was almost impossible to run out of ammo, so much of this was pointless to begin with.

RAGE just didn’t innovate as a game. I remember reading a review that suggested it should have been called “Fetch”. After playing the first few levels I could see why. It went a bit like this:

Want a gun? Go and do a job for me first? Now do another one and I’ll give you something else? Got that? Go and see my friend for another job.

The story felt tired and basic. Furthermore, the post-apocalyptic setting (although breathtakingly beautiful) was hollow. It was obvious now that, while id knew how to design cutting-edge technology, they didn’t have much in the way of innovation to give.

RAGE
RAGE’s graphics were at times, breathtaking

 

The huge wastelands, which were supposed to be part of RAGE’s personality and an integral part of the game, were nothing more than nice scenery to drive through. The environment wasn’t interactive. There was no point in stopping the buggy to have a look around because, apart from a few plants to harvest, nothing could be done.

Furthermore, the levels themselves – while gorgeous – had no consistency.  It felt like id had designed twenty or so levels, each with different enemies, and then just plugged them into the wasteland, plonking doors here and there. Of course, you couldn’t just enter any old door at any time – only when the game allowed you to.

For me, this emptiness reached its peak in the final hub area, known as Subway Town. The place was dripping with atmosphere.  Authority drones loomed ominously overhead and menacing characters lurked on every corner. But there wasn’t any menace apparent in the gameplay. Everything just ticked along as normal, and the “menace” turned out to be graphical only.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed RAGE enormously, and I played it through twice. But it didn’t set the bar for others to follow, as id’s games had done in the past. And while it may have had the best engine, other engines were by now so good that it probably didn’t matter that much.

Basically, RAGE didn’t scare me. DOOM managed that, almost twenty years earlier and with much more basic technology. The characters and monsters in RAGE, on the other hand, felt like cartoons.

What’s next?

Who knows what’s next for id Software. DOOM 4 was rumoured to have been restarted after it failed to live up to standards. As for RAGE 2 – who knows?

It’s good news for the latest engine though. Wolfenstein The New Order and The Evil Within have both been announced as using idTech 5 (the RAGE engine), so it will be interesting to see what different studios do with the technology.

 

Paperless Money

I’ve been an obsessive recorder of my personal finances for many years, way before online banking. It started because I couldn’t stand the way that the bank’s idea of how much money I had (or didn’t) was never the same as mine. Transactions sometimes took days to hit my account and I couldn’t stand not knowing my exact balance.

I used Quicken for many years to record my transactions. Even when online banking came along and the software offered to sync everything automatically, I preferred to do it manually to be more up to date.

Of course, to do all of this I had to keep my receipts. Every card-based transaction resulted in another receipt in my wallet. I even requested them from cash machines and kept those too.

I always tried to enter the receipts into my finance software every few days, but this didn’t always work, especially if I was away on holiday and didn’t have access to my PC. My wallet would bulge with crumpled receipts.

Many years on and I’m still following that same basic process. Keep the receipts, enter them manually and then shred/bin them.

Recently though, things have changed. I’m remembering everything with Evernote and I’ve got a powerful handheld computer that’s always with me (my iPhone, of course). So, I’ve started to scan my receipts as I receive them, and get rid of them immediately.

I’ve tried a variety of software to do this, and I’m currently torn between JotNot Pro and Evernote itself. Both are pretty good at edge-detection and work almost effortlessly.

Once my receipt is scanned, I tag it with “receipts” and “to-record”. A simple saved search means that all receipts that haven’t yet been recorded are just a few clicks away. Once I’ve recorded them, I either delete the note immediately if I don’t need the receipt, or just remove the “to-record” tag if I do.

My wallet no longer bulges with useless paperwork, I’m able to record my receipts much more easily, and I’m that little bit more paperless.

An added bonus is that because Evernote OCRs my receipts, any that I need to keep are also text-searchable, which has come in handy more than once.

Paperless Gaming

This may seem like a strange title, given that video games are generally paperless, but read on, dear friend and find out more…

 

GAMING LORE

Games have always involved paper in the form of the instruction manual. Back in the mists of time, I remember buying Knight Lore from Boots in Chester. It cost me a massive £9.99, but it did come in a huge box to justify the exorbitant price tag. I opened it while I waited for a lift home. Inside was a glossy game manual, detailing the games’s incredible (for the time) Filmation(TM) technology, as well as the cassette tape for the game itself.

 

Knight Lore

Knight Lore box and manual

 

Years later, PC games continued the fashion for large boxes. Quake and SiN wouldn’t even fit on my shelf, such was the hugeness of their casing. This trend continued for some time, until the industry came to its senses and PC game shrank into the same plastic cases as console titles. Shops displayed more stock, my bookshelves didn’t creak. Everyone was happy.

FIFA

Recently though, things took a different turn. I bought a copy of FIFA 13 for the PS3. I should state at this point that I don’t like football. I never watch it, I don’t follow it, and World Cup fortnight is possibly my least favourite time ever. The only advantage is that the roads and shops are eerily quiet when England are playing, so it can be a chance to get things done.

Anyway, back to FIFA. Although I’m not in any way a football fan, I enjoy a kick about with my kids, both physical and virtual. Physically, I can hold my own, but virtually I always lose badly. No amount of button mashing can make the onscreen players do my bidding. I spend most of the game controlling the wrong player, hoofing the ball out of play, and sliding straight past the player I’m trying to tackle.

So I bought my own copy, with a plan of learning how to play properly so that I could beat my son. I cracked open the box at work, ready to read the manual and bone up on the controls prior to playing. However, the manual wasn’t there. That’s right folks. A fifty quid game had no manual. My first reaction was to hotfoot it back to the shop and complain. I did break the habit of a lifetime and buy it from a supermarket, where you take the empty box to the counter and a clueless member of staff goes to fetch the contents from a locked cabinet, while the ever-growing queue of people behind you fumes, less and less quietly.

PDF WTF

A quick Google search though, informed me that this was as it should be. A paper manual was not available. Instead, it was available to download from the EA website as a PDF.

I was briefly annoyed until I remembered that I’m trying to go paperless. I had downloaded and Evernoted the PDF before you could say “Where’s the f***ing manual?”. Worries of losing the manual and never being able to play the game properly abated, as I daydreamed of it floating somewhere in the magical Evernote cloud, available to me at any time and place.

Paperless or not though, I’m still rubbish at FIFA, and my son roundly thrashed me (4-0) a few days later. I blame old age, or maybe the sheer amount of different moves that I need to learn!

 

Fifa Manual

One of many pages of controls. How am I supposed to remember all of them?

 

Paperless Language Learning

Introduction

I’ve been learning Spanish for years. When I first started, way back in 2006, Evernote didn’t exist and nor did the iPad or iPhone. Most of my work was done on paper. I’ve filled up five or six A4 notepads over the years – a complete record of every Spanish lesson I’ve ever had.

 

Notebooks

Notebooks

Textbooks

Textbooks

 

Dipping into Digital

I wanted to move some of my learning paperless for years, but I hadn’t worked out how. My Spanish teacher provided paper handouts most weeks, and my required textbooks weren’t available digitally.

My trusty iPhone provided the first step towards going digital. I have four Spanish dictionaries, from a pocket-sized paperback to the mammoth complete Collins version.

 

Dictionaries

Dictionaries

On a whim, with my fingers crossed, I bought the Collins Spanish dictionary for my iPhone – for fifteen quid! It’s still the most expensive app I have ever bought, almost four years on.

I’ve definitely had my money’s worth out of it though. It’s very comprehensive, includes full verb conjugation charts, and very quick to use. It’s proven itself to be faster than a paper dictionary on many occasions, and it’s great to have it in my pocket all the time; something that definitely wasn’t possible with my hardback tome.

Enter Evernote

I’d been using Evernote for a while before I integrated it into my language learning. At the start I was mainly using it for reference – I hadn’t yet moved towards keeping everything in it.

Gradually though, I started to keep notes of specific areas of Spanish that I wanted to improve, and then to clip articles in Spanish from the web. Pretty soon, I had a decent amount of Spanish content in Evernote.

Vocabulary

My dead-tree notebooks are filled with new words that I’ve encountered over my years of learning. The trouble is that I rarely went back to these words to learn them. They were scattered over so many books and pages that it was always too much effort. I did start to keep a Moleskine notebook just for Spanish vocab, but I found that I wasn’t filling it in diligently enough, so I gave that up.

It was when I came across the idea of digital flash cards, Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) and Quizlet that everything came together. Briefly, a Flashcard is a piece of card (or paper) with the same word or phrase written on both sides – one in your native language and one in the language you’re trying to learn.

SRSes are automated systems where a piece of software shows you one side of a card and asks you if you know what is on the other side. You rate how well you know it and, based on your answers, the software shows you those words/phrases that you’re struggling with more often than those you know well.

Finally, Quizlet is a brilliant website with tons of predefined vocab and sentence lists. You can also add your own. I use an app on my iPad called Flashcard sync that automatically syncs my Quizlet cards with my iPad, and hey presto, I’ve got a learning system with me wherever I go.

Writing Speed

Once I’d put the pieces together, I started entering new words directly into my iPad during my lessons. However, I soon discovered that typing them was far too slow. So I started to handwrite them instead. A system was born.

System Summary

This is my current paperless Spanish-learning system:

1. During my Spanish lessons, I use GoodNotes to handwrite my notes, using my trusty Wacom Bamboo stylus
2. When I get home, I transcribe any new words into a note I keep in Evernote. (CSV)
3. I then copy and paste the contents of this note into Quizlet and load up Flashcards sync to download the new version to my iPad and iPhone.
4. Whenever I have a spare moment, I review my cards and do some studying. It seems to be working, because my vocabulary is gradually increasing.

Paperless Spanish

Paperless Spanish

Going all the way

My system works for me very well, and I’m pleased with it. What I’d like to do though, is digitise all of my old Spanish notebooks and get them into Evernote too. While I’m sure that even the power of Evernote’s server farm and OCR technology couldn’t cope 100% with my scrappy handwriting, it would probably catch some of it, and it would make it a lot easier to browse through my old lessons on those long winter evenings.

Now, where’s that Doxie One?

 

Penultimate gets better

Evernote have released a new version of their Penultimate handwriting app. I’ve just tried it out on my iPad. The interface is nicer, more consistent with their other apps, and the handwriting itself seems smoother.

Notebooks are now automatically synced to Evernote, which is very welcome. Just like in Evernote Food, if I make an update, it’s just there in Evernote automatically. Not only that, but handwriting is OCRed so it’s searchable. That’s a very cool feature.

There’s only one problem though… still no zoom mode. Many other note-taking apps allow you to write in a zoomed-in area, so that you can still write in a large space, but the actual text is a lot smaller. This really helps when writing on the iPad – without this, my writing always ends up too big, and I can only get about ten lines of text on the screen.

So for now, despite the syncing, handwriting recognition and lovely UI, Penultimate still isn’t my primary note-taking app. GoodNotes remains the winner, but I’ll keep coming back to Penultimate to see how it improves.

Found an old Evernote account

I was trying to find out when I first signed up for Evernote. I searched my GMail and discovered that I’d created an account back in November 2009. The only problem was, it was a different account. I had no idea what the password was, so I reset it and logged in. It felt a bit like discovering an old box of paperwork that I hadn’t look at it years. As in – it was initially exciting, and then not so much. I’d only created a dozen or so notes, most of which exist in my active account, and there really wasn’t much of interest there at all. Ho hum!