GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity Software Technology

Personal Brain 4 Review

I recently discovered Personal Brain and I’m taken with it. It took me a couple hours of experimentation and more importantly, playing with Jerry Michalski’s brain to get used to it and to realize how powerful it is. For those of you who ‘get’ and use GTD, I’ll say that this gave me the same feeling I got when I started really using GTD-it’s a trusted system for all the information I want to make sure I remember. It’s more than that though–it’s a way to find patterns in knowledge and thing I’m learning, a way to create patterns, to store about anything… it’s fun, addictive (after a little over a week I have well over 1000 thoughts).

I made a video review of it (my first video review) here:

In the video I call Personal Brain “new”–really it’s only new for me, it’s been around for about 10 years.

Personal Brain is Java which means it’s available on Mac, Linux and Windows. It also means it’s not as Mac-like as most of my other favorite software, but it’s really not bad.

Personal Brain comes in 3 versions – free, core and pro. The core and pro versions are expensive. Fortunately the free version is very adequate. There’s also an enterprise version (BrainEKP) which is networked and web-based.

UPDATED: Video should work now – moved to YouTube

Software Technology

Beautiful Software Round up

The attribute these web and Mac apps have in common is that they are all beautiful, simple and functional. They each perform a fairly complex task with almost no learning curve.

Yep is a PDF management program similar to iPhoto, but much more focused on meta-data.
Yep Icon

I love the effects in Yep, the scanning interface, the simplicity and responsiveness. What a great way to get rid of paper clutter yet still be able to find something when you need it. Everything is perfect, especially that icon 🙂

Next – CSSEdit. So much has been said about it already but it’s good enough to mention again. Who would have guessed editing CSS could be pleasant?

CSSEdit’s best features are the real-time preview window and the very logically arranged panels on the right which make using the WYSIWYG functionality about as fast as typing code (minus the syntax errors and remembering the names of every selector).

Picnik is a web-based photo editor in Flash. I don’t think I could suggest a single feature to make it better. I know my way around Photoshop well, but for editing a picture from or for Flickr, I prefer Picnik for its simplicity and focus on fast and fun.
Picnik has a lot of AJAX (html/javascript) competitors that require you to wait for a new version of the image from the server after every edit. Not so here–Flash was the perfect choice. Edits are instant. Excellent.

TumblrTechcrunch (and everyone else really) beat me to this one, but I’ll include it anyway. Way back when I predicted the growth of Tumblelogs and alas, it has happened. Tumblr makes Tumblelogging simple and fun and they do what so many other web apps don’t–they give you all the control. From fully editable templates to an API, Tumblr does so many things right.
Even I’m doing it now (check out that URL 🙂 )!

Nay, a tumblelog

That’s it for now, 2 web apps, 2 desktop apps, all as close to perfection as it gets.

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Software Technology

Learning Ruby on Rails Through Code


Once you’ve learned the basics, I think the best way to learn Ruby on Rails is to look at apps written in Rails and learn from their source. The nice thing about Rails is that once you’re familiar with one application, you can pretty much open any Rails app and understand the structure enough to know where to go to look for the code that is relevant to what you’re learning.

This is a list of apps that have been helpful to me for learning.
1. Devalot – I wouldn’t have guessed it, but this is the one where I’ve found what looks to me to be the best code and some of the most interesting use of plugins. Check out the table_maker plugin in the app–it’s amazing! Devalot is DRY. If nothing else it’s a great example of DRY programming in Rails.

2. Mephisto – For one it’s written by Rick Olson who is part of the Rails core team. In fact, that’s enough in and of itself. Justin Palmer also works on it. What more needs to be said.

3. RadiantCMS – Radiant like an example of simple code that works well. Radiant is fairly easy to understand and this makes it good to learn from. One interesting thing in RadiantCMS is their use of behaviors which are based on Radius.

4. Beast – Good for learning to be concise and learning REST. Rick Olson also works on this project.

That’s it. Check ’em out.

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Software Technology

Web Based Collaboration Tools

Tonight I wanted to collaborate with a few friends on a diagram–basically just an org chart. This being the age of online collaboration, we tried all the web-based tools we could find which were:

We quickly discovered that they are all lame. This is why.

Thinkature – Once we got several shapes on there I was no longer able to move things around without things jumping all over the place. It was also very limited in that you can’t cut and paste or duplicate sheets. Really this was probably the best of the bunch for what we were trying to do, but not because it was good.

ConceptShare – This one looks really nice, but it’s not made for flowcharting so maybe I shouldn’t even include it in this list. I will say that they did a great job on the interface and I imagine that it serves its purpose (sharing designs) well. One thing I noticed, and the reason I’m including it is because I wanted to comment on this, was that the lowest priced for-pay plan is $19 a month… that’s $228 a year and you can’t even custom brand it at that price. At the $1188 a year plan you get that feature. I think I’ll stick to posting an image online and making a conference call to discuss it.

Imagination Cubed – This is a fun toy. There is no built in chat, no undo and just not enough features to make it feasible for our purposes despite the smooth interface.

Vyew – By far the most featured, you can share desktops, add maps, draw lines and shapes etc. but you can’t have a box with text in it… at least not without using one of the plugins which is frankly almost better than nothing at all in its current state. Vyew might have potential, but right now the tools are very awkward and it’s nowhere near as easy to use as OmniGraffle or Visio. TechCrunch called it ‘fantastic,’ I’d call it passable.

In the end what did we end up doing? Nothing really… we spent the time pondering the lameness of web based collaboration and we’ll probably just make it in some desktop application and email the file back and forth. I’d be happy to know if anyone else has found a better option.

Ahh. I knew I’d given up too soon. Not to disappoint readers on a blog called “Best Tool for the Job,” I felt obligated to continue the search (thank me later :)). I just re-found and it works like a charm. The collaboration part isn’t real-time–it looks like you have to click a revision in the list on the right to get updates and there is no built in chat, but otherwise it works really nice.
Gliffy ROCKS

It has (almost) every feature we need and even some fun ones we don’t. Nice.

Software Technology

Free Alternatives to QuickTime

Screenshot 01-1

If you’re still using QuickTime, which does not support full screen video playback unless you buy QuickTime Pro, check out the follo

wing free video players. They are listed in the order that I prefer them:
1. NicePlayer – simple, fast, full screen (or borderless at any size) video playback. It can play DVD’s, playlists and most any video file you throw at it. This is my default video player. Mac only.

2. VLC – If you’ve got something that won’t play in Niceplayer, try VLC (Vido Lan Client). VLC can play almost anything you throw at it, including many streaming videos. Recently the interface has improved quite a bit as well. Cross-platform, open source.

3. MPlayer and/or djoPlayer – They’re based on the same open source video engine, but with different takes on the interface. I usually only drop to MPlayer as a last resort, but for a last resort, it works really well. MPlayer is cross-platform, djoPlayer is Mac only. If you’re on an Intel Mac stick with djoPlayer.

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GTD Lifehacks Productivity Software

A Year of Shareware

I think before this year I’d probably purchased 4 or 5 shareware programs, this year it’s been a different story! I’m not sure if it’s that the quality of the available shareware has gotten that much better or if I’ve just started buying more of it, but in any case, here’s the list of Shareware apps I’ve been using:

  • Ecto (ok, I’ve probably had this for more than a year, but I’m listing it here since I’m typing this blog entry in it and it’s great.)
  • TextMate – There’s nothing I can say about TextMate that hasn’t already been said. I love it.
  • MacGourmet – This one was for J, she loves it.
  • PulpMotion – Wow. Aquafadas just raised the bar on photo/video slideshows. Great price too.
  • CSSEdit – I can’t imagine editing CSS without this application anymore. Beautiful.
  • Cha-ching and iBank (reviews forthcoming)
  • Parallels – Wow. Parallels has completely eliminated the old Dell laptop I had hanging around.
  • Disco – I hardly ever burn CD’s, but I’m a sucker for a good (and/or fun) UI.
  • Delicious Library – This came with MacHeist. I was pretty skeptical about it since for my book cataloging needs, it’s almost useless (I use LibraryThing), but I’ve found it pretty fun to use nonetheless.
  • DevonThink – Another MacHeist, I’d been using the trial for…well too long, great program.
  • Enigmo2 – Macheist. The first Mac game I’ve ever bought and I admit, I love it.
  • In addition, I got a few other apps from MacHeist that I doubt I’ll use much, but are kind of cool – ShapeShifter (I actually already own a license to this and really enjoyed it, but haven’t used it for a couple years), RapidWeaver looks nice, but I’m a Rails head… who knows, maybe I’ll use it, Newsfire is also nice, but I can’t give up Google Reader for a desktop client, FotoMagico and iClip – I haven’t used them yet, but who’s to say I won’t.
  • Inbox – Review forthcoming

In addition, there are a few shareware app’s I’ve got my eyes on:

Hopefully you’ve found some good ones in this list, if you like the program, why not support the developers buy purchasing it? What Mac Shareware did you buy this year?

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Design GTD Lifehacks Software Technology Web Services

SlimTimer – The Best Timer for GTD

I’ve looked at several options for making sure I “use my time wisely” while I’m on the computer including:

None of them fit my criteria of being easy to use, easy to see where my time went (some type of reporting) and inexpensive. Then I went back to SlimTimer. The concept is simple. You open up a little window that sits on your desk all day (I open mine in Safari so tabs don’t accidentally pop up there from my default browser, Firefox) and click the name of the activity you’re doing at the time. That’s it. Here’s my window right now.

Screenshot 01

When you’re done you close the window, click another task or toggle the task you’re on. Then the cool part is the reports that are available on the main SlimTimer website. You can see where your time went specifically for the day, week month, per task, tag etc. Here’s a screen capture of a report:

Screenshot 02

SlimTimer is simple, powerful, quick and free. Can’t beat that.

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Software Technology

Before you Learn Rails

Since I started learning Rails I’ve often been asked “is Rails hard to learn?” A lot of times this is by people who don’t know any other programming language or even HTML. The answer to that question is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no. Rails isn’t necessarily hard to learn, but a lot of other stuff comes along with it. Here’s the list I came up with of the things you’ll have to learn to write web applications in Rails:

  • The programming language Ruby
  • Obviously Rails itself which involves learning the Model View Controller (MVC) design pattern (or collection of patterns) and the way these are implemented in Rails, the file structure of Rails and the syntax and domain specific functions Rails adds to Ruby including how to write templates using RHTML. Rails is composed of several frameworks, ActiveRecord, ActionPack (which includes Action Controller, Views, Mailer and Web Services), each of which have to be learned.
  • How to use Rails plugins, components, Engines Ruby gems etc. This includes how to get them installed along with learning enough to know when (or if) and how to use them.
  • AJAX, Prototype, JavaScript and RJS. You may not have to learn JavaScript (which itself is a full featured programming language) but you’ll definitely have to be comfortable with using it to some degree.
  • What web services are and how they work.
  • How to create and use relational databases.
  • Basic SQL, at least enough to know what is happening behind the scenes with ActiveRecord. There almost certain to be times when some SQL will have to be written out for reports, optimization etc., so knowing at least some SQL is important.
  • Having enough of a knowledge of FastCGI, Mongrel and WebBrick to make a decision about which (or which combination) to use to deploy the application.
  • Apache, specifically how to configure it to work with either FastCGI or Mongrel. Alternatively Lighttpd or another web server.
  • Rake, Generators and Capistrano and remote deployment.
  • Database migrations.
  • Testing web applications (which admittedly I haven’t done much yet).
  • A basic knowledge of web application security.
  • How to set up and use SVN repositories. If you’re new to source code versioning this can take awhile to get used to.
  • It may be necessary to learn a new IDE (RadRails) and/or a new text editor (TextMate).
  • As with any new programming language, you’ll have to learn to get Rails installed. In my case this meant figuring out how to do it on my personal computer (a Mac), my work machine (Windows XP) and the servers (Linux). None were too difficult but they all had their idiosyncrasies that had to be dealt with.
  • If you don’t already know it, you’ll need to learn XHTML and CSS

Some of the things in that list are quick and easy to learn, others will take time and practice (I’m still working on a lot of them). If you’re thinking about learning Rails, this list isn’t meant to discourage you, just help to make you aware of what you’re up for.

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Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity Software Technology Web Services

11 Web Applications that are Ready for Primetime

I’m looking forward to the day I can use any computer with a web connection to be as productive as I am on my own computer. Most websites that try to replace desktop applications fall far short off their counterparts. In the meantime, here’s what’s ready and what’s not:

Ready to Use:

  1. Gmail – this one is obvious and nothing new. With well over 2gb of space I’ve completely stopped using a desktop mail client. I have about 6 email accounts and all go through Gmail. It’s nice getting it all in one place.
  2. Google Talk – while Google Talk isn’t as full featured as other IM clients, it has one great feature–logs are saved to Gmail and searchable right within Gmail. This is the case whether you use Google Talk from the web interface in Gmail or from a desktop client.
  3. Meebo – IM in the browser with meebo feels almost as natural as IM in a desktop client. Meebo is great for friends who don’t use Google Talk since it supports AIM, Yahoo, Jabber and others. It also saves chat logs, though they aren’t searchable yet. I’m not sure how meebo makes money since there are no ads, but I’m sure that will come.
  4. Google Spreadsheets – I’ve seen complaints that it’s not as full featured as it could be, but for the type of spreadsheets I make, it’s perfect. I love being able to collaborate in realtime on spreadsheets and even chat with people in the same browser window as the spreadsheet. I am a pretty basic spreadsheet user, but for me it’s already replaced Excel.
  5. NetVibes – I recently switched from Google’s custom homepage to Netvibes. I went kicking and screaming, but the tabbed pages, more compact interface and a few other things made their customizable homepage better for getting the news and reading blogs than Google’s. I guess this really isn’t a desktop app replacement, but it’s great to be able to log into it anywhere get a quick news fix.
  6. Google Calendar – this has completely replaced my desktop calendar application. It is full featured and integrates nicely with Gmail. Inviting others to events and sharing calendars is simple. Overall a very well done web application.
  7. Bloglines – there are a million blog aggregators out there. Bloglines was one of the first and is still the best. Some of the more interesting desktop aggregators let you sync your feeds so you can read them within the browser or within the desktop application but they still seem like more of a hassle than they’re worth. Why not just do it all from the browser?
  8. Remember the Milk – I defy anyone to find a faster, more featured to-do manager than Remember the Milk. It it excellent. Complete with keyboard shortcuts it makes managing to-do lists simple and much more pleasant than any desktop to-do list I’ve tried.
  9. Basecamp – This one is fairly specific to web development type projects, but Basecamp has been perfect for managing projects. I can’t even imagine going to MS Project after using it. The simplicity and effectiveness of Basecamp is excellent. Basecamp is the only one that I don’t pay for out of the list.
  10. Google Notebook – I use this for storing bits of information on random things. It’s been a hard switch from Notational Velocity (which is much better overall) but the convenience of having it all online has made it worth it.
  11. – It’s been more than a year since I bookmarked anything in a browser. has completely replaced browser bookmarks making them available wherever I am. Google Search History is also useful and falls in this category.

Almost there:

  1. Writely – I’ve tried using Writely for online word processing a la Microsoft Word, but they still just aren’t quite there. Imported documents don’t maintain all their formatting which is of utmost importance when using a Word Processor (otherwise I’d just make a text file). I’m sure that at some point Google will get Writely up to par, but for now I haven’t made the switch entirely.
  2. Flickr – I love Flickr for managing photos and hesitate to put it in the “almost there” category, but I still don’t feel comfortable enough keeping my photos ONLY on Flickr to say that it has replaced iPhoto or Picasa. Fluxiom looks like it might be featured enough to fully replace Flickr, but none of the plans fit my budget–even the one that costs 89 euros a month only lets you store 3gb of stuff.

Someone make this please:

  1. Online Budgeting – I subscribed to Mvelopes for a month or two but couldn’t get used to the strange Envelope budgeting mentality. I just want something decent with double entry accounting online. The one thing Mvelopes did do extremely well was pull data from all my financial institutions. From Paypal to my bank to my credit card companies, they connected to everything perfectly. They also offer bill pay to companies that don’t accept online bill pay. Mvelopes would be excellent if it weren’t for the whole non-traditional envelope paradigm.
  2. Online CRM – I’ve tried Sugar CRM and looked at for long enough to know that they are too tedious for me to ever want to use them. I’m looking forward to Sunrise from 37Signals.
  3. Online Outline– I love Omnigraffle, but don’t get to use it as often as I’d like since I’m always going back and forth between Mac and PC. I would really like to see an online outliner that had similar functionality. I’ve tried Sproutliner and some of it’s offshoots but found them to be pretty lacking.

Might never happen:

  1. Photo Editing – I use Photoshop and Illustrator quite a bit for work and play. While there are basic image editing programs online, nothing comes even close to these.
  2. Video Editing – Again, there are basic video editing programs online, but I don’t foresee being able to connect my video camera and edit video in a browser like i would in iMovie or Final Cut.
  3. Text Editing – (programmers only) – TextMate is my choice of text editor. I still see text editing as the domain of desktop applications. Maybe later I’ll go into more details here. When TextMate isn’t available, I’m comfortable using Vim, but to use that I still have to have an SSH client.
  4. Music – Things like Pandora and are really nice, but I can’t see anything completely replacing desktop music applications in the near future. It’d be nice if something came along and surprised me though.
Knowledge Software

ListLearn – Lists to Make You Smarter


I like lists! Really, who doesn’t? If I look back over the archives of this blog there are a significant number of lists–everything from finding domain names to finding success to my most recent post with 3 ways to deal with toddler tendencies.

I like lists.

A list is a concise way to obtain and share knowledge, a great way to start conversations and pique interest in new subjects. Lists are fun for trivial facts and are great ways to help remember things.

So, I decided to start an new blog dedicated to lists– – A blog that helps you get smarter through lists. I’m really excited about it–it’s a way to touch on a lot of different subjects in a format that works well online–lists. Check it out! Let me know what you think and feel free to submit an idea for a list or let me know if you post one on your own website. (marcus at vorwaller .dot. net)

A final note, if you haven’t looked at lately there’s a bunch of fresh content there as well.

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