Brainstorming digital tool chaos

I used to think that I alone struggled with various tools and apps to manage, track and digest all the things I want to keep track of, but I now suspect this is a pretty common source of discontent.

Every few years I go through a phase of ‘churn where I signup for something new, with the hope that now, at long last, my cognitive load will lessen, ideas will be remembered, snippets and quotes will be stored and retrieved, and so on. Yet inevitably, after some initial enthusiasm, the experiment ends in deadlock and decay.

In the best case, the tool or app becomes inconvenient and sluggish, while in the worst case everything laboriously entered in is los forever. So after about a decade and half of this ridiculous waste of time, I thought I’d try to think through to figure out what exactly it is that I’m looking for.

There’s no point pretending that the one true, great tool out there will solve these problems. So this post isn’t about finding solutions, but just listing problems.

  • I need away to remind me to do something on a one-off basis
  • I need to be able to track a small group of related tasks
  • I need to be able to make lists of things, sometimes collaboratively
  • I need to be able to write medium size posts, like this one, with minimum fuss
  • I want to be able to save bookmarks (lots of them!) and find them later, by date and ‘tag’
  • I want to be able to save quotes or extracts from web pages
  • I want to be able to save pdfs and later search within them
  • I need an easy way to make short notes without making an official ‘doc’ about something with a title, etc.
  • I want to be able to quickly snap a photo of something, annotate it, and file it away, sometimes with a reminder
  • I need to make notes about a certain topic as I go along, sometimes sigh snippets of text or code, and retrieve his later by date or by ‘tag’
  • Sometimes emails have to be be turned into tasks
  • I have to be able to quickly capture thoughts and ideas for future retrieval
  • I don’t want to be locked in to proprietary formats or hidden libraries, as far as possible
  • It should be possible to ‘sync’ between devices
  • I don’t necessarily want to keep everything ‘in the cloud’
  • I want a lot of photos around, forever, accessible from everywhere
  • I need to be able to search across text, images, pdfs, but without always doing a huge amount of tagging up front
  • I want to be able to create small ‘projects’ with tasks, but without having to fight some rigid ‘true way’ of defining them (fluid due dates, deferred dates, priorities, easy capture and editing)
  • I need recurring reminders too (sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes quarterly, sometimes biannually, etc)
  • I don’t want to think too much about where to file a given snippet, all I care about is being able to look for it later as if I had filed it correctly to begin with
  • I want to avoid the risk of some one going out of business and taking my data with them (stick to regular files and plain text as far as possible)

Yeah, a lot to ask for, but also … it’s not all that much, there has to be a way to get all this to work somehow.

Monthly recap: November 2016


This month was mostly about healing, with a lot of help from my wife and dad.

Resumed a bit of normalcy, in terms of eating out and driving around, etc (and this was a rainy month, see the photo above).

The big event was Tara turning two. So there was decor, and gifts, but I couldn’t help out much 😦

I was gifted a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which is really too much (did quite a bit while I was on leave, deferred the rest for some time next year when I’m more mobile and can do this at nights), will post a pic when I’m done.

Started physiotherapy and it’s going well, the major milestone at the end of the month was being able to stand on two feet!

Personal Media Summary: October 2016

Meta: This is delayed by a few weeks, and I’m ending the short experiment of cross-posting to Medium.

A few things I saw or read the last month and half:

  • Watched a lot of episodes of Midsomer Murders (I’m surprised at how many seasons this show has!). Slight dip in quality around season 8, and we stopped around season 9 for now.
  • Watched five episodes of Miss Marple (would’ve watched more, but they were really long, and last one was really silly)
  • Re-watched Interstellar. Just as awesome as the first time round, and the “five-dimensional beings” stuff felt just as gratuitous.
  • Saw a few episodes of The Daily Show (after a gap of several years)

(all of this TV watching happened because my dad was visiting, and I was bed-ridden, all through November)

  • Atlas Obscura is my current favorite for amazing trivia, such as this series1 of “fore-edge paintings” on old books.
  • My “tune of the month” is a track2 from Bladerunner.
  • A bizarre, freaky or tragic animal activity: the offspring of a certain spider species3 eat their mother (!)
  • This is a pre-election piece of reading that shouldn’t be too surprising post-election either, a publication4 by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston titled ”Where have all the workers gone?”. Depressing overall, but page 20 has the money quotes on “the prevalence of pain and pain medication”. Also, it points out how the labor force participation rate has been declining from 67.3% in 2000 to 62.4% in 2015, a 40-year low (!)
  • Some pre-election musings5 on Democracy, that turn out to be prescient.

But what if, in our moment, democracy, as we understand it, isn’t worth defending? Hacker and Pierson’s fellow political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels take up this question in their new book, Democracy for Realists.

The pair take this question into consideration by setting their sights on what they call the “folk theory” of democracy: the idea that democracy is a system for translating the people’s will into government policy. They describe this belief as a 21st-century “divine right of kings” and consider it just as deluded as its medieval predecessor. For them, American democracy is not the embodiment of a popular will but the endless struggle between warring tribes motivated by cultural, political, and religious alle­giances, plus a hefty dose of self-interest. All politics, by this reasoning, is identity politics.

And that’s when voters know what they’re doing. Drawing on more than half a century of scholarship, Achen and Bartels conclude that “the political ‘belief systems’ of ordinary citizens are generally thin, disorganized, and ideologically incoherent.” These citizens routinely fail simple tests of political knowledge and base their votes on a sloppy mixture of group loyalties and shortsighted assessments of their own well-being—assuming they bother to vote at all, which in the United States, most of the time, they don’t.

That assessment provides a shaky foundation for would-be defenders of democracy. In Achen and Bartels’s telling, politicians win office by appealing to primal instincts within the electorate, while the work of governing is done by elites who know how to organize, build coalitions, and pressure the right legislators. “Policy-making,” they write, “is a job for specialists.” Voters don’t set the agenda; they merely help to elect those who do.

  • The idea6 of another, unseen planet in the solar system just won’t go away.
  • A compilation7 of all the movies that should have won the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’, but didn’t.
  • A really old washing machine advertisement8! Essentially, it’s the same, even after a century: someone using a machine and looking really, really happy doing it.
  • Take this as a bit of comfort if you like to write but you’re worried if you should write in a particular way or for a particular audience: Umberto Eco believes that ”… “I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”

More choice quotes from that interview9:

“Because that’s literature,” said Eco. “Dostoevsky was writing about losers. The main character of The Iliad, Hector, is a loser. It’s very boring to talk about winners. The real literature always talks about losers. Madame Bovary is a loser. Julien Sorel is a loser. I am doing only the same job. Losers are more fascinating.

“Winners are stupid … because usually they win by chance.”

  • This link10 is a bit for fans of Soviet Sci-Fi.
  • Finally, the “long read” recommendation11 of the month:

Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.

Monthly recap: October 2016

My leg, for at the next eight weeks

A lot of other stuff happened in October, but the main event turned out to be a silly accident. At some point I’ll share the X-ray, but basically I had multiple fractures in my tibia/fibula.

Book-wise, I really liked “Hyperion” and since I have, er, more time at home, mostly lying down, went through the sequel (“Fall of Hyperion”) too, but didn’t like that at all. Next up is a list of books by Tony Judt.

Good news is that NaNoWriMo is upon us, so time to make the most of my situation.



Broken leg, Part 1

Some quick facts, so that I can record this somewhere:

On Thursday, I sustained multiple fractures in my left leg. A spiral fracture in the tibia, a single fracture in the fibula, and some indeterminate cracks near the ankle.

Luckily, 911 was called on time, and responded quickly, putting my leg in a splint, before the ambulance arrived to take me to the ER. I had a couple of X-rays taken, and then re-admitted to the hospital. An initial doctor consult described the situation, but prescribed an additional CAT scan. I was told the surgery would be the following afternoon.

The splint was initially removed, which was quite painful, but then added back with a compression sock, and I didn’t feel a lot of pain from Thursday night to Friday afternoon.

On Friday morning, I met the surgeon, who walked me through the options, being both reassuring and overwhelming(!) I waited for afternoon to come around. Post-op, I felt okay. I had a cast from half way down my knee, to my toes.

On Saturday, I had an initial round of Physical Therapy which didn’t go well at all. It was followed by a very useful round of Occupational Therapy, which covered all the basics (dressing, going to the bathroom, etc). More time passed.

On Sunday, I had another round of each and they went well (occupational therapy covered taking a sponge bath and getting dressed again, and physical therapy covered steps, stairs, car doors … good stuff).

I was discharged and came home on Sunday afternoon, and didn’t need any more pain killers.




Resolutions on Writing

Around 2013, I decided to try a few therapeutic writing exercises, and got hooked. Since then I’ve written a lot for fun, though almost entirely pseudonymously.

I’ve written poems off and on at, and variously sized “flash fiction” at (the site shut down some time ago), and for a while posted snippets and rants on Tumblr. All of this was under some made up name; I don’t think I could’ve ever written anything under my real name.

About a year and a half ago, I started writing (and still do) one rambling bag of seven hundred and fifty words (inspired by Of course, this isn’t shared either, just written and thrown away, which is really the whole point.

I did want to push myself to write more under my own name, but this seemed (1) scary, and (2) pointless. Eventually I started the habit of monthly posts, a kind of “curation” attempt.

Right now there are two of these: one focussed on topics relevant to programming or math or science, etc., and one for everything else. The distinction is a bit silly, but it sort of makes sense, and I’ll keep it that way.

I also write once a month on stuff that happened in my life — this avoids the tendency to post frequent status updates, but, eh, I won’t say anything more about that.

It takes me a while to get to the point, and I’ve buried the lede here. My resolution for next year is to write more frequently, and share more of what I write, though exactly what form that takes, I’m not sure.

Most of what I have to say about the world in general ends up being either unnecessarily controversial, or completely boring. So I don’t want to write long blog posts about that. Perhaps I’ll just share more random snippets that I’ve collected over time, with some commentary. Or perhaps the solution is to weave it into less-frequent long-form writing. Dunno.

Some of this has been brought on by NaNoWriMo being round the corner, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to kill it, but I’m sure going to try. Last year I ended up writing something small and very weird; this time I’m hoping to write something more normal … we’ll see.

Personal Media Summary- September 2016

The Library of Alexandria

Random reads from September:

  • As a sign of the times, some Democrats are now nostalgic1 for Romney.
  • In the speculative archaeology section, links2 between China and ancient Egypt (specifically, that the former might have come from the latter?!)
  • This one3 is hard to summarize, except to say that if you liked ”Snow Crash”, or slightly older cyberpunk, you’ll like it.
  • NPR presents an evolutionary explanation4 for our (lack of!) grasp on reality
  • This one is in the “plus ca change” section: literary egos5 were just as easily bruised a couple of millennia ago.
  • Something relevant in the media-saturated yet misinformed current age: a fable6 about how the visual dominates the literal.
  • This one7 is a bit long and maybe too self-congratulatory, but it’s about ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ things, and I would have loved it when I was younger (I think).
  • I love encyclopedias, so I have to share this8 nostalgic look back at the (perfect!) 11th edition of Britannica in 1911.
  • File this in the “cool cultural artifacts from the recent past”: there are apparently giant concrete arrows across America that were once guideposts for the first airmail routes (!)
  • If you liked “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, you might like this9
  • This one belongs in the “news that didn’t make the news” section: the largest ever General Strike10 in history (150 to 180 million workers) took place in India on September 2nd, but … you probably never heard about it.
  • Note to authors: don’t let the criticism of critics bother you, even if it comes from famous authors themselves. Here11 is one such note, from H. G. Wells to James Joyce from 1928 !

Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It’s a considerable thing because you are a very considerable man and you have in your crowded composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men—on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence, and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? No. Do I feel I am getting something new and illuminating as I do when I read Anrep’s dreadful translation of Pavlov’s badly written book on Conditioned Reflexes? No. So I ask: Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?

  • This one may be boring, or it may be interesting: charting the course of corporate logos12 through the decades, in particular how they all seemed to have lost the text within them!
  • Finally, if you have to read one long-form article this month, let it be this one: Andrew Sullivan laments13 how “… An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me.”

Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety. In an essay on contemplation, the Christian writer Alan Jacobs recently commended the comedian Louis C.K. for withholding smartphones from his children. On the Conan O’Brien show, C.K. explained why: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he said. “Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”

Yep, read it.