Thursday, May 10, 2012

Lifelogging Progress

My current project of moving old journals and such to Evernote continues apace. By the end of the eyar, I have confidence that I'll have the total framework established: one entry for every significant day of my life, along with navigational infrastructure like calendars and such.

As I write this, I have entered all my paper journals and other records from birth to August 1979, and mixed paper/electronic records from April 1991 to the present. I'm working both forward and backward to close the gap, which is a little under 12 years. I've been able to manage doing about one month each day, most days.

Here's something I'm pretty proud of (although as I say this, that question from Friends floats through my mind: "Is patheti-sad a word?"). This is one of my monthly index pages (April 2012 to be precise), with links to each daily page. The little pictures are there to give me a rough idea of work shift (day or evening), appointments, and other activities. Click to embiggen.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lifelogging, Journaling, Diary-Keeping, Self Storage, External Memory, Packratting, Whatever You Call It...

Keeping some kind of record of one’s life is a basic human need. We write diaries and  journals. We take photos and home videos. We keep mementos. We save ticket stubs, theater programs, scorecards, etc.

We try to remember, but human memory is a great deal more fallible and unreliable than we ever suspected. In our minds, we reconstruct our lives, rearrange events, erase places and people, impose false order according to narratives. And we do all this unconsciously, fully believing that our memories are true and correct.

Someday (sooner than you think) we’ll have true lifelogging -- automatic devices will record everything we see and hear, every second of every day, and it will all be stored in easy-to-access electronic archives. In the time it takes to form a query -- what was I doing five years ago? where did I leave my keys last night? what’s that restaurant we went to for Fred’s birthday a few years ago? -- we’ll have answers at our fingertips.

Science fiction writers like Robert Sawyer and Charles Stross have speculated about societies featuring such devices, and researchers like Gordon Bell are working on realizing the vision. But until then, there are some present-day tools that we can use.

In fifty-plus years, I’ve generated and collected more than my share of paper records. A journal that I’ve kept intermittently since middle school. Appointment calendars, task lists, project diaries. My beloved Dayrunner, which served me well until I converted to Claris Organizer on the Mac and then to a succession of Palms and Visors. All the paper memorabilia and keepsakes, some pasted in albums, some stuffed away in various boxes.

And then there are all the computer files, those Claris Organizer and Palm records (mostly transferred to iCal), digital journal entries, records and reports from work in a variety of wordprocessing formats. Digital photos, scans, web pages, PDFs.

Back in the Palm days, my husband taught me to keep a daily journal -- a few paragraphs jotted at the end of the day, recalling the day’s events and people, adding whatever details and reflections I want. Once I moved from Palm to iPhone, all those daily journals took their place in iCal along with everything else.

Things were great on the Palm. The search feature covered all calendar events and journal entries, so finding something particular was quick and easy. On the iPhone, not so much. Eventually it dawned on me that my daily calendar was not necessarily the best place to keep a daily journal or other information I wanted to search easily.

Enter Evernote.

If you’re not familiar with Evernote, you should be. Go to and set up a free account.

Evernote is an online service that also has apps for desktop (Mac or Windows) and iPhone/iPad (as well as Android, Blackberry, and a ton of other devices). Evernote does two things and does both of them extremely well.

First, Evernote stores things -- text that you type or paste in, digital documents like PDFs and photos and tons of other formats, photos you take on the spot, voice memos...the variety of formats it accepts is stunning.

Second, Evernote retrieves what you stored, based on fast and comprehensive search. It searches the text (and associated tags) that you put in, but it also searches text that appears within photos (there’s some pretty sophisticated OCR going on behind the scenes.)

In addition, Evernote keeps your data synchronized across all the devices you use. Add something from your iPad, and it’s available on the web as well as on desktop, laptop, and iPhone as well.

There are bells and whistles aplenty. While your information is stored securely in the cloud, the desktop apps also keep a local copy on your computer -- so you have a physical copy of your data in your hands at all times, in case the Internet self-destructs or the company shuts down.

It does all this for free. A paid account, a bargain at $45 per year, lets you upload a larger amount each month, keeps version history of your data, allows iPhone/iPad apps to store selected data locally, and (most crucially) searches text within PDF documents.

As soon as I discovered Evernote, I started using it for my daily journal. Every day gets its own entry in Evernote: I include the date in the title of each note, like this: “Journal 20120124 Tue” -- that’s all that’s necessary. Doing the date as eight digits means that dates sort properly; including the day of the week is also useful. Then I usually copy whatever appointments I had listed for the day, followed by a few paragraphs of daily journal. I do this on whatever device is handy.

Evernote gives me back the fast search and portability I had with the Palm.

Now...deep was time to start moving my entire life into Evernote.

Prior appointments and daily journals from iCal are no problem: I can cut and paste those into an Evernote document easily on the laptop; transferring a month’s worth takes less than half an hour (it’s an excellent job to do while watching television). Ditto with other electronic resources.

But the paper . . . .

Dayrunner and appointment calendars are simple: it only takes moments to type a day’s events and appointments into Evernote. It’s those darn paper journals that are the headache...who wants to type hundreds of pages of one’s adolescent ramblings into the computer?

Enter the Fujitsu ScanSnap.

The ScanSnap is a piece of equipment so efficient and user-friendly that you’d think it’s made by Apple. It’s an unobtrusive box that sits on your desk with one big blue button shining on the front. Load the hopper with paper (it says it can take up to 50 sheets but I usually do less than  that), press the blue button, and the ScanSnap gobbles down paper at 20 sheets a minute. It turns those sheets (both sides) into searchable PDFs. If you want, you can set it to send those PDFs directly to Evernote. You can also save directly to your computer, or run the excellent OCR software to make text versions.

The ScanSnap is a bit pricey, about $500, but once you have one you’ll wonder how you lived without it. You can use it (and Evernote) for much more than logging your life -- scan receipts, recipes, bills, newsletters, newspaper and magazine articles...really, anything you want.

With the ScanSnap, I am now able to scan my old journals and other memorabilia. I attach each PDF to the Evernote Journal page for that date. Evernote’s built-in OCR for PDFs is usually able to decipher my handwriting, making my handwritten journal pages as searchable as text I typed in.

I figure that once I’ve made a Journal page for every day (I have over 5,000 already, and I figure there will be upwards of 15,000 altogether), I will have a framework to which I can add things as they turn up. My college and work notebooks, with notes from classes and meetings and such. Those ticket stubs, convention programs, old cards and letters; anything that I deem part of my life story, I can scan and attach to the day’s page.

In the Journal section I’m trying to be a little selective; instead of 10 or 15 photos from a particular day, I’ll try to pick 1 or 2 really good ones. Things like receipts I’ll include if they are particularly germane to the day’s events, otherwise I put them in a Receipts section. Other paperwork gets a similar treatment. I do try to tag things with dates, so that if I do a general search for a particular day (i.e. 20120124), I’ll get everything from that date. As I continue to go through boxes and stuff from the past surfaces, I have a place to put it.

So here it is, my holy grail of lifelogging: a system that allows me to store and easily retrieve records of my whole life, complete with as much detail as I have available: pictures, video, audio, ticket stubs and receipts and playbooks and whatever else I want to add.

Before I get accused of shameless narcissism and/or foolish oversharing, let me hasten to add that all this information is for me only. I don’t share it with the world, nor do I have any desire to do so. (Technically, there’s a distinction between lifelogging, which is private done for oneself, and lifestreaming, which is public and cast out onto the Internet, but the two are often confused.) If I want to share something publicly, I use Twitter (by the way, all my tweets are automatically saved to Evernote) or a blog (likewise, all my blog posts go to Evernote).

When I was 15, I read the above panel in a Superman comic. That's how I conceive of what I'm doing here: stored and indexed by Evernote, but written by me and for me. Just call me Doctor Phoenix. 

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Moral Equivalent of Religion

One of the great unappreciated facts of life in the United States is that we don't need religion. We have something just as good.

What is religion for (besides enriching the ruling class)? It binds a people together in common beliefs. It provides a basis for morality. It inspires people to strive to achieve the best within themselves.

Here in the U.S. we have a secular, civil equivalent, and today is the day we celebrate that equivalent.

I'm talking about the American Mythology that we all learn in elementary school. The Mayflower. The Founding Fathers. The Revolution. The Presidency, Congress, and Supreme Court. Fort McHenry, the Stars and Stripes. Civil Rights.

This moral equivalent of religion has its scriptures: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (including amendments), the Gettysburg Address, and all the rest. (It has been said that the Constitution is the heart of the nation, but the Declaration is its soul.) It has its demigods and saints: Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, FDR, etc.

Most of all, this secular, civil system has its morality: the equality of all people, their possession of inalienable rights, the usefulness of separate states working together in peace, respect for individual and regional differences. A belief in the principles of the Enlightenment: rationality and the elevation of objective truth over emotion and deception. Universal literacy and education. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Also like religion, our civil system has also been used in the past to perpetrate evil: genocide of native Americans, subjugation of minorities, cruel war, perpetration of poverty and misery at home and around the globe.

The Christianists are always telling us that this is a Christian nation, founded on Christian values. They are wrong. This is an American nation, founded on American values -- and anyone who believes differently, anyone who places God (Jehovah, Allah, or whatever) above our shared American beliefs, is guilty of treason against the nation.

Fortunately, our civil system is distinct from religion in one respect: We don't kill those who believe differently, just because they disagree. (We may kill them for other reasons, particularly if we can make more money that way, but that's beside the point.)

Maybe we should start thinking about making an exception in some cases....

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What We're Watching on TV

Here are some of the things that we've been watching recently on TV.

The Big Bang Theory: What to say? Certainly the smartest comedy on TV. If you're a fan, geek, or nerd (or if you know & love fans, geeks, or nerds), you must watch this show. And if you don't fall into one of those categories, what are you doing reading our blog? The most recent episode, "The Pants Alternative," was hilarious. High point: Sheldon singing Tom Lehrer's Elements Song.

The Cleveland Show: Of the three shows in the Family Guy universe, this one is the weakest. It has its moments, and even at its worst it's a lot better than reality shows or (shudder) the evening news.

Family Guy: We don't care if it's written by manatees, it's a great show. Edgier and crazier than The Simpsons, not as tasteless as South Park, Family Guy has its ups and downs...but we wouldn't miss it.

FlashForward: Based on a Robert Sawyer book, this is one of several Lost wannabes that have sprung up lately. Unlike V, FlahForward has avoided too much Battlestar Galactica influence. It's nowhere near as compelling as Lost, and none of the characters have really grabbed us, but it's still worth watching.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: So far, this retelling of Fullmetal Alchemist seems pretty pointless. We understand that this time around they're following the manga much more closely than the original series did, so apparently things will be diverging from the original in some pretty major ways. So we're having faith and staying tuned.

In the Life: The monthly GLBT nonfiction show. Always worth watching.

Legend of the Seeker: We've never read the books, but boy is this a good show. The plots are sophisticated, the magic system is fresh and interesting, it looks great, and the acting is very fine. Each episode is reasonably self-contained, yet there's a definite larger story that progresses. If you're not watching Legend of the Seeker, you should be. The most recent episode, "Creator," makes a nice jumping-on point because it includes a lot of flashbacks that tell the story so far.

Lost: The best drama on TV today, bar none. I don't think we can say anything about Lost that others haven't already said. A long time ago we gave up trying to second-guess or figure it out: we decided to just go along for the ride. And what a great ride it is! Lost is destined to be a classic.

The Simpsons: Well into the 21st season, and it remains one of the funniest shows out there. The Simpsons is a cultural phenomenon; miss it at your peril.

Sons of Tucson: Didn't expect much from this one. It's by some of the folks who made Malcolm in the Middle, though, and it definitely has the sheer craziness that made Malcolm great. Usually it takes a while for new shows to settle in, but the second episode ("The Break-in") was really fun and zany. This looks like a worthy successor to Malcolm.

South Park: The fourteenth season is off to a bit of a rocky start. Still, for finger-on-the-pulse satire, there's nothing better on TV. South Park isn't for everybody (in fact, the show continues to carry a warning that it "should not be viewed by anyone"), especially people who are likely to get offended by...well, offensive language and situations. We're tempted to talk about the deeper meaning of the show, but the most recent episode ("The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs") pretty much ruined the fun of finding deeper meanings.

Space Ghost: The original 1966-68 Hanna-Barbera cartoon, not the weird Cartoon Network talk show parody. Boomerang has started showing Space Ghost, along with Dino-Boy. This was one of Don's favorite cartoons when he was a kid, and he's happy to see that it holds up about as well as other Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the period. It's no Jonny Quest, but it does have a super-powered hero, a cute boy (Jace), a monkey wearing clothes, and a kewl spaceship.

Star Wars: Clone Wars: Fun show. It's a kid's show, so there's some simplicity of plot and if you think too much about it, some things don't make sense. However, the show has the Star Wars look & feel down pat. There's action, humor, and good characterization. The computer-generated Anakin Skywalker is two dozen times as expressive as the real Hayden Christensen. The most recent episode, "Cat and Mouse," had two additional things going for it: A Republic Admiral who looked like John Cleese, and Bail Organa's holographic appeal: "Help us, General Kenobi. You're our only hope."

What We're Waiting For:

Some shows have been on hiatus, but will be starting up again soon. We're eagerly awaiting new episodes of Doctor Who, Nova, and Smallville.

What We're Not Waiting For:

Some other shows are coming back and we couldn't care less. The most notable are Stargate: Universe and V, both of which are way too influenced by the awful Battlestar Galactica.

What We're Avoiding:

Oh, my. What an enormous list. Reality shows, network and local news, sports on TV, most sitcoms, most programming on Syfy, etc. Reruns of King of the Hill still make us run screaming. We live in constant existential dread that we may accidentally see some of Caprica.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another Idiot From Virginia

A while ago Time Magazine ran an article debunking Jenny McCarthy's claim that vaccines cause autism. In response, they received (and printed) this letter:

TIME says "research conclusively shows that vaccines are safe for children." I recall my father, a biologist, insisting that science can prove falsity but never truth. As Albert Einstein said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."
James Pannabecker
Natural Bridge Station, VA

Hypothesis: Vaccines cause autism.

Science has proven that hypothesis false.

Q.E.D., E.M.D.W.

After all, James, science can prove falsity but never truth.

What is it with people from Virginia? Do their brains shut down after too much exposure to cured ham, sweet tea, and moonshine? Is idiocy their genetic heritage, because all the people with brains moved out long ago? Does overexposure to racism and narrow-minded religion cause idiocy? Or is it just that they're all descended from numerous bastard offspring of Jerry Falwell?

(Note: these are all hypotheses. Science can prove them false. Science is good at that.)

[Seriously, though, we have friends in Virginia, and I owe them an apology. One and all, I'm sorry you are stuck in Virginia.]

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Humans, Persons, and Others

Matthew Cornell raises a really interesting question: Are you still human when you're under general anesthesia? If self-awareness is what makes us human, then what are we when self-awareness is absent?

It's not just general anesthesia, either. What about dreamless sleep? What about the state of "flow," when one is so focused on a task that self-awareness vanishes?

Some of his commenters make a distinction (in legal terms) between "human" and "person." When unconscious, Matt is still human but is not a legal person -- indeed, the law specifies that a genuine person must make decisions for him. Similarly, the law recognizes a class of "persons" who are not human: corporations.

In the future, I can see the law recognizing other classes of nonhuman persons: cetaceans, perhaps, and/or other primates, artificial intelligences, or even sapient aliens.

Also, it seems to me that "personhood" is not simply a matter of self-awareness -- which is perhaps why I prefer the term "sapience." Self-awareness is one criterion, but there are others: intelligence, emotionality, autonomy, etc.

"Personhood" is a continuum, not on on/off switch. A rock (so far as we know) has none of these and is not a "person." A tree has more than a rock but not enough to be a "person." A hamster? Still not a person. A chimpanzee? Currently not a person, but that could change.

A human infant? Legally, not a full person...but has some of the aspects of "personhood." A severely mentally retarded human? Somewhat the same: human, but legally only partially a "person." A human fetus? A human embryo? Certainly both are less "persons" than an infant...but are they more "persons" than a chimp?

It occurs to me that a lot of the abortion debate rests on this human/person distinction. As usual in highly emotional arguments, both sides are using the same words to refer to different concepts. Would the debate be improved if everyone could agree on more precise language for words like "human," "person," and the like?

What about a human corpse? Still human, but not a person? What's the difference between a freshly-dead corpse and a human under general anesthesia? What if you rush the corpse to shock trauma and they resuscitate it? Do we have to get into questions of "potential" personhood?

And finally, isn't this whole thing just another form of the mind/body dichotomy? Is "human" the body and "person" the mind? Does your DNA make you human, but your brain makes you a person? But your DNA makes your brain, doesn't it? What about corporations -- they are persons, do they have minds? Do we need a new class for entities composed of more than one mind? (In Dance for the Ivory Madonna I riffed on the idea of the Superorganism as a multi-minded entity: there I posited that the Baby Boomers were an example of a Superorganism.)

I don't have answers to any of these questions...but they sure are fun to think about, aren't they?

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Avatar in 3D

Last night we saw Avatar in 3D at the Cinemark Egyptian Theater at Arundel Mills Mall. Thomas was impressed. Don got motion sickness and had to leave the auditorium and go throw up.

I've found a lot of discussion online about the question of whether the stunning new 3D process used in Avatar is making people sick. The consensus seems to be that it's all hype, or that any momentary discomfort goes away when one gets accustomed to the process.

Not so.

I am easily subject ot motion sickness. I don't go on roller coasters or similar rides. reading in the car makes me queasy. After watching Avatar for about half an hour, I was sweating, had a headache, and felt sick to my stomach. I would have suspected low blood sugar, but I'd just had a meal. I tried taking the 3D glasses off and watching the movie without them, but that didn't make it any better. For a while I sat with my eyes closed, hoping the feeling would go away. But eventually I had to excuse myself and go to the rest room to vomit.

I sat on a bench outside the auditorium until the movie was over (it's 2 hours and 40 minutes long). My stomach wasn't settled; Thomas drove home and I went to bed.

Now, I have seen other 3D movie in theaters, and have never had any trouble before. None of them have been the "REAL D 3D" used in Avatar.

The theater staff was awesome in their complete disregard for my distress. After coming out of the rest room, I approached the nearest staffer and said, "Do many people get physically sick watching that movie?" The woman told me that she'd never heard of anyone getting sick, and she bustled off about her business. A little later, an official-looking guy in a suit walked by with a walkie-talkie blaring; I caught his eye and he said "Can I help you?"

I told him that I'd gotten sick watching Avatar in 3D. I said, "I've got a friend still in there, so I guess I'll sit here until it's over." He said, "Okay" and sauntered off.

Did anyone offer me a place to lie down (which I desperately needed)? No. Did anyone suggest a refund, or a comp ticket, or anything of the sort? No. Did anyone say "I'm sorry" or anything similar? No.

So here's what I've learned.

1. No more 3D movies.
2. No more Cinemark Egyptian Theater at Arundel Mills.
3. Next time, throw up in the middle of the hallway.

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