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. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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