My Tools: iTunes and iPod

Fabulous coloursOne of the pieces of technology that quickly and easily became integral to my day-to-day work was my iPod.. Prior to getting my iPod I used a number of other media players; everything from a cheap MP3 player to the media player on my Windows Mobile phone. The integrated iTunes + iPod experience provides a significantly different experience.

The main benefits for me come in the podcast experience where it’s the simple things that count:

  • Simple selection and synchronisation with iTunes
  • Remembering the last playing position
  • Having podcasts listed in a specific menu structure
  • Good handling of previously played items including synchronisation back to iTunes.

I don’t just use it for podcasts though, there is a lot of music on there too classical, rock, jazz, instrumental.

It really becomes a significant tool in a number of scenarios. Here are some examples:

  • Technology information – I subscribe to a number of different technology podcasts. These are a reasonable way of keeping my technology knowledge current. It’s not my primary way, which is RSS, but the change of medium does give me different insights.
  • Quiet space – when I am wanting to focus on something I find that quiet classical music is a great way of removing a lot of distractions. I have a couple of playlists set up.
  • Contemplation and meditation – I try to make meditation a part of every day. There are a couple of podcasts that are produced specifically to help in this process. They provide a great way of slowing down.
  • Gym – Listening to upbeat music makes a difference to my work rate in the gym. I’ll also use this time as a time to consume more podcasts.

My next investment is likely to a kit for the car to extend my access to podcasts primarily.

I tend not to use iTunes that much for playing tracks, when I am working from home I’ll use last.fm to provide tracks – primarily classical.

The update process for iTunes is still a pain in the rear.

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My Tools: Windows Live Writer

Newby BridgeEvery one of the blog services provides an adequate online post creation capability – but I prefer to use an application on my PC. I’ve tried the online capabilities, they are adequate, but there is something about them that impacts upon my creativity. I don’t really know what it is, perhaps it’s just the way I have been wired after years of using client based applications, perhaps it’s something more fundamental than that. I’m not a trained psychologist or a creativity expert so it’s just a perception.

My current preferred client application is Windows Live Writer. I’ve been using WLW all the way through the various beta iterations and onto the current 2008 version.

It’s interesting to go back to a very simple editor after years of using more complex ones with lots of formatting capabilities. Having the format constrained actually helps my writing, the fact that there is really nothing to fiddle with helps me focus on the words. It’s not dissimilar to the effect of the clean interface of outlining in Word.

There are lots of plug-ins available, but I only really use one of them and that’s Flickr4Writer. Flickr4Writer, as it’s name suggests, allows the easy insertion of Flickr pictures. I have tags set up on my Flickr sets so that I know which pictures I’ve already used, and which ones I haven’t. It’s a process that isn’t perfect, but it works well enough.

I also try to add categories and tags to each post so I’ve set up WLW to remind me before it posts. These are both very easy to add with WLW, I keep meaning to go and look for an automatic tagging plug-in but haven’t, so it can’t be that big a deal.

Some of my most popular posts are ones about the dictionary in WLW, they still get lots of posts even though they are largely redundant, especially from a UK English point of view.

My Tools: BlackBerry 8800

Jimmy does BlackBerryYes, I’m a BlackBerry user. Unlike some, though, my BlackBerry is currently my only mobile communication device – phone, email, IM, Twitter – everything.

I’ve been trying to de-clutter my life, so I’m trying out the integrated communication experience yet again. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to get to an integrated experience but failed because of some issue or other. I’m hopeful that this time will be different.

One of the challenges that any integrated communication device has to overcome is that ever changing array of ways that people want to communicate. Having voice and email integrated onto a single device isn’t really that much good anymore, I expect voice, email, IM, browser, twitter, SMS.

Perhaps surprisingly I don’t yet expect photo or video. I love taking pictures, but I don’t yet use it as part of my day-to-day activity, this means that the 8800 (without a camera) works for me. I know this will change and that video input is really important to many people already. As an example, we went shopping this evening, we got separated from my son, Jonathan, while he went to try some cloths on. Rather than choose there and then, he took photographs of himself in the mirror to look at later, and what did he use for this, the camera on his phone of course. I would never have thought that way, but it was natural to him to use the camera for this purpose.

I have to say, that as an integrated communication device, the BlackBerry 8800 is the best thing I have used by a long way. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some niggles, but that’s not why I write these posts, and I’ll take more time to explain them later. Because the BlackBerry has become such a capable communicator it’s difficult to really explain all of the ways that I use it, so here are some examples:

  • The email capabilities are great; now that I have become reasonably efficient with the keyboard. There’s a story behind that, but it can wait for another time. I tend to only use it for short emails, but try to make the short emails meaningful all the same. I find that some others just respond because they think that there is a need to respond, this makes them respond with little meaning.
  • Our internal SameTime system is integrated with the Enterprise Messenger and that is a great experience for such a small form factor. The status code are quite limited though, and that can be a problem (active, away, do not disturb). This capability has been of the most use during meetings when I need to clarify something with someone outside the meeting.
  • I use twitterberry to keep up to speed with twitter. I suspect that 50% of my posts on twitter are from my BlackBerry. I keep getting caught out by this though, because others are reading my posts they ask me questions that I’m not expecting as soon as I walk in the room.
  • The voice dialling capability is my preferred method of dialling, especially when I am in the car. My experience is that it’s very accurate for my contact list which is just short of 100 people, I’m not sure whether that would degrade with more contacts. I love it even more now I have found the lady with the English accent and I no longer have to say “mobil” rather than “mobile”.
  • I don’t use voice dialling in the office, that will definitely get you some funny looks.
  • My preference for mapping is the Google Earth capability. I find that it downloads the images faster than the built in maps.
  • I sometimes use the inbuilt browser, and sometimes use Opera Mini. The difference is in the site that I am wanting to access. Opera Mini gives a really good approximation of the way the page would look on a larger screen. The inbuilt browser gives you a more compact representation.
  • NewsGator Go! acts as a supplement to FeedDemon, but the grazing experience isn’t as good, but much of that is a form factor issue rather than an application issue. The power here is that it’s using the same synchronisation engine.
  • I don’t use to-do at all, not for technical reasons, because I prefer to mange my tasks via bits of dead-tree media.
  • I don’t use many of the media capabilities, because I find that my iPod gives me such a good experience that I’m not sure that I want to operate two different media devices.
  • I regularly use the key on the top with the power symbol on it. I believe that this button is an optional extra on some peoples devices, or at least you would think it was by the number of times they actually turn it off.

I’ll write some more another time about some of the foibles that annoy.

My Tools Summary: April 2008

Easedale TarnI am so behind.

Some people suggested that a summary of the “My Tools” posts would be helpful so I decided to do one every month. Unfortunately I haven’t had chance in April, but here we go anyway:

Enjoy, more coming soon, honest.

My Tools: FeedDemon

GrandadFeedDemon is my feed reader of choice and has been for a very long time now. I loved FeedDemon so much that I actually paid for it when it wasn’t free.

It’s now free which just adds to the goodness.

Steve commented a few days ago, when talking about email overload that:

If anything I find I suffer much more from RSS overload than Email overload, but RSS readers are designed from the get go to help people cope

I would agree. My feed list is several hundred long, most of them active, but FeedDemon allows me to scan through them in a way that I regularly find remarkable. If I had as many email as feed posts I wouldn’t cope, but I do cope and cope quite well.

Feeds have revolutionised the way that I interact with the web – I rarely go to any web site to see what’s new. I used to go around a set of sites regularly, it was frustrating and annoying and took up loads of time. Feeds give me the changes, FeedDemon presents them in a way that allows me to scan through them quickly.

My favourite key combination within FeedDemon is ctrl+d which takes you to the next feed with unread items. On one of my keyboards the “d” key is starting to look a little warn which shows how often I use it.

My normal working habit is to scan through quickly flagging things within FeedDemon that I am going to read soon and I tag things into del.icio.us (using  FeedDemon) that I want to remember for some indeterminate point in the future. I tend to do this early in my working day. If I’ve got some time to read I’ll do it there and then, if I haven’t I’ll close FeedDemon down, leaving it closed until I have time to do some reading.

If I forget to close FeedDemon I find myself going back to it to see if there is anything interesting happening in the world – this becomes a huge time drain.

One of my biggest friends in FeedDemon is the “Panic Button”.

On returning to my feeds after my holiday last week I hit the panic button and marked a load of older feeds read. As the dialogue says – this isn’t email after all. I’ve recently introduced a few, non-technical, friends to FeedDemon and feeds in general and they are really struggling with this concept. We still have a long way to go before we really understand the social impacts of some of this technology. People have learnt how to scan a newspaper over hundreds of years, and I think that it’s a similar skill, we just need to help them realise that.

I use FeedDemon on a number of devices, depending on where I am sitting. The NewsGator synchronisation engine is great for keeping the feed list and read/unread status aligned. It’s not always perfect, but it’s close enough for me to be able to switch between machines with little impact.

My Tools: Twitter & Twhirl

Jimmy and GrandadI suspect that some people might struggle with me calling Twitter a tool, but that’s what it is. For me it certainly fits into the category of “anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose”.

What purpose does Twitter help me accomplish?

The main purpose it help me accomplish is the massively important one of social connections and network building. The people that Twitter allows me to interact with are between 10 and 1000 miles away from where I am sitting. I’m not working on a project with these people so I have no need to be in regular contact. But there is real value in interacting.

There are real gems in the information that people share. My organisation, like many others, has a very string informal structure made up of many loosely coupled networks of people all interacting to get things achieved. Twitter is absolutely fabulous for this. I know who is connecting with who, I see who is interacting with who, I get to interact.

Twitter has become my virtual coffee machine, or my virtual office foyer. It’s the place where I catch-up with people.

The problem I have with Twitter is explaining this to other people. This video has helped some people get their head around it, but to be honest, it’s one of these things that you have to see.

I’m not sure I would use Twitter if it wasn’t for a client tool keeping me interested. My current tool is twhirl.

Not really sure how I settled upon twhirl, but I’m very pleased that I did. It has a few foibles but does what I need it to do.

A browser based interface is OK, but it requires you to go there, it requires you to go and to see. If something is expecting me to go and look then it will be disappointed, it doesn’t really matter what it is. A client based tool goes and does the looking for me and tells me when there is something worth looking at. It also means that I can write my own tweets in a micro-blog manner with the minimum of disruption.

My Tools: Word Outlining

Jimmy and GrandadI pondered for a little while how I should start this series of posts on the tools that I use. I only pondered for a little while, for some reason I settled quite quickly on the outlining capabilities with Microsoft Word.

Most of my working hours used to be spent editing reasonably large documents. A significant proportion of my time creating documentation. Many of these documents already have a defined structure, but I don’t think in linear defined structure, I think non-linearly. I have never written a document by starting at the beginning of the document and writing until I have finished, my brain just doesn’t work that way.

There are a lot of people who are exactly the same as me.

The information that I need to complete a documents is rarely available when that I start it. Most of the time it’s not until I start the document that I know what information I actually need.

These two major factors mean that it is inevitable that I work on different parts of the document at different times; adding something here, adding something there, moving something from one section to another section, adding new sections, removing sections.

When I work with other people I watch how they do things to see whether there is something I can learn. I’m always amazed at the small number who are using outlining.

I don’t know how I would cope without it, the alternative is lots and lots of scrolling.

Using Word Outlining

For those of you who don’t know what outlining is I thought I would give a short overview of how to use it.

Outlining mode in Word is accessed via the View controls in all version of Word.

Word then strips away all of the document formatting and gives you a structure of the document with each sub heading indented to show its level within the overall document.

You can open and close sections by clicking on the “+” and “-” at the start of each heading.

Sections are moved up and down a level by using the controls at the top of the screen (click on the arrows) or by using Tab (down a level) and Shift+Tab (up a level) with the cursor at the start of the heading.

To enter text inside the section, within the body, you need to choose the “Body Text” level alternatively you can use the incredibly useful key command CTRL+Shift+N. CTRL+Shift+N sets the paragraph style to be “Normal”.

The other really useful capability is the ability to only show sections at a particular level, do this by selecting from the drop down list in “Show Level”.

You can also drag and drop whole sections around the structure.

I find that keyboard shortcuts are really important for outlining because outlining is about the content and not about the style. Moving a mouse around takes away the focus, keyboard shortcuts retains the focus.

The outline viewing mode is very minimalist, more so in Word 2007 than any other, and this again helps to keep the focus on the content.

Sometimes when i am reviewing someone else’s document I view it into outline mode to see whether it tells the story from a structural perspective. It’s often the best way of noticing that whole sections are missing.

If you haven’t used outlining and you write documents, then you should.

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