Category Archives: Reminder systems

Remembering that it’s your happy birthday

Periodically I look at the sorts of tools that you can use to remember that it's someone's birthday. Here's the current things that put birthday reminders in front of me every day.

Facebook-birthday-wishThe 10,000 lb. gorilla of birthdays is Facebook, which offers a nice simple interface to send a one-line birthday greeting. You could visit Facebook daily just for birthdays and not much more, and be reasonably satisfied with the results. The site offers several convenient ways to send gifts via Starbucks, iTunes, and Target.

The up and coming wannabe of birthdays is Google Plus, which puts birthday notifications on your Plus home screen. I'm not 100% certain where it gets its birthday information from – whether it pulls in details from you Google Contacts data, or if it's just self-reported birthdays on your Google profile.

LinkedIn has birthday alerts as well, but some people have complained that the reminders are annoying. There's no apparent way to turn this feature off in LinkedIn.

Finally, I have a new Contacts + app running on my Android phone, and it reaches into your contact database and reminds you about people who have birthdays today. The handy thing about it is that new birthdays show up as notifications with a one-click to a screen that offers you lots of ways to contact someone, so that if you were to want to send someone a postcard (a few days late, alas) you could be ready for that task.

I still don't have a great way to routinely get birthday postcards to people on time – that would take a level of daily or weekly commitment and organization that I'm not yet ready to take on!


Evernote (for Android) as a reminder system

I have a fickle relationship with reminder systems. Usually the drill is to discover something new, vigorously dump everything I can possibly think into it, and then slowly but surely get disillusioned with it as time goes on. The smell of a new system is seductive, and when something new comes along there's a tendency to look at its good side and to focus on the bad parts of whatever you were using before.

Thus my latest desire is to stop using Github as an issue tracking system for personal reminders, and to start using Evernote. I've written about Github before; the truth of it is that it's not a bad system, but it's set up enough for multi-person use that some of the easy affordances of single person use go to the wayside. Besides, my own use of it has tapered off and that's a sign that something new needs to take its place.

Evernote hasn't been written about much here, but there's a lot that I am starting to like about it. The Android support for reminders is new. Android support in general it lags a bit behind iOS. The level that I'm currently using it it's still free. Their reminder system is new, but still looks at least minimally functional enough to get the work done. Since it fits in my phone pretty well it seems as though I should be able to make the transition and not be pinned down in front of my computer screen when it's time to brainstorm what to do next.

Basically it's what every new system is, the new system smell, while it's still revolutionary and not the politburo. Enjoy the new system before you figure out how to routinize it into distraction.


Hey, you could do that even on paper rolodex cards! Giving up on Contactually for now

I wrote an early review of Contactually, and I signed up for their pro service after the trial period expired. I used the system for a couple of months, but have decided to back down from the pro version back to the free version for a while. Here are some reasons for that.

First and perhaps foremost, Contactually is relatively expensive at $20/mo. I looked at what I was spending (or not spending) on other internet services that I use and like. I don't have a Flickr Pro account, but I used to, and I could get a year of service for less than two months of Contactually. Similarly I could renew another year of Pinboard pro service for less than two months of Contactually. It's not that it's expensive in absolute terms, but relative to other things I want to spend money on online, it looks spendy.

Second – and this is as much of a criticism of my habits than of Contactually – I never really managed to get it to systematically unearth new people to contact that had fallen off my radar. Rather than provide an ever-changing set of new folks to prod me to reconnect with, it seemed to recommend the same people over and over. That was useful at first to be mindful of people a second time if I had passed them by the first time, but the net result was that there were fewer people than I expected that Contactually re-introduced me to.

I have an Android phone, and Contactually doesn't yet have an Android app. I don't think that's a deal breaker, but I'm hoping that they come out with something that's awesome – and I'm willing to re-up for pro service again in order to try it out if that's what it takes.

I'm still unhappy overall with the state of Android contact managers. I would have thought that everyone ever designing a contact manager would have an updatable field for "last contact date" that had some kind of easy to view screens to see how you're doing, and that would be smart about noticing phone calls, emails, text messages, and meetings from your calendar. Hey, you could do that even on paper rolodex cards! Contact management basics need to be better across the board so that your phone can prompt you on who to call next, a sort of predictive dialer for your life.

Alas, poor delicious, you knew us well

The scuttlebutt is that delicious is going to be axed by Yahoo. 

Once upon a time, I bookmarked everything interesting that came across my path to delicious (back when it was  It was part of my routine, and a daily summary was posted through to this blog.

Delicious was from the tags era of the Internet, where in addition to noting that a thing existed you could add your own tags to describe it. Sometimes these were straightforward tags, like the 1533 pages I marked as "annarbor". Others were idiosyncratic, like the 5 pages I marked as "attention-to-irrelevant-details".

There are other, better ways to bookmark things so that lots of people see them. The facebook "like" button gets more page views without consuming any cognitive overhead about how to tag, whether to tag, and what you've tagged before. Actually writing about something is quite a bit better than just bookmarking it, because you get to be yourself for a little while and not just an automaton forwarding on links automatically.

Every bookmark I ever did on delicious, up until now, is archived for posterity here: . As I review it, there really should have been more of them marked "attention to irrelevant details". It's hours of reading, though some of it goes by fast because the site that was linked to has disappeared, leaving only the bookmark and whatever clipping I managed to care about.

edit: now with more cognitive overhead

more delicious:

Les Orchard, Let a million bookmarks bloom. "Use the web. Host your own, pay for it, or find someone who values your data."

Stephen Hood, We can save Delicious, but probably not in the way you think. "The Delicious user community could organize to save the data themselves via a coordinated harvesting project." 

Edward Vielmetti is

Nathan Schneider defends the memory theater

An essay published in Open Letters Monthly.

What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects—the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives—is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.

Any essay of lamentation about the end of books and the glory of human memory has to include some touchstones. Frances Yates is that touchstone here:

One of the books that I used to habitually pick up from my college library, and which, recently, I finally bought used, is Frances Yates’s classic The Art of Memory. First published in 1966, it chronicles lost mnemonic techniques, passed down from the ancient orators to the Renaissance humanists: spaces people would conjure in their minds to help them remember all the precious accoutrements of civilized knowledge.

The Art of Memory

One of the pleasures of writing incessantly online is the likelihood that you've run across something before, even if you don't have it in the top of memory. Prentiss Riddle wrote about The Art of Memory in 2003, apparently because I mentioned it on a mailing list, saying this:

[Frances Yates], [The Art of Memory] — just getting started on this one, which is an account of the history of mnemotechnics: the art and practice of expanding and augmenting the human memory. The classical account of this goes back to Simonides of Ceos, who had memorized all of the names and seating arrangements of the attendees at a banquet while giving a speech to them and was thus able to identify the dead when the banquet hall collapsed. Ancient orators used these memory systems to memorize long, long speeches.

Now, armed with a new word "mnemotechnic", I can go through and pluck out this precious specimen from Google Books; the Phreno-mnemotechnic dictionary, a work from 1844 by Francis Fauvel-Gourand with a preface that illustrates the noted figures in the history of those who have an exceptional memory. The bulk of the work is a dictionary compiled along the principles of "soundex", where words with similar consonant structure are indexed together and given a number. Thus you will find on page 62 the entry for 382 ("homophony", "muffin"); to make this make sense, you need to get a mapping between the "m" sound and the number 3, "f" or "ph" and 8, "n" and 2, and then encode.

Could there be any practical use for this? Certainly; this is a learned synesthesia, where numbers turn into words. If you ever have had to memorize a license plate number (I am looking at one where the partial plate is "6981") you know it's hard. But knowing that 69 maps to "sheep" and 81 maps to "fat" means that this vehicle can be memorialized as "sheepfat", which is wonderful in its own way.

Now where was I? Distracted, I guess. Like Nathan Schneider, my memories are indexed in part through the books I have been reading. The bookshelf that he evokes, carefully collected, is the memory construct that says that when you pull in one book you want to be able to leaf through the one next to it on the bookshelf, or the whole shelf full of them assembled for a purpose. You judge the quality of a story told through books by the quality and comprehensiveness of the books invoked to tell it, and you look for the bibliography eagerly for texts you have missed.

My bookshelves are too small to hold all the books that might sit on them, but sometimes there have been ways to make up for that. The photo of the bookshelf provides some substitute to prove not only that you have had the books but also that you know that some go together with others.

Find the book <a href="">The Art of Memory</a><img src="; width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> on Amazon.

Should I ditch my smart phone?

I have a shiny phone with more computing power than the first computer I ever owned.  I also have a shiny brick, because the phone isn't working now, and when I took it back to where I bought it they gave me a phone number to call to fix it.  (I call it my BrickBerry.  It's so bricked, it doesn't even play Brickout.) There's nothing worse than talking on the phone, trying to fix your phone.

Get in touch, free of charge: Just dial 611 from your T-Mobile phone or call 1-877-453-1304. Customer Care representatives are available from 3 a.m. to 10p.m. PT, daily. Automated account help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

You can either call Toll Free # 1-800-937-8997 or we here in Technical Care web chat can assist you.

I am tempted to go back to the worst possible phone that could possibly work.  I had an old, old Nokia candybar-style phone, which at one point I called my "WAP phone" because I had to wap on the side of it to get it to work.  Yet it did work, and it made lots of phone calls, and it seemed cheap at the time.  And it was cheap – it had a monochrome screen, only the most rudimentary games, no camera, nothing.  Cheap but reliable.  

JVM Error 517

An unrecoverable error on the phone.

T-mobile policy for this error is to ship a replacement phone.

An inconsistency has been detected in the VM persistent object store.

Smart phones aren't cheap, but increasingly they don't seem all that smart either.  Shiny, yes; futuristic and wonderful, sure.  But smart, not so much.  Does your phone remind you of what you need to do, when and where you need to do it, but not so naggingly that you turn it off?  Probably not.  Does that smart phone make you look smarter when you're walking down the street punching buttons on it?  Not so sure. Twittering from the bus to let the planet know which bus has squeaky brakes?  Uh huh.

The trap, perhaps, is confusing "smart phone" with "smart person".  Does a smart phone make you smart?

One possibility is to ditch phones with contracts entirely and go to a prepaid plan, which means that every call would cost something and I've have to be smart about how to use my phone.  That turns out to be easier now that I have Google Voice, which gives me more tools than ever to not answer my phone but still get a message to me.  Google Voice lets me direct any call to any phone, and thus the cell phone simply becomes another selectable destination to originate or terminate calls on the same number.

Other people's take on this:

My monthly bill says buying a dumb phone would have been smarter.

mobile meeting notes and mobile social networks

You're at a meeting, somewhere, and you want to quietly and unobtrusively take meeting notes or some other record of the meeting while it's happening, and you have a mobile phone but nothing else.

What tool or application do you use?

Mobile twitter.  Twitter your short notes out to the world, or use a direct message to some bot of some kind that collects and gathers the notes for you.   Twitter's mobile interface is fast, simple, and reasonably complete.  Down side: no easy way to look up something about the person who just introduced themselves.

Mobile Facebook.  Write on the wall of people (or your own wall) as notes come up, and then somehow reconstruct it afterwards.  The people search tool is very handy for looking folks up on the fly, and you can send someone a followup about some question while you're still at the event.  Down side: Slow enough that if people are moving fast you don't keep up.

Mobile wiki (Socialtext Miki).  Keep notes on a scratch pad on a wiki that you edit on your mobile device. A perfectly good text input box and it makes refining your notes into something longer very easy (and you can go back and figure out more about what you missed).    Down side: no lookup on the fly, so if you fumble someone's name you can't look it up.

Other mobile contact network and social network managers – both Plaxo and LinkedIn have mobile versions, and I haven't tried to figure out how to use those while standing up and listening to be a bit more informed.

Notable here is that there isn't a single Google mobile tool in the arsenal.  The Blackberry native mail client is better than the Google Mail java client, and almost anyone can have a text box open, but if there's a mobile Orkut then my world of people doesn't use it.

If I had two hands free to do this I probably would have used delicious as a part of the process – I've gone to a bunch of lecture or seminar type events where my pattern is to google what the speaker says and delicious the results, and if the net is fast enough where that is you can almost do that in close enough to real time to keep up.   But that's too much and too rude to do in anything other than a lecture situation.

Paper has some tremendous uses here – one recent event I went to I used some of Dave Gray's visual thinking skills that he's taught and put into his new book and did things like sketch what the speakers were wearing in addition to taking notes on what they were saying.   I have a much clearer visual memory of that event, but I don't remember anyone's names.

A work in process to be sure.  There were 11 tables full of people, and I got almost everyone's names, and didn't quite catch everything I hoped to catch; thanks everyone for lunch.  The conclusion of the question at the table – would you buy a car from a bankrupt auto company? – is that most people would be worried about service and availability of maintenance and parts, and that a Cuban mechanic would be someone to keep in your rolodex, and that if the worst happens at least we can look forward to an expanded orphan car show in Ypsi.