A Trick to Sort Through Finder/Spotlight Search Results

Sometimes I have occasion to search my Mac with Spotlight for files (usually via the Finder) and then consider each file in turn for whatever I am looking for. For example, I recently wanted to look at everything I had noted about the reference manager Zotero. It's easy to get a list of all the files, but harder to check them off a list as I look at them.

When I am done with each file, I tag it with a color (usually gray) using a quick right-click, and extend the search to include "Tags is not gray" [[#fn.1][1]]

As I tag each file gray after I look at it, they automatically disappear from the list. When I'm done, I do another search for gray (which is now a saved search) and remove the tag from all the files.




[[#fnr.1][1]] Note that "Tags" doesn't show up in the main criteria list by default, so look for it under "Other". You can check the box to make it show up on the main criteria list for future searches.

ProfHacker's 25 Verbs to Use Instead of Email

We use email for many different things now: sharing information, links to entertainment, making requests. Not all emails are the same, so we shouldn't write them the same.

The ProfHacker blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education has a nice short post on "25 Verbs to Use Instead of Email" that helps frame the purpose of a message, which in turns guides how to write it.

Next time, don't just email someone. Respond, invite, share with, or amuse them.

Some useful perspectives for OmniFocus

One of my favorite TV programs of all time was The West Wing. When it comes to getting things done, I have often wished for the software equivalent of what happens with President Jed Bartlett finishes one thing and calls, "What's next?" Ideally, finding the next thing wouldn't be difficult, and it wouldn't require reconsidering a myriad of possible things to do.

We haven't reached that degree of AI yet, so the next best thing would be a way to organize what you have to do in a way that brings up a small set of choices for what's next, so you can decide based on whatever combination of priority, urgency, deadlines, energy level, and possibility makes sense in the moment. I have even mused about trying to write a program that does this, but it never got high enough on my own to-do list.

Instead, I've been using OmniFocus from The Omni Group to keep track of things to do for a long time, with varying degrees of success. As with many powerful programs, figuring out to make it work best for you can be a challenge. After a lot of experimentation and daily use, I have settled on a few perspectives that help keep things moving without spending too much time simply dealing with the to-do list.


The "Due" Perspective

<<text-1>> The first one is "Due". It lists the actions that are due soon, which I use for two things: tasks with deadlines and for reminders of long-term recurring tasks (like "pay the accumulated bill"). The setup for "Due" is:

  • Don't use project hierarchy
  • Group actions by Ungrouped
  • Sort actions by Context (It doesn't really matter to me which sorting is used; I try to keep the list of possible due actions short enough that the sorting is not important)
  • Filter by Due Soon
  • Filter by availability Remaining. Allowing any remaining task to appear means that I can see something that is due, even it got blocked by some other task in a project.
  • Filter by duration Any duration
  • Filter contexts Remaining
  • Sidebar selection: All contexts

Also, I often set the defer date for an item to the date I want it to appear, with the due date set to a couple days later so that the configuration to show upcoming due items doesn't cause it to be shown earlier than I want. For real deadlines, I usually set the due date a couple days in advance anyway, with a defer date (if any) that gives me plenty of time to take care of it.


The "Top Flagged" Perspective

<<text-2>> The second important perspective is "Top Flagged". I use flags to designate the items that I want to tackle on a particular day. This is, in effect, the list of things I want to do today. Most days, I start at the top and work down, since I try to keep my most important projects at the top. I also try to write tasks that can be completed in a reasonable time block (usually less than half an hour), rather than big amorphous tasks like "Write bestselling novel." In this way, I can also get to the less important tasks soon enough.

The setup for this one is similar to Due, with the following differences:

  • Sort actions by Project
  • Filter by status Due or Flagged
  • Filter by availability Available. I want to see only tasks that I am able to do now.
  • Sidebar Selection: A selection of the contexts relevant to getting my main tasks done. Include whichever ones are most important and possible for you to work with.

Sorting by project means that I can use the organization of Projects in the sidebar to give me a sense of relative priority in the projects as I scan down the list.


The "All Flagged" Perspective

<<text-3>> The third one is a slight variant of "Top Flagged". Sometimes during a review, or as part of capturing a new idea, I'll flag an item that isn't the next available action for a project. It's a note to myself that I need to deal with this soon, even if I don't want to rearrange the tasks to get it to the top. It's also useful for parallel projects, since OmniFocus only lists the first one as "next."

It's just like "Top Flagged," except:

  • Filer by availability is Remaining
  • Sidebar Selection is blank, meaning that all projects and contexts are available. This ensures that I don't miss anything.

This perspective is most helpful when "Top Flagged" is empty, or nearly empty, since all of those items will show up here as well.


Getting perspective, fast

<<text-4>> OmniFocus lets you customize the toolbar to include your own perspectives, using the View->Customize Toolbar menu item. Here's the main part of mine: https://www.evernote.com/shard/s13/sh/34a79a0b-550b-41c9-9439-7194089c856f/7760773776e9375b8257f71c953a6ff0/deep/0/Top-Flagged.png


Keeping things in perspective

<<text-5>> OmniFocus is a great place to create a complete list of projects and tasks, but it can get overwhelming to look at all of it to decide what to do next. Perspectives can limit what's in view to make it easier to focus on what's important at a given time and decide what to do next.

Taking care in writing with statistics

This morning's Wall Street Journal has an article on page A3 entitled "Computer-Based Tests Put Typing Back on the Curriculum" (on the web, it is "Common Core-Linked Tests Spur Schools to Teach Typing" — subscription required), an interesting discussion of how the computer-based testing associated with the Common Core curriculum implicitly assumes sufficiently good skills in typing to write answers for the tests.

One of the challenges described is the disparity in school support for computing, particularly between higher and lower income areas. The article states:

The most recent numbers from the U.S. Education Department show that schools with 75% of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch have, on average, 170 computers in the school, compared with 209 computers in schools with less than 35% of students eligible.

The data suggest a problem, and the conclusion is probably correct. Unfortunately, the data as presented do not give sufficient information for us to reach that conclusion: we don't know how the schools compare in size. The most useful measure here would probably be the ratio of students to computers. A school with 1000 students and 170 computers is probably in better shape than a school with 2000 students and 209 computers.

Perhaps this was a problem in the Department of Education's presentation of the data; we don't have enough information about it to know.

In any case, when we write with statistics and other data, it's important to make sure that the story from the data supports the points we are trying to make.

Close Encounters with a Bad Startup Sound

Episode 148 of the fabulous podcast 99% Invisible is about trademarked sounds (yes, it turns out you can do that). It's a fascinating 16 minutes on sound design.

One of the sounds mentioned is that startup chime used by Apple for the Macs. Back in the early 1990s, some people at Digital Equipment Corp. (aka DEC) wanted to add a startup chime to DEC's workstations. They thought the obvious choice was the notes for the initials: D,E,C. Sonic branding direct from the name! What could be better?

Unfortunately, D,E,C is parallel to the first three notes of the iconic theme from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind from 1977. Although the actual notes are G,A,F, F (octave lower), C, for those familiar with the movie, the D,E,C startup almost demands the completion of the sequence. Rather than a soothing, inviting soundscape as the system was booting, it created an unfulfilled tension.

As far as I know, the tones were never used in a shipping product.


The Practice of Cloud System Administration

Building and operating large-scale cloud computing systems is becoming more common, but that doesn't make it easy. A new book, The Practice of Cloud System Administration: Designing and Operating Large Distributed Systems, Volume 2 by Tom Limoncelli, Strata Chalup, and Christina Hogan can help. It's a comprehensive look at the technical, organizational, and people issues involved in creating and managing big—really big—cloud computing systems.

I had the pleasure of reviewing the manuscript, and then interviewing the authors for Pearson's InformIT. There's a good review of the book at InfoQ, and the book's own web site is at the-cloud-book.com. You can buy it at Powell's, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Joe Bob says check it out.

Finding Newton's Principia is Harder than You Might Expect

<<outline-container-sec-1>> tl;dr Bottom line: If you want to read a good translation of Newton's Principia, you almost certainly want Cohen and Whitman's: Barnes & Noble Amazon

<<text-1>> In 1687, Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a foundational work of science originally written in Latin. Finding an English translation turned out to much harder than I expected.

A simple Google search for "newton's principia" turns up unsurprising links on the first page: the Wikipedia entry, a scanned ebook at archive.org, the SparkNotes summary for those interested in cramming for the test, an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (don't start clicking links here if you have something else to get done), a link to Amazon (not linked here for reasons that will become clear), a one-paragraph item on Pearson's abbreviated Infoplease, a color scanned copy of Newton's own copy of the first edition at the University of Cambridge's digital library (which the detailed description understates as "with manuscript notes by the author!), a Project Gutenberg ebook of the first edition, and a page on Principia in an online exhibition from the University of Sydney of important works in the evolution of modern thought.

As it turns out, the most useful thing would probably have been to skimmed through the Wikipedia article to find out about translations, but it didn't occur to me at that point that the answer would be so complicated. A quick search for "newton principia pdf" turned up links to various scanned versions of the Latin editions and some old translations to English. Having failed to quickly find something readable, I searched both Barnes & Noble and Amazon. That's where the search gets to be extraordinarily confusing, because of various editions in Latin and translations into English.

The first edition was completed in 1686 and approved by Samuel Pepys (then President of the Royal Society) for publication, which actually occurred in 1687 (the date in the front matter is the day Pepys gave his imprimatur for it). According to Wikipedia, Edmund Halley (then clerk of the Society) paid for the publication because the Royal Society had already used up its publication funds for Francis Willughby's De Historia Piscium (The History of Fish). It also turns out that later Halley was not paid for his clerkship as promised by the Royal Society, but was paid with copies of/The History of Fish/. Newton also published a second edition in 1713, and a third in 1726, shortly before Newton's death. The third edition was thoroughly revised from the first, although most of the changes came between the first and the second. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a discussion of some of the differences, as does I. Bernard Cohen's A Guide to Newton's Principia that accompanies his translation.

All of those editions were in Latin. The Principia has been translated into English only a few times for publication: by Andrew Motte in 1729, by Robert Thorp (Book 1 only) in 1777 with a second edition in 1802, along with a version of Motte's partially revised by Florian Cajori published in 1934, and modern translation by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman in 1999. Motte's translation was revised by N. W. Chittenden for the first American edition in 1846 (scanned copy). There is also an online translation by Dr. Ian Bruce at 17th Century Maths, and there have also been various translations of portions of Principia.

In addition to the scanned Latin texts already mentioned, the definitive Latin edition now was edited by Alexandre Koyré and I. Bernard Cohen with Anne Whitman, and published by Harvard University in two volumes in 1972 as Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica: Facsimile of third edition (1726) with variant readings. The accompanying Introduction to Isaac Newton's "Principia" is available as a reprint e-book.

Cohen critiques both Motte and the Motte-Cajori translations the Guide. Cohen also wrote an Introduction to Newton's Principia, originally published by Harvard University Press. It is hard to find, but there is a 2013 reprint, as well as used book stores. The Harvard Gazette published a short article about Cohen and Whitman's translation when it was published by the University of California Press in 1999.

So all of this explains why there's not a good English version available online–there's really only one choice, and it's Cohen and Whitman's. But that's not the end of the problem: it's hard to figure all this out on either Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Both sites conflate various of these versions in reprints together, including the comments, so it's not at all obvious what you're getting. The descriptions and the comments don't always refer to exactly what is displayed. Some of the commenters have been kind enough to specify exactly what they are talking about, so there are some clues. But beware the one-click purchase here!

Bottom line: If you want to read a good translation of the Principia, you almost certainly want Cohen and Whitman's: Barnes & Noble Amazon

Bonus link: Brent Nordist has his own notes In Search of Principia about finding a free online translation.

A program to tell me when library books are due

We frequently get books from the library, and it sometimes gets hard to keep track of what's due when. So I wrote a Python program to scrape the web page for the local library system (Minuteman Library Network in eastern Massachusetts). It's old enough that it scrapes the "classic" interface, which I also find easier to use. The scraper is very primitive, picking things out of the HTML with regular expressions, but it does the job.

Given a file listing library card IDs and PINs, the program prints a list of books checked out, along with a note for any books on hold that have come in. I use it with a cron job on a Linux machine so the results are mailed to be every night. It's available on github at treese/booksdue. As noted in the README, the only Python package dependency is mechanize, for pretending to be a web browser.

This kind of program is a reminder that APIs for data make it possible to use the data in different ways, without the application vendor having to do all the work.

Some of my columns from ACM Network Magazine

From 1998 to 2009, I wrote a regular column called "Putting It Together" for the NetWorker magazine published by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The magazine has been discontinued, but here are some of my favorites from that time. Each one is a PDF of the column as it appeared in the magazine.

2000-Q4 Data Collection and Consumer Privacy

2001-Q4 Its Ten Oclock - Do You Know Where Your Data Are

2002-Q4 Web Services for the People

2003-Q2 Programming Literacy - Is it for everyone

2004-Q2 The Coming of Sensor Networks

2005-Q3 Once Collected, Data Isnt Private

2008-Q3 Being Too Connected