Ditching a Paper Notebook?

This post builds a bit on my Life Philosophy, as outlined in a previous post, feel free to read the first part of that post if you want more background!

Oh, and this is another long one, so if you want the short of it, here it is: I’m going to try scanning analog notes to a digital format to improve productivity, but I’m not sure how it will go. Thus starts an experiment in digital archiving documented online!

So if you’re a frequent reader (Thanks for being one of a handful), you’ll recall my previous post about trying to simplify my life possession-wise. And you’ll remember a part of it was devoted to carrying less to work each day. In the week between that post and this post, I realized something about how I use my Moleskine notebook.

And that simply was that during some weeks, I don’t use it at all!

Let me take a step back and talk about why I pay (willingly) more for a run-of-the-mill notebook just because it says “moleskine” on it. It all has to do with something I found out in 8th grade, when I started using a nice retractable ballpoint pen at school. The pen itself cost around $8 (something I vividly know since I broke a number of them as an awkward teenager), but it was silvery-sleek and wrote well. And I found something out about myself when using it: If I buy something a bit more expensive, I’ll keep track of it and use it until it’s dead – something that cuts down on waste in the long run.

For most of my adult life, I’ve kept notes from classes or meetings on a computer if possible (This is why I can post an essay I wrote for College Comp 1 here if I so chose to…), but more impromptu meetings posed a considerable challenge. I’d usually either grab some scrap paper and make notes on it (Which invariably resulted in me losing the paper sooner or later), or I’d scrawl notes in the margin of a paper we’d be discussing or a meeting outline (Which also usually got lost, or filed somewhere I’d never think to look). About 2 years ago I saw the Moleskine brand notebooks and though “Hey, those are reasonably good looking, look rugged enough, don’t cost too much, and are small enough to carry in my cargo pants”. So I bought a few, and have been using them ever since. I recently filled one up completely, something I feel very accomplished about – it’s the first time in my life I’ve filled an entire bound notebook of ANY kind.

So my Moleskine began to be an indispensable companion, with my co-workers fondly remembering how at a meeting in January I could look up notes from July, and quote them humorous anecdotes from said meeting (I have a habit of writing down funny ‘quotes’ people let out during meetings). This week I was happy to find that a case I had from my old iPaq h6315 fit my current Moleskine exactly, and thus it could be clipped to my belt instead of wasting pocket space.

But let’s return to the usage scenarios for the Moleskine in general. To whip out the notebook, the following criteria must be met:

  • Small-group meeting (less than 20 people) where laptops are not present.
  • Need to write down actionable points to follow up with later.
  • Need to reference material later, however generally this material is a 1-liner or something that would never require a whole sheet of paper devoted to it.

The meetings I generally end up using the Moleskine for include things like lab meetings, meetings with colleagues and advisors, personnel interviews, anecdotal mentions (e.g., Hey, check out this website…), etc… And it just so happened that this week, I had none of these to attend! While I was at work 3 days this week (I passed up the chance to go in on Wednesday and hang with the drunks in NYC), most of Columbia was on spring break, so many of my meetings took place via e-mail conversations, something already documented. I didn’t take the Moleskine out once, and I felt really annoyed that I carried it back and forth. It could have sat in my desk drawer all week, which leads me to think that in the future, that’s possibly what I’ll do.

But this doesn’t mean I’ll ditch it entirely, I’ll just see how it goes trying to convert my analog notes to digitally recordable and backup-able notes via Evernote. I plan on taking notes like I always did, but then allocating 10-15 minutes daily to scanning them (Using my cell phone’s 5 MP camera) and saving them to my Evernote notebook. Evernote can search written notes, so hopefully this will give me the best of both worlds – analog text, and digital omnipresence. I just bought a $45 Evernote premium subscription so  I’d be set to try this, and I’m sure paying $45 a year will motivate me a bit (at least it should – it has in the past!). And with a bit of luck, I’ll be down one more thing to carry on a daily basis! I already ditched the iPod thanks to the Nexus One, but since it’s only been 1 day so far doing such, we’ll have to see if that holds.

I plan on posting updates from time to time, so if you’re curious how I’m doing, feel free to check in here.

Jon’s Life Philosophy and The HD2, Nexus 1, and iPad

I recently did something a sane financial decision maker would recommend: I started saving money for the devices that I knew I may want this spring. Starting with some money I got when I walked in graduation last year, and for Christmas, I have amassed a bit of a warchest now that could finance a few devices. This is in stark contrast to my usual “I know I’ll have the money to cover this in the next month, so I’ll buy it now” theory of operation. However this has led me to some heavy decisions regarding geekly gadget purchases. I’ve figured it’s time to go with something new, and for a few months I thought that was the HTC HD2 when it hits T-Mobile. Now I’m not so sure. The point of this blog post is to look at the pros & cons of the three gadgets I’m considering, and then weigh them in terms of my life philosophy I’ve tried to implement over the past few years.

Jon’s Life Philosophy

This section is a bit long, but I think it’s important to include for two reasons. First, it’s the life view you can take when looking at the devices I’m deliberating. Second, it pushes my resolve to keep working on this life goal!

So sometime in 2007 I started listening more to Jimmy Buffett. A perennial favorite of my mother-in-law, I found that in the winter of 2007-08, Buffett’s music was the only thing that successfully kept me warm. One of my favorite songs in his catalog is One Particular Harbour which contains the following lyric:

I used to rule my world from a payphone. Ships out on the sea. But now times are rough, Oh, I’ve got too much stuff. I can’t explain the likes of me.

For whatever reason, this lyric struck a chord with me. For years my father had been talking about how things eventually own you, and that we underestimate the trade-off between material possessions and the flexibility to experience life as we wish. Looking around at a massive amount of stuff I had acquired, I began to wonder how much of it was what I owned, and how much of it owned me. So I started rather regular cleaning binges which I still do every month or so, continually going through subsets of my possessions and asking myself if I’ll ever need what I am keeping again. I estimate I’ve cut about 35%-40% of my personal “stuff” in the last 2 years, and my goal is to eventually get to the day where all of the stuff I keep in “storage” (e.g., not actively using on a daily basis) decreases to 1 closet full). I’m still a bit aways (currently at 2 closets and various spots both in NY and Ohio), but it’s something I’m striving for.

This reduction in “stuff” also filters down to my daily life. While my macbook pro has been an indispensable travel companion for me since getting it last summer, I don’t take it to work on a daily basis. My rationale is that since every file is replicated over all my laptops, why should I lug one machine to work when I already have another laptop there waiting for me. Once you stop carrying the laptop, you also stop carrying much of the bloat that goes with one, including chargers, cables, cases, bags, etc.. While these things do still come with me when I travel, they get to stay at home most of the week. In case you’re wondering, here is what I take to work on a daily basis:

  • Cell phone & spare battery
  • Headphones & iPod Touch (For reading & music)
  • Vial of Advil & Claritan (For unexpected aches & allergy attacks!)
  • Bluetooth Headset
  • Pen or Sharpie fine-point
  • Moleskine notebook (Which I started using to organize all my paper-based thoughts in one spot, rather than numerous scraps of paper I’d eventually lose or feel compelled to keep; Just like getting an expensive pen, I figure an expensive notebook will keep me committed to using it all the way through, rather than ditching it for scrap paper).
  • Wallet & Money clip
  • Keys
  • Sunglasses

I try not to carry a bag, so most of the time the above things are either in a SCOTTEVEST, or in my gadget geek holster/utility belt (Which I figure I can get away with since most days I wear green or black BDU-style cargo pants). I can’t tell you how much this system has made my life better – I’m no longer lugging stuff around I don’t need, and I’m way more mobile at work to say, go straight from a meeting to the train without having to stop at my office.

Around the office I’ve also tried to implement my philosophy by only printing things out if absolutely necessary. If It can stay in electronic form, I keep it in that form. I’ve started doing things such as marking up PDF documents virtually instead of printing and scrawling notes in the margins.

Returning to the Gadgets at hand…

So the overall goal of this piece is to see what gadgets currently on the market would help me in my goal of stuff reduction, not hinder. So let’s look at the pros/cons for each of the three devices I’m considering:


Pros: Pretty sweet device from the ones I’ve played with; premium interface and quick responsiveness; an OS I’m very comfortable with; Moderate hackability; T-Mobile 3G

Cons: Last iteration of a dying OS; Not that exciting of an experience; Not too different from the experience currently on my Touch Pro 2

Philosophy: Would probably not be a primary cell phone, as most of the apps I want are on Android now, not WinMo (Sadly), Would probably only want it to admire, not to actually use – which is way too materialistic for my “new” philosophy.

Google Nexus One

Pros: Would jump my android-ness up a notch from the G1 (the current daily driver); has the apps I’m looking for; hot platform; great reviews.

Cons: Price is pretty steep; No physical keyboard

Philosophy: Might replace the need to take the iPod touch to work each day when the Kindle for Android is finally released. Could also use for music. Potentially could cut down on number of things I take to work daily.

Apple iPad

Pros: Cool device; Might further replace Paper in my life; Apps will probably be a huge deal once the device hits the market.

Cons: Price for the 3G model is pretty steep (largest of all) and I’d have a monthly bill for something that isn’t an essential device; No physical keyboard; First Gen-early adopter woes.

Philosophy: Might replace paper around the office, but would probably schlep it back and forth from home to office for no good reason. Can’t see the day I’d take a trip with just the iPad and Cell phone without the MBP in tow.

Sadly, I think I’ve reached my conclusion…

So the only thing that seems to fit with the life philosophy argument is the Nexus One, as it may allow me to cut down what I take on a daily basis to and from work. The iPad and HD2 do have extreme geek temptation to them, however, which is the sucky part. The geek in me really wants them, the rational decision-maker in me can’t justify them. Man, changing your life from a “buy it all” to “reduce, reduce, reduce” mode is a real pain sometimes. But I guess I should just rejoice in the following moments that make it all worthwhile:

  • The person at the office who says “You don’t take a bag with you!?! Wow… wish I could do that”
  • The periodic brisk-er than usual pace I can adopt to catch a train since I’m not weighed down as much.
  • The satisfied mind feeling one gets from not losing things habitually; not having to move so many things when moving; and not worrying about possessions breaking that one does not own!

So after a few more days of deliberation, I’ll probably end up with the Nexus One, and save the rest of the money for something down the road. If you’ve got thoughts on this whole long rambling piece, or my life philosophy, feel free to post a comment!

Hack Usermin to Encourage Users to Read Policy Updates!

Had an interesting situation at work recently that required a bit of hackery to make sure that everyone on the research team was on the same page. Since 95% of the actual work (everything but documentation) occurs through a central Usermin-powered portal, I had the idea to build a “nag” screen that I could periodically make users acknowledge before they’d be allowed into the system. Ideally, the system is used infrequently, only when policy changes are done that require everyone to know the new policy immediately. The system is pretty simple:

1. User Logs In, and if updates are present, they are shown the update page.

2. User reads the update, and enters a “codeword” on the update page. This is so the updates can be securely displayed (on our documentation site) while the update landing page remains static.

3. User isn’t bothered again until the next update.

The code isn’t too difficult, so I’ll post it below. Warning though: Webmin/Usermin/Virtualmin are written in PERL, and I’m a PHP sort of person, so this is a mix of both!

Step 1: Modify Usermin to Point to Landing page

The system works by having a file written to a non web-accessible server directory once the person enters the correct codeword. When I need to issue a new update, I simply delete the username-named files and everyone needs to enter a new codeword. Below is the code that you’ll have to put in Usermin’s miniserv.pl file, which on my system is located at /usr/local/usermin-1.420. You’ll also want to decide first where you want to store your “nag” files. I put them under a special directory in /var, however you can put them anywhere you’d like that the webserver can read/write to them.

The following code is inserted around line 3532, right after the post-login script statement (&run_login_script…):

#Check Nag Screen, see if we need to nag user (Added by JW on 3/2/2010)

local $nagfile = “/var/nagfiles/” . $authuser;
if (-e $nagfile) {
syslog(“info”, “%s”, “Successful Nag Check for $authuser from $acpthost”) if ($use_syslog);
else {
my $url = “https://landingpage_server/updates.php?user=” . $authuser;
&write_data(“HTTP/1.0 302 Moved Temporarily\r\n”);
&write_data(“Date: $datestr\r\n”);
&write_data(“Server: $config{‘server’}\r\n”);
&write_data(“Location: $url\r\n”);

You’ll want to modify the URL and the nagfile location to suit your own installation. Once you save the file and reload Usermin, it will take effect.

Step 2: Create the Landing Page

I wrote a pretty simple PHP page that shows some text (using an include file) and a form, and then writes a file with the user’s username to the directory of interest. It also logs the interaction for auditing purposes. Below is my code, see the inline comments on what you need to edit/change

// Jon’s Nag Screen for Usermin. Usermin will redirect people here if Jon clears out the /var/nagfiles/ directory of username files.
// This file shows the update notice, and asks users to read and agree by entering the codeword, which is changed with each update!

// CHANGE this to whatever you want the codeword to be.
$codeword = “swimmer”;

if (isset($_POST[‘submit’])) {
// Do Form Processing

if ($_POST[‘codeword’] == $codeword)
// Good, right codeword, now write the login file and redirect them

// CHANGE this to the directory you’re putting the nag files into. make sure that directory is writable to Apache!

$filename = “/var/nagfiles/” . $_POST[‘user’];
$ourFileHandle = fopen($filename, ‘w’) or die(“can’t open file”);
$ourFileHandle = fopen(‘/var/nag.log’, ‘a’) or die(“can’t open file 2”);
$logentry = “Valid Codeword Entry by ” . $_POST[‘user’] . ” at ” . date(“F j, Y, g:i a”) . “\n”;
fwrite($ourFileHandle, $logentry);

// CHANGE this to be the location of your Usermin installtion.
header(“Location: https://xyz.com:20000”);
} else {
// Bad, wrong codeword!
$ourFileHandle = fopen(‘/var/nag.log’, ‘a’) or die(“can’t open file 2”);
$logentry = “Invalid Codeword Entry by ” . $_POST[‘user’] . ” at ” . date(“F j, Y, g:i a”) . “\n”;
fwrite($ourFileHandle, $logentry);
print(“Wrong Codeword! Please hit the back button in your browser and try again!”);
// Show Info Screen

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd”>
<html xmlns=”http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml”>

<meta content=”en-us” http-equiv=”Content-Language” />
<meta content=”text/html; charset=utf-8″ http-equiv=”Content-Type” />
<title>Important Updates</title>
<style type=”text/css”>
.style1 {
text-align: center;
font-size: xx-large;
font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
.style2 {
text-align: medium;
font-size: large;
font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
.style3 {
text-align: center;
.style4 {
font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
.style5 {
font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
font-size: x-large;


<p>New Lab Policies have recently been issued. In order
to access the Usermin, you must do the following:</p>
<p>1. Visit <A HREF=”http://update.page.com/page.html” target=_blank>This Page on the Wiki</A> detailing the changes.</p>
<p>2. Enter the codeword (provided on the page above) in the box
below and press Submit. You will then be redirected back to Usermin where you should
now be able to log in.</p>
<p><font size=2>Note: By entering the valid codeword and pressing submit, you affirm that you have read the updates, will follow the policies, and are not a zombie.</font></p>
<form method=”post”>
<span><strong>Codeword: </strong> </span><br />
<input name=”codeword” type=”text” /><input name=”user” type=”hidden” value=<?=$_GET[‘user’]; ?>><br />
<br />
<input name=”submit” type=”submit” value=”submit” /></div>





That file can be named updates.php (or whatever you want) and placed in a location that users can access.

Step 3: Create Directories, Set Permissions, Test

The last step is something you may have done already – create directories to house your files (/var/nagfiles in my example) and set the permissions to allow the Apache Webserver (and Usermin) to write to those directories.

Once the system is running, adding updates is a pretty straight forward process: Update your update page, change the codeword in updates.php, and delete all of the username-named files from /var/nagfiles. Users will now get the nag screen again after they login for the first time after updates. You may also want to periodically purge the log file, depending on how busy your usermin portal is.

While not explicitly written, this hack probably will also work with Webmin. Be sure to be careful with automatic updates to those products though – you may have to re-integrate your code into miniserv.pl after each update.

If this has been a useful document for you, please let me know, I’d love to see other people implementing creative solutions to balance ease of use and ease of policy notification!