Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven is quite expansive in scope and imagination. A fun, easy read with some big ideas 📚

First snowstorm run of the season ❄️ 🏃‍♂️

Urban trail run 🏃‍♂️

2021 iPhone Home Screens

My iPhone Home Screen continues to evolve and, now that we have Focus Modes, I’ve made some further adjustments.

Screenshot of three iOS HomeScreens based on Focus Modes

From left to right, I’m using three different Focus Modes: Personal, Work, and Fitness. The first two are entirely widget focused, while Fitness has a few app icons as well.

The dock has Drafts which, as the tagline says, is where text starts. This hasn’t changed from my earlier setups. The second icon launches a front-end Shortcut for Apple Notes. As I described in my Apple Note overview, this is an idea that I’ve borrowed from Matthew Cassinelli and providers a flexible interface to the app.

Personal

From top left, my Personal Home Screen starts with a stack of Reminders filtered to my Personal list, Fantastical, and Streaks. This is essentially my “what should I be doing” stack.

Next is a stack with Photos and Siri Suggestions. The Photos widget consistently surfaces delightful photos, so I’ve given it a prominent spot. While the usefulness of Siri Suggestions are variable, I like the idea of my phone learning my habits and showing me relevant actions.

Through the middle, I have Weather on the left and the right is a stack of Apple Music and Overcast, which are my options for listening to something.

On the bottom left is a stack of Timery and Screen Time. These are there to keep me mindful of what I’m actually doing, especially on weekends. The Timery widget shows me a summary view of my projects. So, in this screenshot I’ve put in an hour on exercise, another hour on reading, and 20 minutes with some household chores. The Screen Time widget helps keep me honest about how much I’m using my devices, especially on weekends when I really should be looking at something besides a screen.

And on the bottom right is a stack of Day One and Notes, filtered to my Personal folder. Day One is there for capturing family events and reflections. While the Notes folder often has some useful reference material for our weekend activities.

Work

Curiously, my Work Home Screen is less complicated than my Personal one.

The top is a stack with Fantastical and Mail’s VIP widget. I’m not entirely convinced that the Mail widget is useful here. I almost always just want Fantastical reminding me of my next meeting or task.

Given the more variable number of tasks I tend to be doing while in work mode, I’ve got the Siri Suggestions widget in the middle. I took this screenshot on the weekend, so it isn’t indicative of what it usually shows, which tends to be one of the Shortcuts that I’m often launching to manage my workday.

Intentionally mirroring my Personal HomeScreen, the bottom row is a stack with two Timery widgets and a stack of two Notes widgets, one filtered to my Work folder and the other to my Meetings folder.

Fitness

The Fitness Home Screen is mostly an experiment. I spend the vast majority of my time in one of the other two Focus Modes, so I’m not yet convinced that I need any other Home Screens.

Regardless, this one has the Fitness widget at the top for seemingly obvious reasons.

The middle row has the Training Today widget to help keep me honest about rest. And then a cluster of icons on the right. The only one that is non-standard is “Workout mix”, which is just a Shortcut to launch a good playlist in Apple Music.

The bottom row has Carrot Weather to make sure I’m not about to get rained on when heading out for a run. I’ve also added the Batteries widget there to make sure my Apple Watch and AirPods are ready for action.


I’ve set up Personal Automations to automatically switch between my Personal and Work Home Screens at 8:45 and 17:30. I’ve found these good reminders to keep my work activities within reasonable office hours. Starting a Workout automatically switches to the Fitness Home Screen.

There’s almost endless scope for fiddling with these. So, by writing them here, I’m adding some accountability to just stop that and use them for a while before making further changes.

I really enjoyed season 1 of Foundation. Definitely a departure from the books, which was totally necessary. The companion podcast was interesting too 📺

The moon trying to break through the clouds

The Strong Songs Year Three, In Review episode is a good summary of a fun season 🎧🎶

I picked up Artifact by Gregory Benford at my local used bookstore on a whim. I’m glad I did. It is a fun mix of archaeology, theoretical physics, and espionage 📚

Integrating Micro.blog Highlights with Apple Notes 📒

Now that I’m committed to using Apple Notes, I wanted a way to download my Micro.blog Highlights into Notes.

I like using Highlights as a read-it-later service and the highlighting feature is great for quickly blogging excerpts from articles. For longer-term storage, though, and integration with the rest of my notes, it is much better to have the content of the highlights stored within Notes.

So, here’s a Shortcut Micro.blog Highlights to Notes that does exactly this. The Shortcut checks first to see if the highlight is already captured in a note to prevent duplication. It also checks to see if there’s already a note for the webpage, just with a different highlight, and appends the highlight to that note, instead of creating a new one.

At least, that’s the idea. I’ve found these checks very unreliable. Sometimes the Shortcut finds the match and appends, and sometimes it doesn’t and creates a new one. Part of the problem seems to be that if there’s any punctuation in the content, the Notes filter fails. For example, searching for “We begin with an obstinate fact:” fails, then remove the “:” and the search work fine. I can use regular expressions to remove all punctuation, but then my notes are all mangled.

After fiddling around with this for a while, I’m just going to move along and assume it is a bug in the Notes actions for Shortcuts. Perhaps not a fair conclusion. The worst case is that I get one note per highlight, rather than just one note per article, and sporadically a note is duplicated. This isn’t so bad, and debugging Shortcuts can be a nuisance. Given this, the Shortcut is likely better used in an empty Notes folder, that is, delete all the previously downloaded Highlights first.

I’m enjoying the redesigned Waking Up app. The new design is much cleaner and easier to use. The original design was interesting when the app debuted. A couple of years later, with all the additional content, it had become rather complicated to navigate. After 941 “mindful days”, I’m still finding the app really helpful.

Okay, these automated email signatures are getting silly. I just got a meeting invite with 6,000 characters in 500 words. None of which were actually written by a person. It included:

  • A note that anyone attending an in-person meeting needs to be vaccinated
  • A warning not to open any attachments from unknown senders
  • A confidentiality warning with direction to delete the email and all attachments if I’m not the intended recipient
  • Lots of details about how to join the Teams meeting

Lessons from using Apple Notes for three months

Back in September, I committed to using Apple Notes for three months. The goal was to focus on my use cases for writing, rather than fiddling with new apps continuously.

Here’s what I’ve identified so far. Many of the approaches and features that I’m using in these use cases are readily available in other apps and often Notes is not the most efficient choice. Now that I’ve documented these use cases, I’d like to use them to assess alternative apps.

Meeting notes

Thanks to Timery, I know that 60% of my working time is spent in meeting. So many meetings!

For each one, I create a note to capture ideas, useful information, and tasks. I’ve automated this with a couple of Shortcuts. The one I use the most is “Start My Next Meeting”. This presents me with a list of upcoming meetings. I choose from the list and it creates a meeting note, starts a Timery timer, and opens the link to start the video call (typically Teams). The meeting note has the name of the meeting as the title, adds tags for #meeting and the Timery project, adds the date and time of the meeting, a list of attendees, and any notes from the calendar event. From this structure, I can then add notes throughout the meeting and extract any tasks into Reminders later.

I used Agenda for these sorts of notes before, which was powerful.

Daily summaries

Occasionally, I find myself at the end of a week with no clear sense of what I actually accomplished. To help with this, for the past year I’ve been recording the top three things I’ve done in a day into Day One (the 5 Minute PM template has been great for this).

To augment this, I’ve been using another Shortcut to create a Daily Work Report. This makes a note of the meetings I attended, tasks I completed, and tasks I created. These all get saved to a Daily Notes folder. I then use the day’s work report to pull out the highlights for Day One. There’s some redundancy here, though I find the process of choosing just three things for Day One is helpful.

Overall, I think that Day One is a better app for this use case.

Project notes

For each of my projects, I create a project note that states the purpose or objective of the project, key stakeholders, and timelines. Then I accumulate relevant notes and documents while making progress on the project. Creating these are also done via a simple Shortcut. I’ve experimented with using checklists for tasks in these notes, but find it isn’t as effective as my approach with MindNode and Reminders.

Once I finish a project, the associated note gets cleaned up and moved to an Archive folder to keep it out of the way.

Research

This is a rather broad category and, unlike the previous use cases, is for both work and personal notes. Much of this is capturing facts, quotes, and sources. If it is project specific, they go to the project note. Some are more generic and are kept as a standalone note. All of them get tags to help provide some structure. This is where Apple Notes ability to accept almost anything from the share sheet is powerful.

The new Quick Notes feature has been interesting for research. The ability to quickly highlight and then resurrect content on websites is great. I find actually working with the quick notes is pretty clumsy though. They have to stay in the Quick Notes folder and choosing which one to send content to can be tricky. I think there’s some great potential here and will keep experimenting.

For any webpages that I want to archive, I use another Shortcut that creates a plain-text note of the webpage along with some metadata and then adds the link to Pinboard. This has been surprisingly useful for recipes, when all I really want are the ingredients and steps, rather than the long history of the recipe’s development.

Other nice features

In addition to these use cases, there are a few nice features of Apple Notes that are worth mentioning.

  • As should be apparent from above, creating useful Shortcuts for Apple Notes is straightforward. In some sense, it is the Shortcuts that I’m finding really useful. Apple Notes is just the final destination for the content.
  • I’ve set up widgets by focus mode so that the most recent notes are shown on my Home Screen in the right context. These are restricted to a particular folder and sorted by date modified.
  • The formatting options are comprehensive, including table support.
  • I think I like the feature where checking off tasks moves them to the bottom of the list. Most of the time, this is what I want.
  • The iCloud web app is convenient for using notes on my Windows work PC. Unfortunately, I’ve found the syncing to be rather unreliable here, where notes just don’t show up in the web app sometimes.
  • I don’t share notes as often as I expected. When I do, it works really well.
  • Not really specific to Apple Notes, but I stole an idea from Matthew Cassinelli to aggregate all of these Notes Shortcuts into one super Shortcut that creates a list of Shortcuts to choose from.

Challenges

There are a few things that don’t work as well as they should:

  • Searching is too limited. In particular, you can’t narrow searches to particular folders. Most of the time I either only want to search my meeting notes or not include them. I had to set up a Shortcut that takes a search term as an input and then asks me to specify which folder to search. This should be built into the app’s search field.
  • Linking among notes isn’t really supported. You can sort of do this with url searches for note titles. Pretty clunky though.
  • Given how much I use Shortcuts for Apple Notes, it is frustrating how little you can do when creating a note. In particular, you can’t style text or add tags. Every time I use Shortcuts to create a note, the first thing I have to do is apply title and heading styles and convert any words prefixed with a # into an actual tag.

Other use cases

I’ve found a few use cases that don’t yet fit in with Apple Notes. I’m using Drafts for all of these:

  • Blog posts
  • Drafting long emails
  • Capturing and processing transitory texts, which Drafts is really optimized for

Restricting myself to Apple Notes was a helpful trick for crystallizing my use cases. Now that I’m three months in, I think I’ll stick with Apple Notes for a while longer. I’ve built up a good ecosystem of Shortcuts for working with the app and, of course, now have lots of content in the app.

Inner Symphonies by Hanna Rani & Dobrawa Czocher has been really helpful this week 🎵

A fun discussion on the Mindscape podcast with Christopher Mims about the interconnected industrial ecology

I enjoyed Revenant Gun: Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee. A fitting end to the trilogy📚

I’m standardizing on using Micro.blog Bookmarks as my read it later service. To make this easier, I’ve created a Shortcut for sending links from Safari to Bookmarks. Now I can keep the Micro.blog app set to posting, instead of having to switch back and forth in settings. You’ll need an app token as part of the setup for the Shortcut.

On the Internet, We’re Always Famous in the New Yorker is well worth a read

The most radical change to our shared social lives isn’t who gets to speak, it’s what we can hear. True, everyone has access to their own little megaphone, and there is endless debate about whether that’s good or bad, but the vast majority of people aren’t reaching a huge audience. And yet at any single moment just about anyone with a smartphone has the ability to surveil millions of people across the globe.

Lucy is ready to help with Halloween 🎃

Day 31: Home 📷

When Star Trek: Voyager originally aired, I was too distracted with grad school to pay much attention to it. Many years later, thanks to @jean’s comprehensive Viewer’s Guide I’ve finished the series. The show is very good (certainly better than the reputation it seems to have), especially when you follow @jean’s advice and skip the bad episodes. Many great characters, interesting plots, and ethical conundrums with a good episodic approach, rather than the long narrative arcs of DS9 and Discovery 🖖

MacStories’ Comprehensive Guide to 250+ of Apple Music’s New Mood and Activity Playlists is a great resource for a rather opaque feature. I’m amused by the specificity of a “checking email” playlist, though I do spend too much time doing exactly this activity

Day 30: Red 📷

A puppy with a red collar looking into the camera

Switching to iCloud+ Custom Email Domain 📧

I’ve switched my personal email over to Apple’s custom email domain with iCloud Mail. A roughly ranked list of reasons for the switch is:

  1. One less account to worry about. Not that it was a big deal, but now I don’t need to know the various setup details for my personal email. Once I’ve logged into my iCloud account, my email is ready.
  2. I appreciate Apple’s commitment to privacy and trust that they’ll apply this commitment to my email account.
  3. I’m already paying for iCloud+ and, so, might as well use this feature and save some money by not paying for separate email hosting.
  4. I’m actively using Reminders and Notes in iCloud.com and the Mail interface there is decent, certainly better than the rudimentary one offered by my previous email host.

Setup was straightforward with clear instructions. Having said that, the only issue I had was that initiating the setup process simply didn’t work for a few weeks. I tried a couple of times a week and each time I just got a generic error. Then, for no apparent reason, one day it worked. I suspect this was just an issue with rolling out a new service.

I should point out that my email needs are very basic for this personal account. I don’t need many automated rules, tagging, or filtering. So, iCloud Mail is fine. I wouldn’t switch over my work account (even if corporate IT would allow it). I get something like 100x the email at work and need more sophisticated tools.

Besides the initial trouble with initiating the setup, everything has been working well for the past week. I’m well aware of Apple’s well-earned reputation for challenges with internet services and will be staying vigilant for at least the next few weeks. One of the great benefits of having my own domain name is the ease with which I can switch mail hosts.

Railway City’s Jumbo is a good, though bitter, IPA 🍺

Day 29: Cycle 📷