Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


Towards an Evernote replacement

Since the recent announcements by Evernote that they really, really will be able to poke around inside your notebooks without issue, and they’ll also apply the same sort of machine learning technology to your data that people have convinced themselves that paying for a product will help them avoid, lots of people have been looking at alternatives to Evernote. I’ve been evaluating a few of them.

Here’s some of the open source alternatives I’ve seen people talk about:

  • Laverna, a client-side only JavaScript app that uses localStorage for your notes. No syncing, sadly.
  • Paperwork, PHP serverside app
  • Standard Notes, which aims to be an encrypted protocol for storing Evernote-style notes

These all handle the plain text (or Markdown or whatever) case reasonably well, but there’s a few things Evernote provides which we should be aware of if we’re trying to find replacements.

  1. text/plain or RTF storage. A lot of people store a lot of simple text notes in Evernote.
  2. OCRed PDF storage. Evernote has an app called Scannable that makes it ludicrously easy to scan a lot of documents and store them in Evernote.
  3. Web Clipper: I don’t use this, but a lot of people use Evernote as a kind of bookmarking service using the Web Clipper plugin that they provide. If they see a news article or recipe or whatever on the web, they clip it out and store it in Evernote and use that almost like a reading list, like what people use Instapaper/Pocket for etc.

The solutions people have been building generally solve problem (1) but do little to address problems (2) and (3).

My own preferred solutions are basically this: for (1), I’m leaning towards just storing and syncing together plain text Markdown files of some description.

Solving (2) is a harder problem. My current plan is to try and create a way to store all these in email. Email is a pretty reliable, well-tested and widely implemented Everything Bucket. The process would be relatively simple: scan document, run it through an OCR process, then provide the relevant title and tags which could be stored in the subject line and body of the email. The OCR result would also be stored in the body of the email to make it more easily searchable. Then you just stick it all in an email folder (or Gmail label). You’ve got a security layer (whatever your email provides, and if you are storing lots of important data in there, you should probably ensure it is 2FA). You’ve got sync (IMAP). You’ve got universal capture (email it to yourself). And you have already made either the financial bargain (with, say, Fastmail) or the give-away-all-your-personal-information bargain (Gmail). Backing up IMAP is relatively trivial compared to backing up whatever weird binary blob format people come up with.

Solving (3) is somebody else’s problem because I don’t understand why anyone wants to stick all the websites they’ve ever visited into Evernote.

That said, let’s not promise users replacement for software if we are only replicating the features from that software that we actually use. If anyone has great suggestions for how they are going to sort out problem (2), I’m all ears.

When did the tech community become such a big conduit for bullshit?

One of the things I like about working with technology is you get clear answers. You apply the logic, you write the code: and it works or it doesn't. Code doesn't half-compile or compile only when you feel like it. If something is broken, you fix it. We write tests. We want to know what the problem is. Programming is applied logic, applied rationality, applied mathematical reasoning - and this is fine. We dislike bureaucracy, stupidity and nonsense. Jargon has to provide a useful benefit or go away: plain words beat jargon. Abstractions are necessary, but Occam's Razor rules the roost. Basically, the hacker and the scientist or philosopher are close cousins.

It distresses me greatly to see so much tolerance in the technology business for so much fucking bullshit.

What do I mean by bullshit? I mean stuff that is cranky. Borderline. Not scientifically verified. For the tech community in the last few years, that has been all the productivity stuff. Now there isn't anything wrong with trying to be more productive. If writing lists or doing sprints or whatever works for you, that's fine. I'm not totally cynical about that. I mean, I've read Getting Things Done and use a GTDish application on my Mac and iPod touch - Things. And I use Redmine to track issues. Yeah, our brains can't track everything, so we need to write stuff down and make lists. That is sensible. So is Inbox Zero - you know, processing your e-mail. It is a nice idea, a good practice that you should try and hold to.

But from the admission that perhaps our brains can be usefully complemented with technology in order to do our best, we rapidly get into fantasyland. I know tech people who are fervently into neuro-linguistic programming, which seems to be a dodgy mixture of good and bad psychology. There might be some good things in it, but there seems to be an uncritical acceptance of it by many. There are plenty of people who express skepticism about it. When I read about ideas like NLP and then go on to read both those who teach NLP and those who have gone through it saying that only through NLP are they successful, I want to call bullshit. There are people who seem to think that only by getting some kind of life coaching or psychological manipulation can you be successful. First of all, this is obviously untrue. The vast majority of people you meet have not and will not go through any of this kind of training and they are doing what they do. Secondly, this kind of thing has absolutely horrible ethical consequences - if the only thing you need to do to be successful is to take a course with some guru or NLP guy or whatever, then all those people who aren't successful are just lazy layabouts who couldn't rustle up a few hundred notes to go along and learn the NLP magic. Their lack of success has nothing to do with poor health or a bad schooling or rocky home lives. It is their fault, not society's fault, that they aren't successful or doing exactly what they want to do. Alternative medicine does this for health: it individualises the problem. They talk about holistic stuff, but it isn't holistic at all. Holistic would be pointing out that there are social factors which have effects on health. Those social factors have an effect on education, on employment, on all sorts of stuff. Want to know why people in a lot of schools don't do well? Lack of ambition. But that lack of ambition isn't a personal failing. It is the atmosphere of the students, the prevailing ethic of "learning is for suckers".

An immediate alarm bell goes off when someone says "the only way you are going to be successful is if you do course/programme/technique X". It is just bullshit. Because most people who are successful do not do X. And just because you do X, that is no guarantee that you are going to be successful. You go on your NLP course for a few weeks, feel really empowered, and start doing better at your job - maybe you get a promotion a few weeks after you finish the course, which you dutifully attribute to the wonderful things you have only come to know because of the course. Sadly, on your way home, you get hit by a bus and die. No success for you. The universe doesn't give a shit.

From the GTD stuff, come the productivity blogs. Lifehacker, Lifehacks, Zen Habits, Web Worker Daily, LifeDev. Some of these are good - Merlin Mann of 43Folders hasn't - as far as I'm aware - promoted an excessive number of bullshit pushers, and seems to be doing sterling work convincing productivity converts that once they've fixed up their productivity blocks, they should get back to coding or writing or drawing or whatever the hell it is they were trying to do better that got them reading GTD-ish stuff. The alternative is a world of productivity porn, of gathering tips, of getting obsessed by trying out lots of different to-do list software, swapping tips about pens and index cards and generally using 'getting productive' as an excuse for avoiding doing what you actually are trying to get productive to achieve. That road also leads down towards the unending and dangerous chasm of life-coach bullshit. And there is tons of that.

The productivity blogs promote the life coaches. And the slide from "I need a better to-do list manager on my iPhone" to "What I really need is a life coach" is complete. And some of those life coaches promote some real crazy nonsense. Meet Steve Pavlina, author of Personal Development for Smart People. The title gives it aware, surely? It is for smart people. Programmers are smart people, right? Therefore, it is for you. The book has been positively reviewed on Lifehack and Pavlina has been promoted on Lifehacker, ZenHabits and elsewhere. The only blog I've found that has said anything even vaguely critical is Academic Productivity. From the reviews I have seen, a common recurring theme is that Pavlina takes a "scientific" approach. Well, that's good. I like science.

So what sort of science does Pavlina lay down for the reader of his blog? Raw foods. Okay, slightly nutty, but, you know, lower bone density does help you become a productivity master. Well, his wife is a psychic medium and he is a fervent believer in the Law of Attraction. You know, the idea that if you fervently intend that something will happen to you, just my magic, it will!

Mr Pavlina is a big fan of What The Bleep Do We Know?. For those of you who haven't heard of this movie, let me explain. What The Bleep Do We Know? (subtitle: 'a quantum fable') is a 2004 movie produced by three students from Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, a New Age outfit where a middle-aged American lady from Roswell, New Mexico, channels the spirit of a 35,000 year old warrior called Ramtha who once led the Lemurians in a fight against the Atlanteans - both are fictional, remember. Ramtha was then booted out from the Lemurian military and he went - much like the Buddha or Jesus or Nietzsche's Zarathustra - away into the wilderness to observe nature, and then started practicing magical stuff like out-of-body experiences. He eventually ascended Christ-like to the heavens. Ms. Knight claims that in 1977 she was contacted by Ramtha and has since been rather profitably channelling Ramtha to students and at retreats. Apparently, Ramtha wants you to know that you are in fact God and that you just need to be positive. What The Bleep Do We Know? is a movie that mixes this kind of stuff with a complete misunderstanding of physics, and backs up all the stuff about Ramtha with appeal to the "ooh, weird and spooky" bits of contemporary physics. Science writer Simon Singh - he of the being-sued-by-chiropractors fame - described the film as "ridiculous balderdash". Slightly more worrying is that various physicists who contributed interviews to the film have complained that their interviews were cut in such a way to make what they were saying seem like it was supporting all the hokey metaphysics on offer. What The Bleep Do We Know promotes the Law of Attraction, of course.

If that isn't enough, then you'll be pleased to know that Pavlina also endorses The Secret, another film (and book and website and god-knows-what-else) promoting the Law of Attraction idea. The Secret has been an intoxicating idea for many, and has been ruthlessly promoted by Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Ellen DeGeneres on their talk shows. The promoters of The Secret apparently have the magic cheat code for the universe which lets you have wealth and health in abundance, hormonal magnetism necessary to pull the partners necessary to satiate even the most voracious and twisted sexual appetite, truly satisfying employment, unending leisure, and basically fix anything that currently makes your life fall short of the Platonic ideal. Having discovered this important secret of the universe, the promoters of The Secret want to share it with you by selling you a DVD, books, audiobooks, doodads and all the rest. Maybe attend some seminars and join the premium part of The Secret website.

Does the law of attraction work? Of course not. No amount of visualizing, writing out fake cheques for millions of dollars to oneself or fantasising about one's desires bring one anything. The mind doesn't affect reality in any more than a local manner! The Force is a wonderful bit of fiction, but it is just that. Fiction. You know: movies, books, TV. Not real. The fact that I am having to explain this in two thousand and fucking ten boggles my mind. I've been envisioning a world filled with reasonable people who don't buy into pseudoscientific bullshit like The Secret for years. It has been my firm intention to bring such a world about. I really want it to happen. Sadly, it has not. All my good intentions and visualizations have been scuppered by the cold, hard facts of the universe. The Law of Attraction, like with any other personal power cult, blames the victim. The reason one is fat, lonely, unloved, jobless and in debt is because you want it to be like that. Worse: the reason an earthquake destroyed your house and killed your children is because you were somehow willing it to. The reason your family members got killed by war or famine or the Holocaust is because somehow the thoughts determined the action. September 11? We all just collectively imagined the planes flying into the building. In fact, if we stop believing planes fly, they'll just drop to the earth again. If I want a new computer, I just have to imagine it - and maybe put the rest on my credit card. Somehow all the good thoughts in the world don't keep the bailiffs from the door. The law of attraction is the ultimate in faith-based bullshit. If you just believe it will happen, so it will. Yeah, thanks. I'm so glad that Standard and Poor rated Lehmann Brothers in accordance with Positive Thinking rather than reality. Put a brave smile on and climate change, terrorism, religious fundamentalism and the gross inequalities of a world wrecked by poverty and injustice will just disappear and you'll be able to buy that new car you've always wanted. It must be so, because, well, quantum physics is hard!

Pavlina's site has a full range of forums where you can get much further into the wackiness. Intention-Manifestation is where people discuss the Law of Attraction and, well, "vibrational harmony" - whatever the fuck that is. Any posters who express scepticism often seem to have "Banned" under their names. Now, I'm not suggesting there is a causal connection between expressing scepticism and getting banned, but perhaps someone is visualising a world free of any nagging cynics saying this stuff and - boom - magically, they disappear! I mean, the Law of Attraction rather destroys epistemic access to cause and effect (I mean, based on some of the ludicrously nonsensical ideas some of the Law of Attraction folks come out with on a daily basis) so they can't exactly contradict me on this point.

Now, you can call me a bigot if you like, but if I am trying to find people to go into business with, programmers to work with and the like - if you are stupid enough to think that the universe is just one giant home delivery catalogue, you are not qualified. How do I know that the code you write is reliable if you deny common-sense cause and effect relationships? You don't have to write unit tests because the spirit of Ramtha shines down on you and tells you that the code is good.

The Intention-Manifestation stuff is like eight out of ten on the bonkers scale. The stuff that goes on in the Psychic and Paranormal forum turns the crazy up to eleven. Astral projection, demons, spirit possession, spirit guides, all manner of things that go bump in the night. Elsewhere in the forum, you've got the full shotgun blast of conspiracies and crank health beliefs - apparently, the Bilderbergers are ramping up the oil price to destroy the middle class (hint: get life coaching so you can make money to...), 9-11 conspiracies, the Illuminati, Codex Alimentarius nonsense (see RationalWiki article on it), all the vitamin supplement nonsense you can shake a stick at, Gerson Therapy (coffee enemas and fruit juice therapy for cancer: doesn't work, loved by Prince Charles).

I hereby declare to be a crank magnet. There is no bullshit too wacky not to find adherents on the forums there.

Now, circle back round. None of this is new to the good Internet citizen. Crazy people have been touting crazy bullshit on the Internet for a long time. That doesn't mean we should encourage them. New Age quacks inspired by the Steve Pavlina's of the world come to our conferences. What are we supposed to do? Computer Science. Science. Not bullshit. Not believing our dreams are real. Not believing that our wishes will come real if we just hope hard enough. Not hanging out with astral projection fruitcakes. We really need to make sure that our current fad for productivity gains stays at the level of getting a stiffy when we go into Paperchase and not descending into life coach mania. We really need to call out the people promoting this nonsense and call it what it is: a big, steaming pile of horseshit. If our GTD mania is enabling it, we need to fix it. We need to point out that 'Personal Development for Smart People' is an utterly bullshit title. Smart people grow up. They stop believing in magic and fairy tales and make-believe. Smart people don't cloud their thinking with relentless positivity: they approach the world with a realistic attitude. We need to ruthlessly apply the low-pass filter for stupidity. When someone starts preaching about GTD or Pomodoro or even agile methodology, beware: there could be a life-coaching nutjob lurking just beneath the surface. Not always, but there is the possibility. Be on your guard and don't let the technology business be used as a way to get customers for these self-help charlatans.