Good Deal on a Solid Fly Fishing App

Orvis for $15 (for iPhone, iPad, Android). It includes videos on casting; a great fly database (with useful info such as where and when to use a fly, how to fish it, descriptions, and images), knot-tying instructions (with animations, videos, and written instructions; with knots filed by name or categorized by knots for particular tasks), fishing reports for popular areas by state, podcasts, and a glossary. And you can also shop the Orvis online store, if you’re so inclined. I was a bit hesitant to put my faith in a relatively expensive app from a retailer, but it’s solid.

Before you write this app off as too costly, consider this: Orvis is now offering a $10 coupon for those who buy the app to use in their online and retail stores. And right now, they’re offering a special promotion for 20 of their most popular flies for $9.95 with free shipping (limit one per household). After applying the coupon code (accounting for taxes), you can get this solid set of flies, nymphs, and streamers for .60 cents. It’s a steal, even if you already have a lot of flies. And they accept PayPal. 

I’m sensitive to the fact that this may sound like I’m a pitch man for Orvis, but this really is a good deal. And the app is a handy reference and teaching aid.

Caveat: I shouldn’t get too excited about this offer yet. I’m still awaiting my $10 coupon code. According to Orvis, I should receive it by e-mail within 48 hours. In the off-chance that the fly bundle deal expires before then, I’m not too concerned. I need some tippet and a few other odds and ends.

You could make the argument that Orvis should give the app away in hopes of selling their wares through mobile devices. For my part, I really don’t think I’ll be buying anything from Orvis via my iPhone. As I’ve said, I’m planning to use this app as a mobile reference and instructional tool. I hesitated before I hit the ‘purchase’ button in iTunes, but then I considered the fact that I’ve plunked down far more than $15 for various fly fishing books. I’ve never been inclined to bring books with me when I go fishing, but I always have my iPhone. And unlike a book, this app includes videos, animations, and podcasts. And Orvis says the app will continue to be updated.

As for price of admission, I think it’s also worth noting that the audience for such a specialized app is sure to be small, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to charge $15 to get access to all of this content at one’s fingertips.  I’ll update this post once (if) I successfully land the fly bundle.

* Orvis also says that they’re going to deliver in-app purchase modules in the future. It’ll be interesting to see how may free updates are delivered, compared to paid upgrades. Would I pay for new training modules? Maybe. It would certainly be a lot cheaper than attending a fly fishing class or school.

On Finite & Infinite Games

Wellcome Image Award. This small collection led me on a small tour-de-link this evening that began with the offerings of The Wellcome Library, turned to the ever-absorbing Tree of Life Web project, and ended with thoughts about IBM’s Watson.

How did I get there? I’m not sure. I do know, though, that I found myself looking up the James Burke Knowledge Web somewhere along the way—a project that aims to serve as a counterpoint to specialized, stove-piped knowledge by connecting overlapping bits of history, technology, science, and culture. I used to read Burke’s ‘Connections’ column in Scientific American and recall, long ago, watching episodes of the TV series. I’ve loosely followed Burke’s web project for many years, hoping it would take off. Unfortunately, the site looks much the same now as it did when I last checked several years ago. I think it’s long been surpassed (or, rather, bypassed) by other collaborative projects, namely Wikipedia.

Yet I don’t think today’s offerings on the Web come anywhere close to meeting the intent of the Burke project. The nearest example I can think of that emphasizes discovery across disciplines and through history is the Wikipedia Game, although it’s only a shadow of the bigger idea. 

While searching for the rules of the Wikipedia Game, I inadvertently came across a reference to something altogether new to me, called The Game:

The objective is to avoid thinking about The Game itself. Thinking about The Game constitutes a loss, which, according to the rules of The Game, must be announced each time it occurs. It is impossible to win The Game; players can only attempt to avoid losing for as long as they possibly can.

Funny stuff. This obscurity reminded me of one of the first philosophy books I ever read: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. It’s an abstract book that I find myself revisiting over the years, as I’ve found that it means different things to me as I grow older. It’s what you might call a long-term reading experience, in much the same way that Sun Tzu’s Art of War isn’t something you really read. The content is best sampled, sparingly.

Of course I had to look up the Carse book in Wikipedia, too. I was delighted to find a reference there to the Clock of the Long Now, which is a project to create a 10,000 year clock. This interesting idea comes from the Long Now Foundation—another site which I frequent—dedicated to long-term thinking. If there’s one thing we humans need to do more often, it’s surely long-term thinking. 

What do finite and infinite games have to do with long-term thought? I’ll quote what seems to be the most-often quoted part of Carse’s slim book (from the first chapter):

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The Long Now is about playing the infinite game. What could help us become better players? At least one answer is to improve our ability to connect the dots between our history, technology, science, and culture.

I wound up my evening Web surf with a really interesting post about IBM’s Watson performance on the Jeopardy! game show. Watson certainly put in an impressive performance, demonstrating how computing power is starting to make inroads into the realm of knowledge and language.  Certainly, it showed great promise at answering questions based on ambiguous, misleading, and subtle clues (with notable exceptions). Perhaps we should introduce Watson to the Wikipedia Game. Then we could see how it does at assembling Burke’s Knowledge Web. I bet Watson could turn up some interesting connections.

How about Soundtrack Express?

 open public Beta of Adobe Audition for Mac. While Audition for Mac remains in Beta, anyone can download it for free to take it for a spin. It’s worth a look if you’re interested in advanced audio editing.

I’m planning to use it to produce the next episode of my podcast to see how it stacks up to Apple’s Soundtrack Pro. In preliminary tests editing some audio files and piecing together a multitrack project, it seems to offer all of the tools and capabilities of the Apple audio editing program (at least for my needs).

I’m interested in Audition as an eventual replacement for Soundtrack Pro. As much as I like Soundtrack Pro, I don’t like the fact that I can only get it as part of the Final Cut Studio suite. I don’t really use the other Final Cut tools*, so I’m loathe to upgrade to the most-recent version of the Apple suite just to use the audio editing application. A bit of backstory: I own the first version of Final Cut Studio, which I purchased at a steep discount thanks to an Apple promotion for people who previously owned one of the stand-alone apps that make up the Suite.

This is not to say that I want to purchase the stand-alone version of Adobe Audition. That would likely cost more than the upgrade price for Final Cut Studio. Rather, I’m anticipating that I might pick it up as part of a suite when Adobe comes out with CS6, as I’m still using CS3. 

Here’s the thing, though. Both Audition and Soundtrack Pro offer much more power than I really need.

However, these pro-level tools allow me to do things with audio that I just can’t do with other tools. I’ve tried to make GarageBand work, but it’s just too limited. I’ve tried Audacity, too, but it’s just too hard to use when juggling six or seven tracks and scores of clips.  I keep going back to Soundtrack Pro. 

What I’d really love to see is an audio application from Apple that’s akin to Final Cut Express. I want Soundtrack Express. It would offer less than Soundtrack Pro, but more than GarageBand. What do you say, Apple?

* I would gladly upgrade my copy of Final Cut Studio if the next version rolls in new capabilities to publish content for iOS devices.

This is Jeopardy!

IBM’s Watson and the top two all-time Jeopardy! contestants. Tomorrow, the final episode will air. Since I don’t have a television, I’m forced to see the results after-the-fact by browsing through news stories on the Internet.

Apparently, Watson won the round today. However, the machine missed the final question in what was seemingly an obvious answer. Therein lies the rub. What is obvious to the human brain is oblique to a machine dumbly crunching data, searching for patterns.

I wasn’t very interested in this project until I watched the PBS NOVA episode, ‘The Smartest Machine on Earth.’ Watch it. What you’ll see is how far the programmers behind this effort have come—by painstakingly tweaking and refining algorithms—in teaching a machine to rapidly interpret complex clues. The machine learns from its mistakes.

I could go on and on, speculating about what this portends for the future of Artificial Intelligence. But I won’t. You can find that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that this is an impressive demonstration of where we are heading. I think Watson will win the contest.

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that this effort (and like-minded endeavors) will soon transform our lives. We’re heading towards a revolution in computer-based analysis and diagnosis. Soon, computers will capably answer complex, layered questions with unmatched speed and accuracy. Machines will be able to sift through vast pools of data to match, say, our singular health symptoms with a short list of likely causes and potential treatments—taking into account all of the most-recently published literature on the planet. Can your doctor do that?

Once machines master answering complex questions, what’s the next step? I suppose we’ll have to start teaching machines how to ask questions.

2012 U.S. Proposed Budget, Visualized

New York Times. It’s much more practical to visually peruse the proposed national budget, although it’s hard to find some of the smaller monetary allotments by sight. You’ll need to search for them. It took me a few minutes to find my employer, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Relatively, it’s miniscule. 

Information Overload

Back at the end of December, I was happily surfing through a few of the ‘Best of 2010’ and ‘2011 predictions’ articles put forth by pundits, bloggers, etc., when a post on data prediction by Josh Jones-Dilworth caught my attention. The author outlines five data-driven trends to look for this year. His last point struck me as particularly prescient: “You’ll be sick of hearing about data (if you’re not already).”

Right on. It’s only February, and I’m already feeling it. I can’t seem to escape the deluge of articles about data. How we acquire it. How we store it. How we separate the wheat from the chaff. This week in particular sticks out.

Science special: Dealing With Data

The Feb. 11 issue of the journal Science includes a special issue devoted to the challenges and opportunities of data collection, curation, and access. The entire collection of perspective articles are available online for free (registration required). From the introduction:

“We have recently passed the point where more data is being collected than we can physically store. This storage gap will widen rapidly in data-intensive fields. Thus, decisions will be needed on which data to archive and which to discard. A separate problem is how to access and use these data. Many data sets are becoming too large to download. Even fields with well-established data archives, such as genomics, are facing new and growing challenges in data volume and management. And even where accessible, much data in many fields is too poorly organized to enable it to be efficiently used.”

here and here. You can also search for it. It’s receiving a lot of attention in the news and in the blogosphere.

Here are a few of the gee-whiz points culled from this paper, written up by Suzanne Wu on

  • Looking at both digital memory and analog devices, the researchers calculate that humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. Put another way, if a single star is a bit of information, that’s a galaxy of information for every person in the world. That’s 315 times the number of grains of sand in the world. But it’s still less than one percent of the information that is stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being.
  • In 2007, humankind successfully sent 1.9 zettabytes of information through broadcast technology such as televisions and GPS. That’s equivalent to every person in the world reading 174 newspapers every day.
  • On two-way communications technology, such as cell phones, humankind shared 65 exabytes of information through telecommunications in 2007, the equivalent of every person in the world communicating the contents of six newspapers every day.

Simulating Twitter, The Locker Project

But this wasn’t the only fascinating data-centric news this week. MIT’s Technology Review reports that researchers in Spain have constructed a simulated network called SONG (Social Network Write Generator) that can forecast Tweet behavior. Why would one want to do this?

Many groups are likely to be interested in using a virtual Twitterverse. Erramilli and co say it can be used to analyse the capacity of parts of a network and to benchmark its performance. But it’s the ability to forecast tweeting activity and the effect of things like flash mobbing that is likely to generate the most interest.

Meanwhile, the O’Reilly Radar blog reports this week of a new company called Singly that aims to popularize the open source Locker Project, which will employ a new protocol called TeleHash. It took me a while to wrap my head around this. Essentially, it’s about harnessing and sharing data in new, more personalized ways. Here’s an excerpt from a recent post on ReadWriteWeb that helped:

The open source service will capture what’s called exhaust data from users’ activities around the web and offline via sensors, put it firmly in their own possession and then allow them to run local apps that are built to leverage their data.

Many prognosticators suggest that this will be the Next Big Thing for apps and online services. Web 3.0, in other words, will be all about me. It’s about delivering a highly-personalized data set that will draw together my online and (increasingly) offline activity. It’ll be sort of like a data journal (or a locker). And by combining my data with other data sets, I’ll presumably be able to find hidden patterns, correlations, and context that relate to my life in a very personal way.

As I understand it, the TeleHash protocol will permit the decentralized P2P sharing and searching for data across the network. It’s about me connecting with you—just as we do in today’s social enivironment— but in a much more targeted and sophisticated way. While I’m sure I haven’t grasped all of the nuances of this project, it sounds promising.

IBM’s Watson on Jeopardy!

Smartest Machine on Earth. Apt to my theme, it’s about the big three-day contest next week on Jeopardy that pits two of the show’s best-ever human contestants against IBM’s Watson. If you’re unable to watch Jeopardy next week, Ph.D. students who worked on the Watson project are going to live-blog the contest as it airs.

Will the machine win? It’s going to be fun to watch. Even if Watson doesn’t win, it’s amazing that a machine exists that can (quickly) answer obtuse Jeopardyesque questions. Talk about harnessing data. By the way, be sure to check out IBM’s Watson website. They’ve done a good job with it. 

Sending Data Offworld

So … there are many interesting efforts going on to better process, use and understand the data we’re collectively generating on planet Earth. But what about transmitting data off the planet? Yes, I’m talking about the search for extraterrestrial life. There’s a preprint of a new study out this week about this pursuit, too.

It’s a fascinating—and refreshingly readable—paper about METI. That’s Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The paper sums of the debate encircling how, and if, we should try to send transmissions into the void. It suggests that current attempts at transmissions are probably too feeble to matter, and suggests future laser and microwave systems may be more viable. The authors also advocate a moratorium on future METI transmissions until an international body addresses the risks associated with attempts to contact ET life.

Here’s one excerpt that struck me:

In 2000, the International Academy of Astronautics sent a proposal to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space entitled “Declaration of Principles for Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, also known as the First Protocol (Billingham and Heyns 1999). The proposal was received without objection. Principle 8 reads, in part “No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place”. No one seems opposed to having international consultations about transmitting after we detect them by standard SETI. Assuming this to be the case, it is surely even more important to have the consultations about transmitting before we detect them when we don’t even have their signal in hand.

Good point.

On WriteRoom, Simplenote, and Plain Text Syncing

Simplenote subscription. ‘Why not try something else out?,’ I thought. It’s not that I don’t like Simplenote. It’s great. But I’ve never tried anything else beyond Apple’s paltry notes and the overpowered Evernote. Surely there are other worthy contendors out there.

What began as a simple search for an alternative snowballed into a larger project. I began by mulling over what is important to me when it comes to the note-taking (and note-retrieval) process. Ubiquity, certainly. I want my notes to be available anywhere, on any device. I want to be confident that the changes I’ve made to a note on my iPhone or on my Mac at work will sync back to my Mac at home. Simplicity, too. For all the praises of Evernote, I just can’t use it without wincing. It’s just so … heavy. I need something light, like Simplenote.

Then there’s format.  As a rule, I try to keep all of my important notes in plain text, stored in individual files. One reason for this is longevity. This is the one format that will always be accessible. Another reason is utility. Plain text may be cut and paste into just about any application. The final reason is portability. I store all of my important plain text documents (all of my documents, really) outside of databases, in individual files accessable through the Finder. File sizes are tiny, and I can move these files around and modify them with ease. So I want a tool that specializes in plain text.

What else? I also quite liked that I could email myself notes with the Simplenote premium service. I’d like to keep that ability. And I want to keep my notes synced with a lightweight desktop client. With Simplenote, I use the free Notational Velocity (actually, I’m using nvALT, a fork of NV with some extra capabilities). I’d like to keep using that. And I’d like to add one new thing that I’ve never tried: I want my notes to sync with my desktop file organizer, EagleFiler.

With all of these criteria in mind, two alternatives stuck out: WriteRoom ($5) and PlainText (free), both by Hog Bay Software. I tried both tools and settled on WriteRoom (even though PlainText meets most of my needs and looks great, it has no search capability. That’s a deal-breaker). 

What follows is my solution for the syncing bit. This solution allows me to store all of my notes in one folder on my Mac. If I change a plain text file within EagleFiler, within nvALT, on my iPhone, or by directly editing one of my files via the Finder, the changes will be synced across-the-board.

You may wonder why I want my notes in both Notational Velocity and in EagleFiler. The answer is that it’s more convenient and flexible. On the Mac, Notational Velocity is a speedy way to get to a note to modify it, or to quickly add or delete a note. EagleFiler (EF) is where all of my important documents reside, so I’m often using it (why switch to another program if I don’t have to?). Added to this, EF is where I typically add metadata to my notes (flags, tags, etc.). And since all of my documents are in EagleFiler, I can perform more complex searches to easily locate, say, all notes and PDFs and other documents that contain certain keywords. Also, it’s easier to move bits of text from my notes to other documents within EagleFiler.  

Here’s how I set up syncing using WriteRoom, although a similar scheme works with slight modifications for Simplenote and PlainText. I’ll get into some of those differences at the end.

Using WriteRoom

  1. The first step is to buy the iOS version of WriteRoom. Log in to WriteRoom using an existing Google ID (you can also chose to host your own sync service) and select ‘Sync Automatically’ from the apps Settings menu. Then head to and log in, using the same Google ID. You can now sync your notes to this subscription-free online service.
  2. Now you’ll need to get the free SimpleText Mac client from Hog Bay Software and install that. This tiny app runs in the menubar. When you first run it, it creates a new folder in your Home folder called ‘SimpleText.’ Open the SimpleText app Preferences and choose to ‘Start on Login’ and ‘Automatically Sync When Local Files Change.’ Your text notes will now sync to the newly-created ‘SimpleText’ folder. Each note will be stored as an individual file.
  3. Next, you need to create a folder within EagleFiler. I called mine ‘Sync.’ Once created, you need to download and install a free app called ‘MacDropAny.’ This simple tool allows you to sync any folder on your Mac using Dropbox (Note: you need to be a Dropbox user to use MacDropAny).  When you run MacDropAny, you’ll be asked to select a source and destination folder. The destination folder is that which you’ve just created within EagleFiler (you’ll have to find it via the Finder). The Source is your ‘SimpleText’ folder where your notes are held.
  4. Now here’s where you’ll notice a problem. MacDropAny won’t allow you to select an existing folder as your ‘Source.’ How do you get around this? Here’s what I did. I temporarily copied my existing text files residing in the ‘SimpleText’ folder, then deleted that folder (you could also just move the folder to your desktop). Then I ran MacDropAny, choosing to create a folder called ‘SimpleText’ as my Source folder. After I did that, I copied back my notes (text files) to the ‘SimpleText’ folder. I know, it’s a bit clumsy … but it works.
  5. Next, head to Notational Velocity (or nvALT) Preferences and choose the ‘Storage’ tab. Choose to ‘Store and read notes on disk as Plain Text Files.’  Then you need to choose the folder to store the files.  This is where you point to (you guessed it) the ‘SimpleText’ folder where all of your notes reside.
  6. Now test it out. Add some text to a file on your iPhone. The changes should appear within EagleFiler and within Notational Velocity. Change some text in EagleFiler or Notational Velocity. The changes should appear back on your iPhone.

EagleFiler Caveats

There are a few caveats about using EagleFiler. You’re not really supposed to add files directly to file structure within Finder, but that’s what I’m doing here. It works well enough, but it takes a little extra effort to keep it running smoothly.

EagleFiler uses a database to store metadata. An important part of that is monitoring any changes to files held within the app. If you delete a file on your iPhone, directly from the SimpleText folder, or from Notational Velocity, EagleFiler doesn’t know what happend to that file. A similar thing happens if you change a file outside of EagleFiler, as the app monitors each files checksum to keep track of changes—I’m guessing many people don’t even use this checksum feature, but it’s there to ensure the integrity of your files.

So. Changing text in a note or adding new notes outside of EagleFiler isn’t a big deal. You won’t see any error messages unless you use checksum. If you do use checksum, you need to periodically update the checksums for the files you’ve changed (you’re basically telling EagleFiler that the file is OK and that you’ve changed it from outside of the program). 

For files deleted outside of EF, you’ll notice that EagleFiler retains the deleted file, but the contents of the file within EagleFiler now have no content. That’s because the file isn’t there anymore. To fix this, periodically run ‘Scan for New Files’ from the EagleFiler ‘File’ menu (Shift-Apple-R). EF will then show you all the files that cannot be found (as they’ve been deleted) so you can go in and clean them up from the list within the app. Once you delete them from the EF file structure, empty the trash. 

A few final notes about EagleFiler. The app creates new Rich Text Format documents by default. If you want to move an existing file that is in RTF to your EagleFiler sync folder, you’ll first need to convert it to plain text. There’s a handy script to do that. If you want to create a new note in your EF synced folder, hold down the ‘Option’ key while choosing the ‘New RTF’ button from the menu bar, and a new plain text file will instead be created (there is no ‘New Plain Text’ button option). I should also mention that the metadata you add to a note in EagleFiler stays (is only visible) in EagleFiler. Those tags, flags, etc., do not transfer to your externally-stored notes. However, this metadata does persist in EagleFiler, even if you modify a note outside of the program. 

While syncing plain text files to EagleFiler may sound difficult to maintain, it’s really not bad. I think it’s worth it. (I’m now waiting for the developer or other EF users to tell me that this is a terrible idea!)

Syncing with Simplenote, PlainText

You can use a similar process to sync files using the Simplenote and PlainText iOS apps. I tried them both out and the syncing worked just as well. Actually, these other apps were a bit easier to set up.

For PlainText, the main difference is that this app stores your notes using Dropbox (in a folder called ‘PlainText).’ Since the syncing is via Dropbox, you won’t need the SimpleText Mac client. Note, though, that you also won’t get the online syncing.

For Simplenote, Notational Velocity includes built-in syncing support so it’s a bit, um, simpler. And while Simplenote does not store notes in individual text files, you can accomplish the same thing via Notational Velocity. You just need to head to Preferences within NV and choose to store your notes as files on your local disk as plain text files. You can choose any folder you like. However, if you want to go the extra step of syncing with EagleFiler, you’ll need to be a Dropbox user so you can take advantage of MacDropAny.  

Emailing plain text messages

The last point to talk about is how to add the ability to send messages from your email client to your notes folder.

With a Simplenote subscription, it’s a straightforward task since this service provides you with an email address. There’s nothing more to do.

With WriteRoom and PlainText, you need to bring in a couple of other tools. First, set up a free (donationware) service called, appropriately, Send to Dropbox. This service establishes a folder within your Dropbox called ‘Attachments’ and provides you with an email address to send your messages to. Note that this third-party service only stores your unique Dropbox ID, not your login/password (the same ID used when you share a file using your ‘Public’ dropbox). While the service is mainly for sending email attachments to your Dropbox via email, it works just as well for plain text. (As an aside, there are many other interesting Dropbox Addons worth checking out).

The trick, now, is how to get those plain text email messages from the Dropbox ‘Attachments’ folder to your synced notes folder. I used Hazel to accomplish this, establishing a rule to move any text file in the ‘Attachments’ folder to my ‘SimpleText’ folder.

That’s it

The text for this post was harder to pull together than the syncing scheme. I spent a lot of time discussing EagleFiler. Even if you don’t use this particular app, hopefully you’ll get some new ideas about syncing folders. And if you’ve never used Notational Velocity, it’s worth trying out. It’s free, after all. NV is very easy to configure and is a great way to access your notes on your Mac.

How does WriteRoom stack up against Simplenote? It’s still a bit early for me to say. One thing I know I don’t like: the app is requiring me to log in every time I open it. I hope this is fixed in a future release. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if I had a newer iPhone with iOS 4. With my old phone, however, I can’t run apps in the background.

As for looks, you can set up WriteRoom for iPhone to look quite similar to Simplenote. I prefer the default WriteRoom black background with white text.  One nice touch that WriteRoom offers, akin to its big brother on the Mac, is the ability to edit notes in full-screen mode. 

The WriteRoom web version of your notes looks like an old-old-school Mac text editor. Some may find that fun and retro, but it may be offputting if you’re expecting a slick interface like that served up by Simplenote. Me? I rarely used the Simplenote online service, and I doubt I’ll be logging into very often.

If you like tags in Simplenote, you’ll be missing that in WriteRoom. There are ways you can tag, though. I use the same work-around that I used in ‘pre-tag’ Simplenote—by creating tags with text at the end of my documents (using the syntax &tag: e.g. &home, &web). It works well enough for searching through many notes.  

Since I gave Simplenote a year, I plan to stick with WriteRoom for the next year.