Three Favorite iPhone Applications

Some of my favorite iPhone apps lately:

OmniFocus. Very possibly my most-used third-party iPhone app now, though that’s with the addition of the desktop version, which it syncs with. It’s a tool for implementing the Getting Things Done system of task management, which I’ve been using for two or three years now. I bought the desktop version of OmniFocus a few months ago, partly because I liked the demo and partly because they’d announced they were working on an iPhone version that would sync with the desktop version.

OmniFocus rocks. The syncking rocks. I can add or modify a to-do item on my laptop and find it on my iPhone (not just downloadable from a website) ten minutes or so later, or vice versa. So far I like the interface on both my computer screen and my iPhone.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t recommend OmniFocus for someone who is just starting out with GTD. In fact, I know darned well I wouldn’t. I think it’s best to learn the GTD method staying as close to the ground as possible, just making the lists with pen and paper or in a text editor. Once you’re in the habit of making the lists, and you understand how the process works, and if and only if you’re starting to get a little impatient with the bookkeeping part of things, then you’re ready for something like OmniFocus. But the whole point of GTD is to keep the bookkeeping simple, and you don’t need OmniFocus or anything like it to help you; it’s just a timesaver.

And psychologically it’s important that you understand the GTD process well enough that you know you aren’t letting anything fall through the cracks. Jumping into a program like OmniFocus before you’ve gone through the process by hand for a while could get in the way of getting really grounded in it.

OmniFocus’s ability to use the iPhone’s GPS and show you to-do lists for places nearby is a catchy gimmick and it’s attracted a lot of attention in the reviews, but it seems to me add nothing at all to the program’s usefulness in actual practice. I don’t have any trouble looking over a list of errands and realizing that as long as I’m going to the supermarket I should stop at the post office, too.

OmniFocus has a rep for being a difficult program to learn, which I don’t get. I was using it in five or ten minutes. It does have maybe just a few too many features for my taste, since the whole point of GTD is to keep it simple. There are sections of the user’s manual I still haven’t more than glanced at. But it’s not so complicated that I find it overwhelming or hard to find whatever feature it is that I actually want. Once you understand the GTD process, OmniFocus seems a pretty intuitive way of carrying it out, and a nice timesaver.

FileMagnet. Lets me put docs from my laptop on my iPhone. It’s not the note-taking program that syncs between laptop and iPhone that I want (and that will finally turn the iPhone into the Mac-friendly PDA I’ve wanted for many, many years), but I can put notes on my iPhone for reference. It doesn’t let me edit them on the iPhone but it’s very easy to edit them on the laptop and then replace them, so that’s the next best thing I guess.

I was under the impression from the description that I was going to have to be at home to transfer files, because the iPhone and the laptop (or desktop) computer have to be on the same wireless network, but on their website I discovered that a computer-to-computer network set up on the laptop will work fine. So I bought it, and I have found that indeed I can transfer files from laptop to iPhone wherever I am.

You need to download and install a free program for the Mac, too. When you run it, it opens a window on your Mac screen. When the Mac program isn’t connected to your iPhone via the peer-to-peer network, you can drag and drop files from your Mac onto the window, to be syncked later when you’re connected. When the connection is made, the window divides into two panes; the top pane works the same as before except that files you drag and drop here are now syncked instantly, while the bottom half shows the folders and files you have on your iPhone, much like a Finder window, and you can rearrange them or delete them here. (There doesn’t seem to be any way to rearrange them on the iPhone, though you can delete them there.)

As a first test, to see how it would handle nested folders, I took my Yijing (I Ching in pre-pinyin spelling) files that I used to keep on my PDA, and I put them on my iPhone. This is a text file of Part I of the Wilhelm/Baynes translation that I split up into 64 files, one per hexagram. The files have titles like “17 Lake thunder”, meaning hexagram 17, lake over thunder. The eight hexagrams with lake trigram on top are in a folder called “Lake upper”, and there are seven other folders called “Earth upper” and “Fire upper” and so on. Then these eight folders are in a top-level folder called “Yijing”. If I toss the coins and get, say, mountain over wind, I open up the folder “Yijing”, look at the eight folders inside and open up “Mountain upper”, and then look at the eight files inside and open up “18 Mountain wind”. The arrangement of nested folders makes for a handy way of looking up a hexagram when I don’t have the book nearby, and I thought it would be a good first test of how the software worked.

Well, once I figured out how to get the network going, all I had to do was drag and drop the whole “Yijing” folder onto the window on my Mac screen and an instant later the same folder was showing up on my iPhone. I opened up the folder and found all the subfolders and files inside as they should be. Very easy. The only downside was that I found the text files (in Monaco font) a bit unpleasant to read, so I took a little time later to change the text files to RTF files and changed the font to 11-point Palatino, which looked like a good compromise between compactness and readability. I also abbreviated some of the file names to fit in the FileMagnet display. So now I can carry the Wilhelm/Baynes Yijing around with me on my iPhone, like I used to with my PDA, and I can toss the coins anywhere. Very neat.

I’ve done the same with a couple dozen favorite poems that I used to like to have on my PDA, and that’s working fine, too. FileMagnet is supposed to handle lots of other kinds of files like PDFs and stuff, too. The only problem so far is that I sometimes when I open a file I get a message that FileMagnet is running out of memory, which is silly because these are small RTF files, but this is a known problem so hopefully they’ll figure out how to make it go away.

FireWords. A simple game of finding words snaking through an array of letters that all start out yellow. Every time you make a word, its letters go away and are replaced with random new letters. With every word you find, the last three letters of the word are turned pure yellow again (if they weren’t already), any other letters in the word become silver (“ice”), and the rest of the letters in the array that are not already turned to ice turn a shade more orange. If a letter goes enough turns without being used, it will turn more and more orange and eventually start to smolder. Once it does, you have three more turns to go and then if you still haven’t used the letter, the game is over.

Instead of finding a word, you can shuffle all the letters in the array, but this turns all the non-iced letters another shade of orange so doing this too many times could lead to having more smoldering letters than you can use in three more words. But you can’t avoid shuffling now and then, because sometimes you’ll get an intractable clump of consonants that you can’t break into, so all there is to do is shuffle and hope they mix it up with the vowels.

The business about letters turning to ice is what makes the game interesting, though it also makes it too easy. Interesting because some strategy comes into play as you try to choose words that will create large patches of ice that you then don’t have to worry about until you want. I like to try to ice out the letters in the corners of the array first and then work my way into the center, so that the active letters, the ones that are still turning orange, are confined to a smaller and smaller area. Sometimes I can get so much of the array turned to ice that there are just three active letters, which is the minimum possible.

After playing this for a while, I’ve gotten to the point where I begin to wonder if the game ever really needs to end. It’s easy enough to make four-letter and longer words and turn letters into ice, easy enough to shrink the active area to an easily managed size, so that one isn’t trying to put out smoldering letters in three or four widely separated parts of the board. My latest game has been going on for a good while and I don’t see why it shouldn’t go on for a good while longer. The game could be improved by some mechanism to make the play grow gradually more challenging as your score increases. That, and perhaps something to encourage or force you to break open the iced-up areas now and then.

The only thing that has put my latest game in danger a couple of times has been the occasional stretch where I get few vowels. At times I’ve gotten to where there are only two or three vowels in the entire array, and when that happens any active consonants that are located far from a vowel are in danger of starting to smolder before you can get a vowel near them. You have to make a word that uses a vowel and also uses a consonant or two nearer to the letter you’re trying to get to, and then hope that one of those nearer consonants is replaced by a vowel, and then you use that vowel to use up some consonants even nearer, and so on. And of course there’s no guarantee that you’ll get vowels where you need them. Those are times when it may be better to shuffle all the letters, even at the price of pushing everything one step closer to smoldering, and hope that the vowels end up in more useful places. But there’s no guarantee of that, either.

The closest I’ve come so far in this game was at one point getting to where I had no vowels at all in the array, including no Ys. My own hope was to be able to make one of those rare words with no vowels. I had one N, two Ts, and several Hs, so I shuffled the letters several times in the chance that they would fall so as to make nth possible. I got to where a couple of letters were smoldering and the game would be over in three more turns, so I stopped and made yet another last-ditch search of the board for other words. Not really expecting it to work, but figuring what the hell, I tried making shh. The game accepted it as a word, and two of the three new letters were vowels, which was enough for me to be able to put out the smoldering letters in a couple more turns. The vowel/consonant ratio gradually righted itself and I got the board back under control. Well, if there are a few more short vowelless words like shh in the game’s list of valid words, and one can figure out what they are, then even a brief but severe shortage of vowels could usually be overcome.

(Later: Now I know that it accepts DVD. Sheesh!)

Vanya at CalShakes

Wednesday night Dave and I saw the first preview of CalShakes’s Uncle Vanya. What a pleasure it is to see Chekhov and Ibsen now and then performed by people who get the humor! A couple of seasons ago there was that terrific The Master Builder at the Aurora Theater, and now this production. Even one actor in common — James Carpenter played Holness in Master Builder and he plays horrible old narcissistic professor in Vanya, and I can’t remember seeing him be as funny before. There’s Barbara Oliver in common, too — she founded the Aurora, and she plays Marina, the old family nanny, here, with a brilliant deadpan singlemindedness. I have no idea why the sight of her simply walking across the stage with such concentrated determination just so she can fuss with the samovar and the teacups made me laugh out loud, but it did.

Dan Hiatt as Vanya is giving the best performance I think I’ve ever seen from him, and that’s saying a lot. But really, the whole cast is spot on, every character very touching and recognizably human and a little bit crazy.

As is the production, which is full of humor. Chekhov’s characters love to piss and moan about how hopeless life is and how trapped they are in their situations, which has led a lot of directors and actors to play them as bleak. But Chekhov always, always took great pains to show us as well that the cages his characters complain so incessantly about being trapped inside were built by them themselves, that the bars are made of papier-maché, that the construction is so flimsy that one good knock would bring the thing down, and anyway the doors are all unlocked and wide open. If a character in Chekhov says she has no choice, it is a safe bet that within half a minute somebody will offer her a perfectly good alternative and she herself will come up with a lame excuse why she can’t take it. If somebody says he can’t take any more and he is going to leave immediately, you know he’s going to jump at the first possible pretext to stay. On the comics page this morning I saw at least three strips whose punchlines turn on precisely this structure, and nobody would have any trouble seeing the humor in it, but for some reason you give your characters Russian (or Norwegian) names and it’s suddenly grim, deadly serious stuff.

Benjamin Britten and Frida Kahlo

Dave and I went to hear Britten’s War Requiem at Davies Hall on Friday night. I had suggested it just because a friend in the chorus had told me about it, but we were delighted to discover on buying the tickets that Marcelle Dronkers would be the soprano soloist. Marcelle is one of my favorite performers, who I’ve enjoyed tremendously in many roles; I think the first time I saw her was with Richard Goodman in Don Pasquale maybe 20 years ago, and it is to this day the only performance of that opera I have ever seen which worked for me, thanks largely to Marcelle and Richard’s lively performances in commedia dell’arte style.

I hadn’t heard the War Requiem before, nor had I read much of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose poems Britten used along with the Latin text of the requiem mass. Some of the requiem seemed dry and cerebral to me, as though Britten were keeping the emotions at arms’ length, but other parts were devastating and just about brought me to tears. I’m looking forward to listening to a couple of recordings and getting to know it better.

On Sunday afternoon we went to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. I’d won a pair of tickets to the exhibit from mybart.com. We showed up around 2:15 pm and received tickets to enter at 4:00, so we looked at the other exhibits till then.

Very interesting to see so many Kahlo paintings at one time. I hadn’t realized before this how much she used symbols in her paintings rather in the manner of Renaissance painters. I also hadn’t realized what an intense and even sometimes frightening a woman she must have been — without knowing anything about her life than what I picked up yesterday afternoon from her paintings and the bits of biography on the walls, I’d make a somewhat wild guess that she may have been prone to histrionic personality disorder. Some aspects of the paintings seem very sophisticated to me — the mixing of styles in the same painting, for example, with elements of cubism and surrealism and Renaissance style all working together to create something that feels simple and whole — but then there’s a lot of what looks to me like childishness in her paintings, too.

I’d seen reproductions of the painting of herself with four parrots, but I had not noticed before that the two parrots on her shoulders are painted to look three-dimensional, while the two in front are painted to look flat, almost as though they were printed on her blouse. On looking closer, it seems to me that the two in front must certainly be the same birds as the two on her shoulders; too many of the markings are the same, and sometimes in subtle ways, for this not to be intentional. Why does each parrot appear twice? Was her intention that each parrot was not only a companion on her shoulder, but a part of her? In any case, it’s a more interesting and more touching painting than I’d realized from just seeing it in small reproductions.

One of the most striking paintings was one that I’d never seen before, about the suicide of someone she’d known who had thrown herself out the window of her tall apartment building. The woman is shown three times: at the start of her fall just outside the window; on the ground, broken and bleeding yet looking beautiful and peaceful; and in the middle of the frame, falling through blue sky and white clouds in a manner that makes her look almost like a graceful bird swooping down, and that suggests to me the sort of visual language that a Renaissance painter would use to show somebody ascending to heaven. Once that thought occurred to me, the whole middle image became ambiguous — is it of the woman falling toward her death, or of her spirit set free and soaring after she has fallen?

I bought the handsome catalog of the exhibit in the gift shop on the way out as a souvenir.