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!)

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