February 26, 2012

Let Me Tell Ye: A Cautionary Tale About Calendars

I call this: computers,mac,phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 6:18 pm

Let me tell ye a story:
Last week I was very nearly late for a meeting because I completely lost track of its existence. In my defense, it was seriously the only appointment I had all week, and pertains to a job that doesn’t start until April. But I have a habit before I go to bed each night of asking myself what I have to do the next day. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like if I’m rehearsing six days a week and just sent out the next day’s schedule six hours ago, then I don’t usually need to consult a calendar to remind me. But if it’s not immediately obvious, then I check the calendar to be sure.

On the eve of this particular meeting, as I was preparing to shut down my computer and head to bed, I asked myself the usual question of whether I have something in particular to do the next day. And I consciously made the decision not to take the 5 seconds to open iCal and check. So sure was I that I had no responsibility in the foreseeable future.

Well let me tell ye, I was wrong. Thankfully, my PSM texted me a little more than an hour beforehand to double-check where the meeting was being held.

As I sat fuming on a train wondering how this all happened, I broke it down to the most essential failure:

It wasn’t that I didn’t bother to check the calendar. It’s that this appointment was likely to be lost track of in the vast expanse of free time surrounding it, and I didn’t set a reminder alarm to go off several hours beforehand.

I have these kind of alarms for lots of things — when I’m going to visit my parents, the stage managers’ networking event at Equity next month, if there’s something on TV or an event on the internet like an Apple keynote (obviously things that don’t require leaving the house don’t need a 3-hour warning, but I might include a shorter warning in case I’m out shopping and need to get home).

So the real cause of my near-missing of this meeting is why I didn’t set an alarm for something so obviously in need of one. The real reason is because I’ve stopped using them as much.

I stopped using alarms because they had become unreliable.

I had been using my Google Apps account for my calendar, which is great because Google Calendar is kind of the de facto standard in calendar sharing in the theatre industry, even if it seems nobody uses it to its full potential. The problem is, for many months I’ve been having a lot of trouble with alarms properly syncing between iCal and my phone. I had done a lot of experiments with iCal, the Google web app, and the iPhone, trying to figure out the circumstances under which an alarm wouldn’t sync. I had looked for solutions online, and had heard some suggestions that adding a sound to the alarm caused problems, but that didn’t seem to fix it for me (not that silent alarms are a great solution anyway). I was really stumped. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, and instead of entering my appointment in whatever app I pleased, I was now having to check and double-check on multiple devices just to make sure there really, truly seemed to be an alarm set somewhere.

Let me tell ye: this should have been a huge red flag. A rather important component of my workflow (the one responsible for not forgetting to be somewhere) had essentially stopped working, and while I had spent many hours trying to fix it, I let it continue to be broken. I was smart enough to stop trusting it, but I didn’t replace its function.

Late that night after the meeting, I created a bunch of calendars in iCloud, and gave them the same names and colors as my Google calendars. Then I changed all the appointments pertaining to the upcoming show I’m doing from the Google calendars to their new iCloud equivalents.

Now let me tell ye: I don’t really have great faith in iCloud. It’s no better than MobileMe, which was not much better than dotMac. But I always felt that MobileMe’s calendar syncing was a little more reliable, which is only natural when you’re using apps designed for it, rather than relying on support between two companies’ implementations of calendar standards. The only advantage to using Google Calendar, as far as I could tell, was if I wanted to share calendars. And let me tell ye, I have hardly ever shared my calendars, and definitely won’t need to in the kind of jobs I’ll be doing in the near future. It would also be very easy to convert back. Just a checkbox to turn the account back on in iCal, and one of those blue switchy-things on the iPhone to turn calendar syncing back on for my Google Apps account.

So far things feel a little safer. I am by no means saying that iCloud is a superior platform to Google Apps. On email features alone, I declare it is not. But the most important thing in my workflow should be to prevent data loss, because it could lead to absolute disaster for me and whatever production I’m working on. Sometimes that means picking the safer solution. It’s why I’ve never used Google to sync my contacts — it adds an extra layer of syncing between Address Book and Google, and in 12 years of syncing contacts, if I’ve learned anything it’s that they love to either disappear or inexplicably get duplicated 5 times, and it’s even more fun when field names get mixed up. Since my contacts are just for my own use, I prefer to go from an app to a cloud service to an app that are all designed to work together.

Anyway, my point in posting this is not specifically to talk about which calendar syncs better. The point is that I failed to fix something that was broken in my workflow — I guess because I was stubborn, or because I was afraid of breaking something else by switching formats — and it caused me to become disorganized and nearly make a major mistake. So I present this cautionary tale to anyone who relies on computers as much as I do, or on non-computer routines, for that matter. If something is preventing you from staying organized, fix it. If your thing is that you stick post-its on your corkboard, and you run out of post-its, run to the store and buy more. If your new corkboard makes the post-its fall off, stick them on with push-pins until you figure something out. Don’t stop using the post-its!

Also, it’s a good idea to look at your calendar before you go to bed.

I think this article may elicit some FAQs, so:

Why is Google Apps better than iCloud (for you)?
What I meant about the email being superior is best expressed in this Apple knowledgebase thingy. In short, MobileMe email would not push changes in status other than the arrival of a new message. So if you got 2 emails and read them on your computer, and then deleted them, your phone would still show two new emails until you actually opened the Mail app, at which point it would connect to the server and the emails would be marked read and then disappear off to the trash. Now imagine you’re on a train, and don’t have access to the server. Even more annoying.

Google mail had no such problem — all changes get pushed instantly, so you never have false unread mail alerts, and everything is in the folder where it belongs. Thus proving it’s never been a problem with the phone, with multitasking, or anything else. It’s just that MobileMe sucked. I had hoped that iCloud, whose only selling point was basically “MobileMe, but without the suck,” would fix this behavior. It didn’t. And that knowledgebase article basically says, “yeah, we meant for it to be this way.” So I no longer use any of my old dotMac/MobileMe/iCloud email addresses because it’s so annoying, and clearly not likely to change. Also with Google Apps I can use my own domain name for my email address, and that’s nice. Plus, if I someday didn’t want to use Gmail, I can keep my address and take it somewhere else.

So why don’t you just use Google Apps for everything and forget the syncing to iCal and Address Book?
Because I hate web apps. I do not trust the web, or the cloud, at all. Its only use for PIM (which is a term that’s never used anymore, but it means personal information management, and it’s a useful phrase), is to create local copies of my data simultaneously on all my devices. If it can’t be saved, accessed, and edited offline, and then successfully synced later without fucking everything up, I don’t want it. There are a disturbing number of places where I have to do my business without any internet access, so I prefer to work in well-designed local apps that stay in sync with each other, rather than in web apps that might try to throw in offline access as some kind of afterthought.

I like to know that if my tenuous hold on 1KB of bandwidth is severed while I’m entering data, I’m not going to lose anything, I don’t need to stop working, and I won’t be prevented from accessing data I’ve already entered. Also, I like purpose-built apps that are well designed and reliable at the tasks they were built to do. Sure I could use a browser as an email client. I could also use Photoshop as a word processor.

The only time I appreciate the existence of web apps is when I need to access something from somebody else’s computer, and when I do it’s very useful, but those occasions are rare. Also, they always seem to involve something about a printer that can’t be accessed except from the office computer. So yes, a great option to have in your back pocket, but I’m not comfortable with it as my primary method of working with my data.

You’re insane, you know that?
I offer this FAQ only as an explanation of why I personally have dismissed other available options. My way is far from being the most appropriate solution for everyone.

September 13, 2007

Preproduction and Software

I call this: computers,mac,theatre — Posted by KP @ 10:13 pm

Ooh, great, another one of those posts where I actually cover the full span of what this blog is about — theatre and technology, and how I use them together. We’ve been in meetings all week for Frankenstein, and I’m having a great time. As the ASM, my contract doesn’t start for another day or two, but I’ve been happily attending all the meetings with the PSM, as being in the loop is much more important to me than being paid, and quite frankly I didn’t have a lick of work last week and was bored out of my mind. So sitting in formatting meetings every day has been great fun, as we work through the show with the various design elements.

Monday and Tuesday were focused mostly on the set, with the director, choreographer and set designer, and us two stage managers. Wednesday was our sound day, with our two sound designers and the musical director. This is definitely a show where the sound design will contribute a lot, and I can’t wait to hear more about that. Today and tomorrow are all about projections, which will also be a key part of the show, and then we do lights and everybody together on the weekend.

It’s been very helpful for me to see the show take shape as everyone decides together how things will go. I have been taking notes on everything (using Pages), and have been using the very attractive comments feature to mark events that will likely be cues for me on the deck. See the drawing to the right for a sample page. I’m very happy that we haven’t even started rehearsal and already I’m thinking about what I need to be doing on the deck at any moment, and can look at the groundplan and plot my backstage traffic and ask the designer questions as they come up.

Some of the more artistic stuff is something I’ll probably never need to know as part of my job, but having grown up and gone to college wanting to be a director, I still find it really interesting to be in the room as the basic vision of the show takes shape and is altered through collaboration. The creative team is really great, and the mood in meetings is very positive and fun. It’s definitely one of those moments where I have realized how lucky we are that we get to put on shows for a living. Sure it’s serious business and all our jobs and rent depend on not screwing this up, but it’s got to be more fun than the vast majority of other professions.

A Clean Slate
Since I’ve been back from Reagle and lacking any kind of seriously demanding employment for the first month, I’ve taken this time to experiment with some technological toys that I wouldn’t risk playing around with if I was in the middle of production. Getting confirmation of the Frankenstein job with a couple weeks notice before beginning rehearsal, I have seen this as something of a clean slate to try a few things I’ve been wanting to.

I think I mentioned in my review of Pages that I see this latest edition of iWork as a possible precursor to me effectively removing Microsoft Office from my life. The big thing holding me back was Entourage, which I much preferred over the combination of Mail, Address Book and iCal. I shouldn’t say I much preferred, just that I stuck with the power of it, despite the vaguely Windows-esque feel of it.

Another part of this decision, less obvious at first, but lurking in the shadows, is the iPhone. I don’t want one now. I want a smartphone, and a phone that can’t open and edit a Word document or spreadsheet, or open an image file in its native resolution, or cut and paste, is not very smart. There is a litany of things Palm devices have been doing for five years that the iPhone can’t do. Third party hacked software has been helping this, but I’m not yet at a level of comfort where the iPhone is something I want. I’m definitely not jumping on the bandwagon until the second version, and I’m not too thrilled about AT&T on top of that. But I see that especially given how embarrassingly Palm has stagnated in recent years, there will be an iPhone in my future. And when that day comes, I’ll want it integrated as nicely as possible into my Mac. And that means using Mail and Address Book and iCal to get the full effect of the Mac experience. So being able to make this transition at a convenient time will save me trouble later, if and when I get an iPhone.

I also have been depending more and more on having access to my e-mail on my Treo. For years I have used SnapperMail, which is a very mature Palm mail client, but the version I own is only for POP mail. I am something of a pack rat, in real life and in my digital life. My goal is to keep every e-mail I ever send and receive in my life (excluding spam and advertisements and the like). Somewhere along the line I lost my earlier mail, but my current archives go back to the end of 2002. For this reason, IMAP mail has always turned me off. The idea of my mail residing on a server and maybe or maybe not being saved to my desktop client scared the hell out of me. But handling POP mail on my Treo while trying to keep complete records on my main computer was somewhat frustrating. I was willing to give IMAP another try, which meant using my .Mac account, which offered a perfect opportunity to give Apple’s Mail app another try.

I have been a member of .Mac for a few years now. I think it’s a bit overpriced and underdeveloped, and their servers are usually slow, but I use it mostly for iDisk storage and the ease of use and integration into OS X. I’m fully capable of doing things the hard way, but for what amounts to $8 a month, I don’t mind having Apple take care of most of it for me. With that of course comes an @mac.com e-mail address, which I have never bothered to use because I was never sure I wanted to keep the service.

The next seemingly unrelated event in my life was that my parents moved over the summer, and on the day I returned from Reagle I went to their house and set up their wireless network. In the course of testing it, I noticed they were getting download speeds in the neighborhood of 12mbps. They have Optimum Online, on Long Island. Now I knew I was not getting anything near this from Time Warner/Earthlink. So when I got home I found I was lucky to get about 5mbps. It seems from my research this is the maximum speed of the network that people are reporting in NYC. This did not seem fair to me, and planted the seeds of discontent. However, ditching Earthlink would mean changing my e-mail address. I’m terrified of changing my phone number or e-mail, because I fear that someone I haven’t talked to in five or ten years will suddenly need to get in touch with me and will be unable to. Combine this problem with my interest in switching my e-mail to IMAP, and suddenly a plan was formed: if I used my .Mac account as my primary e-mail I could switch ISPs as often as I need to to get the best service, yet not have to worry about changing my e-mail address. Plus I’d get the cool and easy-to-type @mac.com address, which most importantly has much fewer letters than @earthlink.net.

So it all came together at once and I sent out an e-mail blast to all my friends and former coworkers advising them of the change, and created e-mail aliases for my other three addresses and updated the relevant sites and institutions about the change. And I have been using Mail ever since. The rules are definitely less flexible than Entourage’s, but overall I’m happy with it. Plus, Leopard is coming out in a month or so, and with that an update to Mail which might have some improvements.

On the Palm side, I have switched to Chatter, which is widely regarded as the best IMAP client for Palm OS. The developer has since been hired by Palm, hopefully to design something cool for their next mail client, so development on the current version has pretty much ceased. I’m not thrilled about paying for an app I know is no longer in development, but given the circumstances, I think it’s something I have to do to take advantage of IMAP. I find I’m using my Treo more for responding to e-mail because I’m not worried about it being in sync with my desktop. Just tonight on the train I wrote two e-mails that I normally would have waited until I got home to respond to.

I’m really getting to like Pages, the only dilemma I have is whether it’s appropriate in situations where I may need to share my work with others using Word. I think I’ve been pretty bold about using it for almost all my Frankenstein documents. I have been placed in charge of creating and maintaining the contact sheet, and today decided to go ahead and do it in Pages. I think first of all it will be much better for my sanity as I work with it, and I think the formatting will come out much cleaner and more legible. We have also decided to distribute it in PDF, which means I don’t have to worry about what Word decides to do with it. I will have a Word version, as some people will need to work on it occasionally, and I will keep an eye on the compatibility to make sure it’s not a disaster, but I hope that I will be able to do it in Pages without embarrassing myself. Anyway, so far Macs outnumber PCs in our production team 6-to-1 by my last count, so I doubt I’ll hear too much bashing.

I like the feel of Numbers, but so far in my experience, and from what I’ve been reading, it’s not as sufficient a replacement for Excel as Pages is to Word. I guess this is to be expected, as this is the third version of Pages and only the first for Numbers. There are some things with formulas it can’t do, but for the most part working in show business, and being largely more concerned with the “show” than the “business,” I hardly ever use spreadsheets to crunch numbers. I received Frankenstein‘s prop list in Excel, and have since been editing it in Numbers, as it’s just a list and should export back into Excel easily enough if necessary.

I’m just going to come out and say I love iCal. I always have. I have always preferred iCal to Entourage’s calendar, it was just all the other baggage involved in switching away from Entourage that kept me from it. But now I get to use it every day.

My real work on Frankenstein began last Sunday when I got together with my PSM, Joshua, for a working lunch. One of the biggest things we had to tackle was to make some sense of the very short period of time we have for production and to propose a schedule, taking into account the needs of the production team and all the various Equity rules. I had been putting a rough sketch of the show schedule into iCal for my personal use, in a separate Frankenstein calendar.

Using the very clear and intuitive week view in iCal, we started dragging around rehearsals, dragging them between days, dragging them earlier or later in the day, of longer and shorter duration. It was very easy to see what we were working with and play around with it. While my version is not the official production calendar, it’s what we’ve been using whenever we’re brainstorming schedule changes. I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s working.

Address Book
The final piece of this puzzle is Address Book, and it’s probably my least favorite part. While the layout is very simple and easy to navigate and generally Mac-like, I’ve always found it a little too simple at first glance. Syncing contacts from any platform to Palm is always scary. If they don’t quite play nice together all of a sudden you’ll find people missing, duplicated, or all their e-mail addresses listed as phone numbers and all their phone numbers listed as e-mails. I’ve been backing up both ends a lot, just in case something bad happens. One basic thing I don’t like is that the Apple apps don’t deal with “categories” per se, in the way that Palm and the Microsoft apps do. iCal has calendars, and Address Book has groups, but they’re not exactly the same, especially in Address Book. See the problem is that on the Palm side, an item can only be in one category at a time. This is kind of Palm’s fault, since they haven’t innovated anything since about 2002, but in Address Book you can put a contact into multiple groups, and it’s quite difficult to tell you’ve done so, until you notice that on the Palm it’s not where you expected to see it. This is sort of a problem in Entourage as well, where you can assign something to multiple categories, but it’s harder to do accidentally.

Also, Entourage makes a distinction between categories, which are used to organize contacts, and groups, which are lists for e-mail distribution. I can have a Frankenstein category that contains everyone involved in any way in the production, and then separate groups for cast, production team, rehearsal report list, etc. so that when I send e-mails I have various pre-made lists to choose from based on who I want to contact. In Address Book the only form of organization is groups. If I want to send a mass e-mail to a bunch of people, I need to create a separate group with that bunch of people, which is a little confusing and clutters up my categories on the Palm end. I think having an iPhone or any device that behaves more similarly to Address Book would ease my concerns with this.

Overall I’m enjoying the new toys I’ve been playing with, and I have a few more to try out soon.