How I’m using Dropbox.

Since I talk about Dropbox quite a bit anywhere and everywhere I can, I’m often asked for app recommendations and about the services that I use with it. The beauty of it is that these things can and do change from time to time because so many apps and services plug into Dropbox that there’s always something new to try. So here are some of my uses and apps as of right now.

For starters, I don’t use my OS X home folder for anything, if I can help it. Everything important lives in Dropbox. I can’t move my Library in there, but if I could, I would. If I lost my MBP tomorrow, I could be back up and running 90% of the way just by logging into Dropbox on a new machine. That makes me feel good. Now, onto some more specific things.

1Password: The alpha and omega of all my Dropboxing. 1Password is the single most useful app on any of my systems, and my world lives inside it. Security’s no joke, and 1P makes it easy. Constant updates, communicative and friendly developers and a willingness to always improve make it my number one app, anywhere.

Notes, Reminders: Notes are stored as plain text files and kept in a folder called Notes. I point the awesome Notational Velocity fork nvALT at this folder on the Mac, and whatever app I’m currently using on iOS at it as well. Right now, that happens to be Elements by Second Gear. It’s clean and fast. Reminders are a different beast. Currently I’m back using Appigo’s Todo, which I’d purchased a million years ago, but which has seen some pretty decent updates. My tasks sync in a Dropbox folder and appear on all my devices. This could change by the time you read this, but that’s what’s great about Dropbox. Another one of my favorites is TaskAgent, although it’s more for lists and doesn’t have reminder functions built in. If you just have one list, you might check out Due, which is also great.

Camera Uploads: This is a service that’s now provided directly through the Dropbox app. Before it was offered, I used many different iOS apps to get my camera roll into Dropbox, and I still use one called CameraSync because it uses geofencing to determine when to activate and upload your pics, taking the manual process away entirely. I set it up for the office and my house, and when I go between them, I get a notification that my pics are uploading. It’s like magic. (I also have Photo Stream turned on as a fallback, but I like that they’re also in Dropbox automatically as well, for obvious reasons – Photo Stream has a 1,000 pic/30 day limit).

Byword: My favorite writing app for Mac and iOS. Hook Byword up to your Dropbox, and your works in progress are everywhere. I store them as plain text (.txt) files for portability into other writing apps as well.

Day One: My journal of choice. Byword is for things I intend to put somewhere on the web, Day One is just for me. A gorgeous Mac and iOS app, with tons of features and improvements. If you’re not using this app, you’re seriously missing out on a flagship writing experience. Again, I choose to store the data file in Dropbox, because I want to be able to pull it apart if I feel like it (or need to) and iCloud’s data container doesn’t sit well with me.

Scanner Pro: A great quick utility by Readdle. If I need a PDF of something I’m looking at in the real world, I grab my phone or iPad, take a picture, and Scanner Pro converts it to a great looking PDF and drops it into my Dropbox for me. Easy.

Drafts: Quick capture and instant dumping into a variety of iOS apps. I keep a “Drafts” folder hooked up to Dropbox and have it set to capture text notes that I intend to file away in my large note file. Hazel watches this folder and drops .txt files into the other one for me.

TextExpander: Super time-saver. TextExpander takes snippets of keys you assign and drops giant chunks of text in their place. I keep the settings synced with Dropbox between my systems.

Paper: My favorite sketching app. Although I don’t use Paper all that much, when I do, it exports my journals right into a Dropbox folder. I end up using this to quickly diagram things for clients sometimes. It helps to have a picture to go with what I’m saying, and if we’re all in agreement, I can save it, export it and refer to it when I go to create a formal wireframe document or something like that.

Software: I keep a master repository of all kinds of .dmg files and installers in Dropbox. I’ve been a Pro customer for years, and recently had my storage space doubled to a massive 200gb, so this is even less of a problem now than before. Super convenient when you’re managing multiple systems in an office environment and the Mac App Store isn’t how you plan to do it.

System: I keep a folder called System in my Dropbox, and the purpose of this folder is to preserve app settings and things like that. If I can, I’ll install an app and configure it so that its settings automatically go there, but if not, I can always manually copy/move some things around or set up Hazel rules to duplicate these settings/files. Alfred is a good example of an app that runs out of this folder – all my extensions and tweaks are synced between my Macs into Alfred from here.

What else?…

Sharing: throw things in a Dropbox folder, get a quick link. Better than email for giant files, and usually works ok for everyone.

IFTTT: there’s all manner of cool automated things you can do with IFTTT, a web service that aggregates other web services to do some nerdy heavy lifting for you. I’m currently pulling all my Instagram shots in automatically, as well as Facebook pics I’ve been tagged in. I also have something set up to automatically forward a document from my iPhone to a folder specified by me in Dropbox, but I don’t really find myself using it. Still, it’s cool and it’s just scratching the surface.

iPhoto: I wouldn’t recommend trying to point multiple machines’ iPhoto installs to one library you keep in Dropbox (seems to have issues, YMMV) but if you only have one machine on which you use iPhoto, it’s an easy way to back that giant file up (if you have the space).

I could go on and on. When I record podcasts, they dump directly into a Dropbox folder from Audio Hijack. I keep a folder just to sync stuff between my MBP and my Mac mini server at home if I need to. A different folder to share things with my wife and her MBP. The possibilities are nearly limitless, and growing every day. It’s a fantastically reliable and functional tool I’ve grown to rely on. I’d hate to go back to computing without it.

If you’ve got a great way to use Dropbox, I’d love to hear it.

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Un-simplified, and happy.

I recently talked about my intentions to simplify my workflows by using the default Apple apps on iOS and the Mac (Notes, Reminders, etc.) as replacements for the many apps I like to jump between. My goal was to see if by just letting go of my need to tinker with the connective tissue between parts of my workflows I could improve both my base anxiety level (derived not from fear, but from a constant feeling of “could I be doing this more effectively?”) and my ability to focus more on the “work” and less on the “flow” overall. I stuck with it for several weeks, and the results are in.

It’s… not for me.

The short version: between heavy-handed interfaces and iCloud flakiness, I gave up because I felt that I was neither gaining relief from the productivity improvement demons nor was I focused on my work. Instead, I was waiting for the other iCloud shoe to drop (data loss) and talking myself into the idea that this was good enough for me, when the truth of the matter was that it really isn’t.

I’ve been reliant on Dropbox for so long I can’t even remember or imagine a world without it. Many apps take great advantage of the APIs Dropbox has in place to both sync settings and data with moderate to high levels of success based on the app and its implementation. There are two reasons I feel better about this path:

  1. Dropbox exists in a tangible way on multiple computers I own as well as in the cloud
  2. Flexibility between interfaces

The first one is easy. I don’t trust iCloud fully yet. Every time I saw three copies of a single note appear in the Notes app or a reminder re-add itself to a list after completion, I added a tiny tick mark to the wall in my mind. Which is not to say that Dropbox sync services are without folly; certainly they can and do fail from time to time, however I always have the opportunity to throw my data into another app and test the waters elsewhere. I can easily see my data in Dropbox, which is important not primarily for sync settings, but for things like my plain text notes, which might be transitory and not long-term in nature as I’d discovered, but important to see and preserve as I saw reason to take the information down and capture it. Seeing duplicate notes appear was the flip side to the coin where notes suddenly vanish, and I’m not comfortable with that.

Second: Apple’s UI choices are polarizing if nothing else. There are many choices I enjoy and find delightful, and many at which I continually level disgust and contempt. With the relief provided by giving up my tinkering ways to Apple’s choices comes a compromise I’m unwilling to make right now – I’m stuck looking at yellow paper that formats plain text in obnoxious ways and parchment lists that while functional, are hardly the optimal way to organize (in my mind, at least) the tasks and efforts I need to complete. By using apps that plug into Dropbox, I’m afforded a variety of ways to look at the exact same data. Sometimes I need that variety, and it comes at the price of my inability to sometimes stop myself from exploring other apps and interfaces. I look at these screens entirely too much each day to be unhappy with what’s staring back at me. I can work at leaving well enough alone with regard to fiddly bits, but I can’t work at liking a UI I simply don’t.

The fundamental truth I learned about myself, which I mentioned in the first sentence of that other post is that I am a tinkerer. I like to try different things, break stuff, put it back together, and start from scratch. It’s something I can’t really turn off entirely, nor do I want to. It’s a curiosity I’ve had since I was a kid, and I hope my daughter expresses the same interest in exploration, whether it’s with software or any other interest she’s passionate about. I try new apps and add layers of complexity because I need to. It’s an evolving little puzzle I do with myself, like a game of Jenga in reverse. Occasionally I find something rock solid and leave it working, but there’s always something else to move on to, some new thing to play with, some new web service to leverage to make the mental machine run a little more smoothly. Understanding this about myself means I don’t feel guilty anymore about trying a million different ways to do a simple thing because I can rest a little easier knowing I’ve ruled out the ways I didn’t know before.

So, back to plain text, back to Dropbox, like a favorite pair of jeans. Sometimes you buy new jeans, sometimes you wear a suit, and sometimes the jeans sit in your drawer for a few weeks. But they’re there, and you know it, and it makes you happy.

Don’t believe the (post-disaster) hype.

Not a whole lot to say about this. After declaring publicly to the Consumerist that my mom wouldn’t be charged for her unreturned cable box in the midst of the hurricane-induced mess at the shore, she received a bill, asking her to return her equipment. Which she was in fact charged for.

So… yeah. My folks are still assessing the damage to the house. I don’t know if the box is there, ruined, or otherwise. But regardless, she was not supposed to be charged, and she’s already received this.

Comcast Cares™.

Glassboard and getting back on our feet.

When Hurricane Sandy hit us, our office, like most in our area, was completely shut down. We had no power, and our entire staff was scattered. We had about thirty people with varying levels of cell service, power, and internet connectivity. We needed a way to get everyone in one place quickly and easily, and that was becoming an increasingly tall order. That’s when I remembered the excellent Glassboard by Sepia Labs.

Glassboard is a private social network for groups. You create a board, invite your participants, and everyone can post and read into that board. You can add photos, reply with comments to posts, and receive push notifications when others update the board. The thing that really worked for us was that the service is available as an iPhone app, an Android app and a web app (still in beta, perfectly functional). This meant that across all our staff, everyone would be able to use it in some capacity – those who had cell service but no home connectivity could use the apps, and those with home connectivity and no cell service could use a browser.

In a matter of a few hours, we had status updates on everyone (all safe, thankfully) and were talking about a contingency plan for the office and our client obligations. Glassboard allowed us to communicate effectively and quickly across a variety of platforms, and took the guesswork and aggravation out of organizing a group of our size. It’s a great tool with some talented people behind it, and I look forward to seeing its continued development.

It’s free with optional pro account upgrades, and you should check it out. Our Iterate interview with Brent Simmons of Sepia Labs (and many other great things) will be up soon.

A bit of follow up on my Comcast post.

So that post I wrote about my mom’s issues with Comcast really had some legs. It was my most retweeted post on Twitter (ever), got picked up by Consumerist, submitted to Reddit, and landed on Hacker News. (Update: and as of about 10:30am on 11/2, Huffington Post too.)

As you’d expect, people are sharply divided. There was a lot of support from all kinds of people who felt, as I did, that the situation was poorly handled. On the other hand, this being the Internet, there were plenty of contrarians who relished telling me how stupid I was for even bringing this up, and insisted I was being a whiny bitch for not writing about the people who perished in the storm. I was told “this is how business works” and regaled with tales of economics that fully explained (FULLY EXPLAINED) exactly why I was wrong, how I was wrong, and insinuated that I not only did not understand a free market economy, but that I should be thankful (as should my mom) that the situation wasn’t worse.

Oh, Internet.

We are thankful that it wasn’t worse. We’re not idiots; we’re grateful to have lived through this disaster when others didn’t. We weren’t hurt physically, but it’s tough to come to terms with the kind of loss my family feels, despite the fact that it’s not of the mortal variety. The post was not designed to overlook the struggles of others, nor to minimize their problems in favor of bitching about a company I didn’t like. No, I wrote it because it needed to be written. I wrote it because I do understand how business works, but if corporations get to be treated as people for tax purposes, then they should act like people in other situations occasionally as well when common sense would call for it.

It’s not about the money. I’m pretty sure my mom can afford to pay for the box. It’s about how in the face of extreme conditions and personal suffering, they had nothing better to say to a longtime customer besides “too bad”. I got a lot of shit for expecting the company to pay for my mom’s troubles, when so many others were in the same predicament. How brazen I was, suggesting that Comcast eat all that money! How dare I question their policies? Business is business, and that’s the world we live in.

Well, if you read the post, I didn’t ask them to pay for the box. What I said was that they didn’t care. They do community outreach, and plant trees, and host events, and that’s great. But when people really need them, they didn’t offer to offset the cost, they didn’t offer to delay the fees, they didn’t even offer understanding. What they offered was a big “not our problem”.

The point of the post was not to get them to pay; the point of the post was to illiustrate what I saw as a completely insane situation and request. The shore looks like a nuclear bomb hit it, but their concern is for the used cable boxes and the equipment fees they might lose out on. “Comcast Cares” is lip service, used when it suits them. It would have been not only easier, but probably more sensible to have anticipated this (the storm wasn’t exactly a surprise) and have any kind of PR statement prepared. Even if the intention was to have everyone pay (well within their right to do so) then deliver the news with a modicum of compassion. Offer to delay the charges. Offer a voucher. Offer anything. They’re going to take a huge loss on all that equipment anyway; if you think it’s not going to get written off in at least some way, then “you clearly don’t understand how business in America works.”

I was looking for a reason as to why I had to write the post I did just to get someone to give a shit. That’s the story, people. No one cared about it until I raised hell. I shouldn’t have had to bring it up at all.

My mom and dad’s house might explode, but Comcast wants its cable box back.

I just spoke to my mom for the first time since the hurricane started. We’d been texting a bit here and there so I knew she and my dad were ok, but she called me just now because she was really upset.

My parents have two houses in Mantoloking, NJ. Mantoloking, for those who might not know, was one of the most devastated areas of the state. There was a tiny bungalow on a narrow sand street that they would rent out to friends or use as an extra place for family that visited them at the beach. That house is gone now; one of many houses that exploded or burned as the result of a gas main rupturing. There is nothing but burnt sand left for blocks. She’s upset about that – we all really loved that little place, and it had a special spot in our hearts and was beautiful.

The house they live in for half the year is two streets away. The gas main on this street is also ruptured and hissing explosive fumes into the air. The street is inaccessible by anything other than a boat and completely devastated but their house is still standing as far as we know. However, she’s been told that if the wind shifts and the fire moves, this entire area could ignite. My parents would lose everything they have there as would everyone else on that street and likely the adjacent streets. She is, understandably, very upset about this.

She called me in the midst of this chaos to tell me that she just got off the phone with Comcast. We have Comcast service at the shore; in the summer my mom turns the cable on while everyone is around at the beach, and in the fall calls to suspend it. She usually does it around this time each year.

She was trying to explain to them that they stood to lose the entire house in an explosion and that the authorities were having trouble even reaching the area to cut the gas to prevent this. She mentioned that she wouldn’t be able to return the cable box and equipment because the storm had basically destroyed the area, and the house was perilously close to being destroyed completely as well.

Comcast’s reply to her?

We’re very sorry, but the price of the equipment will be charged to your account if you’re unable to return it.

That’s right: in the middle of a natural disaster, the worst our area has seen in decades, at a time when my parents have already lost one house and stand to lose the other, as well as everything in it (remember, it’s not a rental so it’s fully furnished and they live there for part of the year – there are family keepsakes, antiques, and the like) – at a time like this, Comcast has essentially told my mom “tough shit”.

She spoke to a supervisor who echoed the same thing. Comcast was very ‘sympathetic to the situation’, but according to policy, the company must assess fees against unreturned equipment, no matter the situation.

Apparently, even in the face of utter devastation and potential loss of life, Comcast’s policy is to reclaim all equipment furnished, or issue charges against the accounts of equipment holders. You know, it’s not like my mom is lazy, or decided she didn’t feel like returning the box; she’d need to charter a boat or helicopter to even get to the house to get the box (which is probably underwater to some degree to begin with, so there’s got to be some kind of charge for that). Oh also, while she’s there getting the box for Comcast, the house might catch fire or the whole street might explode. So as you’d expect, it’s not something she’s likely to be able to do anytime soon anyway.

I can’t even begin to fathom the insane corporate decision making that led to a policy like this. This is a company for which a popular motto is “Comcast Cares”. The facts of the matter are as follows:

  • Comcast does care. It cares about reclaiming equipment in the face of unspeakable disaster. And about charging fees for equipment that does not get returned, even if there is no physical way within the realm of possibility in which to do it.
  • Comcast, does not, in fact, care at all about you. Not even a little. House burned down? Fuck you, pay me. House about to explode at any minute? Fuck you, pay me.

Here’s a quote from that “Comcast Cares” page I linked to above:

"It’s a wonderful thing to have people work together for the benefit of others.”

-Ralph Roberts, Comcast Founder

Unless, of course, working together for the benefit of others gets in the way of your bottom line. Because in that case, well, you know.

I just don’t even know what else to say about this. It’s unbelievable. Please share this wherever you like to share stuff. I don’t need everyone to boycott Comcast or whatever. I’m just incredulous at the response to this kind of situation. And I’m guessing my mom’s not the only person to have had a phone call like this today.