Ben Crowder

Blog: #plain-text

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Quill intro

Another entry in the eternally long series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Quill is a quick entry app for macOS and is effectively a desktop version of Gate. It’s an Electron app for now. The name comes from quills being used to write.

Overview

Not much to show here, actually. It looks like this (and the minimalism is very much intended):

quill.png

There’s a textbox for writing and a word counter at top.

Once a payload is written, all the subsequent functionality is controlled via keyboard shortcuts: an app-wide prefix (ctrl+l — that’s an L) followed by the destination. v goes to Vinci, l goes to Liszt, j goes to my journal in Vinci, and b goes to my blog in Slash. (On my laptop, I prefer this to the buttons I used in Gate.)

The payload and action are then sent to an API in Gate, which does the actual sending to the destination systems.

How I use Quill

I leave it open all the time and use a global keyboard shortcut (configured in Hammerspoon) to bring it to the front.

Beyond the integration with my other systems, I often use Quill as a temporary scratchpad for drafting documents — emails, Slack chats, etc. — usually because the type size is larger. I also use it as a scratchpad for copy-pasting rich text into plain text.

The future

I’d like to move off Electron at some point, probably to a native Swift app.

Gate intro

Yet another entry in the seemingly endless series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Gate is a small quick entry app for my phone. It’s a Go web app, and the name comes from it being a gateway to my other apps. I used to use Drafts, but when it switched to a subscription model I decided to do my own thing (which worked out well for me, since I was able to make other customizations I’d long been wanting to make).

Overview

The main screen looks like this:

gate-1.png

Just a textbox and some basic controls at the bottom. When I tap the Submit button, it opens up a dialog with options for where to send the contents of the textbox (the payload):

gate-2.png

Red buttons go to Liszt, blue to Vinci, green to Slash. And this is why I have the text-based payloads in all those apps.

How I use Gate

I have it saved as a PWA to the homescreen on my phone, nestled safely in my dock. I use it all the time. (I suppose I could use it from my laptop web browser as well, but I have Quill for that use case, so I never do.)

The future

I’m happy with the app itself. There are, however, some recent bugs with text controls in PWAs in iOS Safari where the keyboard either won’t come up or can’t be dismissed, but that’s out of my control. Hoping those get fixed soon (they didn’t crop up until sometime in the last year or so, I think).

Slash intro

Another entry in the patience-testing series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Slash is the engine that runs this blog. It’s just a Python app running Django, but calling it an engine is too satisfying for me to stop anytime soon. The name comes from the ubiquitous forward slash in URLs.

Overview

Slash has an internal frontend with some post management pages (see below) along with a small API which is used by Blackbullet (my current website engine, separate from the blog) to pull posts into my site template. The API also publishes the RSS and JSON feeds, which Blackbullet passes right through.

The dashboard lists current drafts and, lower on the page where you can’t see it in this screenshot, recently published posts:

slash-1.png

Disclaimer: there’s no guarantee that these particular post drafts will ever see the light of day. I often put ideas in and then decide later that they’re not worth blogging about.

Here’s the post edit page, which is very much a work in progress (last week I added the visual tag controls, since adding tags via the metadata textbox made it impossible to tell whether I’d used a tag before or not):

slash-2.png

It’s spartan but works for me.

Payload syntax

Other than the notebook specifier, the syntax is pretty much the same as Vinci’s. Posts are written in Markdown. Metadata is specified with the initial-colon syntax.

One thing I realize I forgot to mention in the Vinci post is that in both apps I have a shortcut syntax for including images that looks like this:

(( readers-edition.png | class=border | url=/book-of-mormon-readers-edition/ ))

I have a page for uploading images to a date-named folder — year and month — and this syntax relies on the image being in the matching folder for the post. A small bit of convention to make things simpler.

How I use Slash

On my laptop, I open Slash when needed. On my phone, I have it saved to my homescreen as a PWA.

Other than that, I use it the way you’d expect — I write blog posts (usually directly in Slash, but occasionally in Gate or Quill), I edit them, I publish them. Months later I finally notice the typos. It’s not too exciting.

The future

As of now, the plan is to replace both Blackbullet and Slash with a new, simpler, consolidated Slash, using plain text for the backend and probably moving to FastAPI. Since I’m in the middle of planning the rewrite right now (and since I’m now working in public), you’ll see posts about it soon.

Ditto intro

Another entry in the tedious series about my personal productivity tools.

Ditto is my transcription app. It’s a Python app using FastAPI for the web parts.

Overview

The goal with Ditto is to take scans (usually of journals) and make it easy to transcribe them a page at a time. Same idea as Unbindery, though scaled way, way down: single-user instead of crowdsourced, a simplified workflow, and it only supports one project at a time so I don’t spread my limited transcription time too thin. It looks like this:

ditto-1.png

And there’s an inverted mode, which initially seemed like a great idea (dark mode, basically) but I never actually use it, I think because it’s harder to read:

ditto-2.png

The transcriptions are stored as plain text files in the same directory as the corresponding images.

How I use Ditto

I spend a few minutes transcribing journals each morning as part of my daily routine. (As I finish each volume, I pull the transcribed text files off my server, concatenate them, do some minor formatting, and then import them into Vinci.)

The future

When I made Ditto, one of my goals was to make it work well on mobile so I could have a portable transcription station anywhere I went. It has a responsive design that does work on a phone, but the experience is currently slightly awkward (lots of panning), so I tend to only use it on my laptop. At some point I’d like to try to fix that.

Other than that, though, I’m happy with it. It works well. And it’s small — 340 lines of code. (Which makes me inordinately happy. Small tools are the best.)

Vinci intro

Another entry in the snore-inducing series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Vinci is my journal/log app, a private blog of sorts. It’s a Python app running in Django.

Overview

Vinci has notebooks which contain entries. Like most blogs, entries are displayed in reverse chronological order. It looks like this, except I usually write in English, har har:

vinci-1.png

Editing an entry is a modal fullscreen panel, with the main textbox at top, the metadata textbox under that, and some controls at the bottom.

vinci-2.png

On save, Vinci splices the metadata and the text together and runs it through the payload processor.

Payload syntax

Vinci uses the text-based payload idea like Liszt. Its payload syntax looks like this:

/projects
:tags foo, bar

Worked on the [foo project](/leaf/3290) for a while. Ran into a few issues.

The first line is the notebook specifier. The second line (and this could have been anywhere, didn’t have to be at the top) has a command with some parameters. And the rest is Markdown.

There’s also a variant syntax where the first line can look like this: /projects/tag/tag2/tag3. I’ve started using that a little more often.

Because of how I like to write in my journal, I’ve also set up a special case for my /journal notebook, where adding an entry will either create a new entry for the day (if there isn’t one yet) or append to the existing entry, so there’s just one entry for each day. (I use Gate or Quill to jot down a paragraph and then append it quickly and easily.)

How I use Vinci

I use Vinci a lot. I maintain my personal journal in it, along with logs for most areas of my life — work, school, writing, projects, church, etc. Sometimes I create notebooks for specific projects, other times I use a higher-level notebook (like /projects) and use tags instead. At some point I’ll probably consolidate.

I have a /thinking notebook where once each morning I think through my current tasks/projects and write out what I need to do for each. Writing things down makes a world of difference for me, across the board.

Each morning I also spend a few minutes reading one of my past journal entries, as mentioned earlier today. (A while back I scanned all my paper journals and I’ve been slowly transcribing them — we’ll get to Ditto soon — and importing them into Vinci.) Lately I’ve been reading through my 2004 college entries. My undergraduate years were great, but I am very, very glad I’m not in that phase of life anymore.

Lastly, I reference these notebooks fairly frequently. (When did we replace our dishwasher, what did I last work on for that project I haven’t worked on in months, etc.)

The future

Vinci currently uses Whoosh for full-text indexing, but it’s unsupported and hasn’t been working as well for me lately. Several months ago I realized that if all my notebook entries are stored in plain text files, I can just use ripgrep or ag for fast and accurate searching, with the further benefit that in the event of my untimely demise, everything would be fairly easy for my family to copy out and preserve. (I really like plain text, can you tell?)

To that end, I started writing a new, smaller app in Go called Leaf. It’s going well, but I’m tempted to switch to FastAPI. Not sure yet if I will or not. (I’ve enjoyed learning Go and have used it on several small projects now, but I’m also thinking more about long-term maintenance across all these apps, and using a single stack would simplify things for me.)

I’m also thinking about adding a small CLI (in the web interface) that would make entry management easier — moving all entries with a specific tag to their own notebook, for example. Truth be told, I don’t know that entry management happens frequently enough to warrant a CLI, but I’m intrigued by the idea of putting a CLI in the interface, and if it goes as well as I hope it will, I see myself doing that in more of my tools. (Right now I see it as an extension of the search interface. Where right now I type dishwasher to search for that keyword, I’d eventually also be able to type something like :move /projects#cardiff /cardiff.)

As with Liszt, I’m also looking forward to moving to a lighter, simpler codebase. Vinci has a moderate amount of vestigial functionality that needs to go.

Liszt intro

First in the series introducing my personal productivity tools. Buckle up, this is going to be nerdy. And long.

Liszt is my to-do list app. Named after the composer, though I regret it a little since I butcher his name by pronouncing it lisht to differentiate it from the ordinary list. Heresy. The next version will have a better name, though. It’s a Python app running on Django.

Disclaimer: I don’t think this app is perfect. (Or any of the other tools I’ll talk about, for that matter.) I’ll describe things as they are, acknowledging here that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Overview

This is what the dashboard looks like, populated with some dummy data:

liszt-1.png

And on mobile, where the controls move to the bottom for easier access:

liszt-1mobile.png

The top bit is my stats panel, with the data pulled in from my other tools’ APIs. Daily writing counts, daily words left, total words written on the novel (all three from Storybook), daily pages left (from Bookshelf), and daily goals left (from Momentum). I’ll cover those tools later.

There’s also a slide-in menu on the side, with my most commonly used top-level lists:

liszt-2.png

Double-clicking on a list item opens up an edit panel, which also allows me to move the item to another list with some commonly used lists included as buttons (this whole panel is kind of clunky and needs improvement):

liszt-7.png

Payload syntax

The basic idea behind Liszt (and this is common to many of my apps) is the text-based payload, which enables some nice cross-app integrations (more on this when I cover Gate and Quill). Adding items looks like this:

liszt-3.png

A Liszt payload (the text entered into the add tray) has one item per line, with optional blank lines and optional list specifiers. If there’s no specifier, it’ll assume the current list if there is one, otherwise it’ll default to ::inbox. (I use the double-colon prefix to mark lists, with a slash to specify sublists.) Here’s a fuller example of the syntax, again with dummy data:

Process email :5
Review the merge requests :10

::work/notifications
Read up on Python futures ::: https://docs.python.org/3/library/concurrent.futures.html
Refactor [::work/notifications/refactor]
Write up the design doc

The first two items (which have belt-mode durations, I’ll explain those in a minute) would go into the ::today list (which is the dashboard list). The last three items would go into the ::work/notifications list, as pictured here:

liszt-3b.png

Of these, the first line sets a subtitle by putting it after the triple-colon marker. I use this all the time.

The second line is a symlink of sorts, pulling in the top item from the linked list (different meaning here) and showing it in place, with the Refactor text shown as the subtitle. I used to use this more often but haven’t as much lately.

You can also see that this list has a child list (::work/notifications/refactor).

Belt mode

liszt-4.png

If an item has a duration marker included, that triggers belt mode (ala conveyer belts), as evidenced by the new bar at the top of the screen in the image above.

Brief backstory: I initially wrote an Electron app called Belt that did the same sort of thing, then a few months ago ported it to Go as a menubar app. Shortly after I finished that, I realized it would make much more sense in Liszt and brought the functionality in.

And what is that functionality? It’s just an easy way to time tasks from the list. When I hit Start, it switches into belt mode (also changing the favicon so I can tell that it’s running and turning on focus mode so I can only see the task I’m actively working on):

liszt-5.png

When the timer runs out, it plays a sound and brings up a panel allowing me to continue on to the next item in the list, stop belt mode, or add more time to the timer. (There are also keyboard shortcuts for all of this.)

liszt-6.png

How I use Liszt

On my laptop, I have Liszt open in Firefox as a pinned tab. On my phone, I have it saved to my homescreen as a PWA.

Every morning I go through the main lists and move the items I’m going to work on to the today list. I then work out of the today list the rest of the day, opening it often.

I use belt mode most days, primarily to help me stop avoiding tasks I don’t really want to work on (but that still need to be done).

The future

Lately I’ve grown enamored of the idea of storing data as plain text files in directories, rather than using an actual database like Postgres or Mongo. There are plenty of apps where this doesn’t make sense, but for personal, small tools, it works nicely, so I’m planning to migrate Liszt off SQLite to plain text, and I am very excited about it. Yes, I am that kind of a person.

While Django is fine (we use it at work and I love it), I’m planning to move to FastAPI, which I’m already using for Ditto and Arc. It’s a bit faster and feels more lightweight. I think in my mind I mostly use Django because of the ORM and admin; once I’ve given that up, the baby goes out with the bathwater.

I’m also looking forward to simplifying things, removing vestigial functionality, and sanding down as many of the friction points as I can.