Ben Crowder

Blog: #tools

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Links #13


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Some quick thoughts about the project space I see myself working in (meaning personal coding projects that aren’t the productivity tools I mentioned before), both now and for the foreseeable future. To be honest, it’s mostly a roadmap for myself, posted here as part of working in public.

Bookmaking tools

One of the areas in the project space is bookmaking tools: tools that help with making either print books or ebooks. What I’ve worked on in that area (and some of these are still in progress or in the future):

  • Press — low-level typesetting (PDF compiler)
  • Ink — higher-level typesetting
  • Curves — programmatic type design
  • Typlate — type design templates
  • md2epub/Caxton — ebook compiler
  • epubdiff — ebook differ
  • Fledge — text processing shell
  • Storybook — writing tool (covered under the productivity tools, yes, but I feel it fits in here)

Creativity tools

The next area, somewhat related, is creativity tools: tools for making art, music, etc. I do realize that there’s a bit of overlap between the two areas — art can be used in books, for example. This is not a rigorous taxonomy.

What I’ve worked on:

  • Trill — music composition REPL
  • Grain — command-line tool for texturing art

While I haven’t done much in this area so far, the intersection of software and art has been calling to me more lately. I expect creativity tools to become much more of a focus for me, probably even more so than the bookmaking tools.

Human-Computer Interaction

Last but not least, HCI. My master’s thesis is in this area, and much of my other work also touches on it in limited ways. (What I mean by that, I think, is that with projects like Trill, Curves, and Press, the parts that have most interested me are the interfaces. Also, those interfaces have been textual in these particular cases, but I’m also interested in other kinds of UIs.) So I plan to start building more proofs of concept and interface experiments — like the spatial interface ideas I mentioned several weeks ago.


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The productivity tools series has now come to its end, thankfully. (Thankfully because I’m more interested in talking about current and future work.) I ended up featuring only twelve; there are a couple others I’ve stopped using, but if that ever changes, I’ll write about them.


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Arc intro

The last entry in the navel-gazing series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Arc is my private notes app. It’s a Python app running FastAPI. The name is short for Archive, as in an archive of notes. It’s my latest app, too — I wrote it around a month ago, as a replacement for Apple Notes (to try to get back to more of a Notational Velocity or Simplenote kind of thing). And just to be clear, this is distinct from the digital garden notes idea I talked about earlier.

Overview

Notes are just text files, stored in a directory with UUIDs for filenames. By default it opens to a blank note screen, but that’s boring, so instead you get to see what it looks like when editing a note (with the bar at the top indicating the text isn’t saved — I originally implemented autosave but soon realized that I prefer manual):

arc-1.png

The search page lists the twenty most recently modified notes (dummy data):

arc-2.png

The search results page uses Ag under the hood (since all the notes are just in a flat directory for now, it was super easy and took maybe ten minutes to implement):

arc-3.png

How I use Arc

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

I’ve been using Arc daily, to keep track of things that I want to be able to refer to easily later on; normal notes usage, nothing too exciting here.

The future

Arc is still pretty new, so we’ll see where continued usage takes us. I’m happy with the plain text storage and with FastAPI, though. (Thus the plans to move over to those for the other tools.) It too is a small app, with around 500 lines of code. Maybe at some point I’ll switch from Ag to ripgrep, but that’s about the only change I can think of right now.


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Lector intro

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

Lector is a reading app for macOS. It’s an Electron app for now. The name comes from the Latin (for someone who reads), with a homophonic hat tip to Hannibal. It came about from wanting a minimalist app that would let me read PDFs and scanned books in dark mode and keep track of my spot across multiple books.

Overview

A Lector book is just a directory full of images. (PDFs have to be split up into image files first, so I have a small script to do that.) When the app starts up, it looks at the book list directory to see what books are available. It also has a JSON file to track where I’m at on each book (which page and which part of the page), what size the window is, which book I last had open, etc.

The app itself looks like this, on an empty desktop to show how I usually use it:

lector.png

No title bar, since I find that distracting. And the page images are scaled by default to fit the window width.

Hitting g / brings up a brief panel showing the books that are in the system, with alphabetized keys to get to them (so g a to go to the first, g b for the second, etc.). When I’m done reading a book, I delete its directory, so these mappings change fairly regularly.

j and f and double-clicking all go to the next page; k and d both go back to the previous page. J and K move up and down the page (in larger jumps), and the mouse can also be used to scroll. (I find that I mostly use the mouse for scrolling and f/d for page navigation, but every once in a while I’ll use the other keys.)

As you can see in the screenshot, it defaults to dark mode, with slightly lowered contrast for easier reading. i inverts the colors and s toggles the higher contrast view.

How I use Lector

I use it when I want to read a book I’ve scanned (usually with Scanbook). I haven’t used it as often lately, but I fully expect that to change soon. (It’s been very handy for reading textbooks.)

I’ve found that I prefer the window size shown in the screenshot, wide (so that the text is large enough) with just enough vertical room for a paragraph or so (since reading in smaller chunks is easier).

The future

I’d like to move off Electron at some point, probably to a native Swift app. Having it support PDFs directly (or splitting them up itself) would be nice, and having a way within the app to remove books would also be good.

Finally, I’d love to add EPUB support at some point. (I haven’t yet found a desktop EPUB reader I like. Marvin’s great on iOS, though.)


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Saturn intro

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

Saturn is my launcher app for my phone. It’s a small Go web app. The name comes from the Saturn V rocket launcher, and I wrote it as a replacement for Launch Center Pro (when it switched to a subscription model, because apparently I am allergic to those).

Overview

This is what it looks like:

saturn-1.png

The blue buttons are direct links to pages. There’s a very hard to see dark textbox at the bottom, and if I type something in there, the green buttons take that and execute a search somewhere else. Finally, the pink buttons open secondary panels, like this Notebooks panel:

saturn-2.png

On this panel, the lighter rectangle above the buttons is a search box that allows filtering through Vinci notebooks.

How I use Saturn

On my phone, I have it saved to my dock. It’s not set to be a PWA, because then the links would open in the in-app Safari; I prefer having them open in normal Safari.

I use Saturn pretty much every day. I mainly use it to set reminders, search Amazon, Goodreads, and eReaderIQ, and get to my journal and my daily review list.

The future

I’m largely happy with it as-is. Maybe some more refactoring of the buttons (the Search button is largely obsolete now that I’ve moved all those buttons to the main screen, for example), and it could use a little design love to make things more consistent (search boxes, for example), but that’s it.


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Storybook intro

Still another entry in the will-it-ever-end series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Storybook is my fiction writing app. It’s a Python app running Django. The name comes from, uh, books with stories in them.

Overview

First, the dashboard, which lists weekly writing stats and active stories at top and backburnered stories at bottom:

storybook-1.png

The writing view has a stats bar at top (showing how close I am to meeting my daily 1,000-word goal) and then the textbox for the actual writing:

storybook-2.png

The menu has some overall story stats and an outline (with somewhat vague and hopefully unspoilery scene titles), and some admin links:

storybook-3.png

Syntax

As you can see from the screenshots, it expects Markdown. I’ve put in a convention hack where h2 tags (##) delineate scenes. Also, scene titles that begin with “Chapter X” create chapter divisions. (Clarification: a story has a flat list of scenes. The chapter divisions are display-only.)

How I use Storybook

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

I mostly avoid using Storybook (cough) but somehow still manage to put in a thousand words a day, one word after another.

There’s a payload syntax so I can send writing from Gate or Quill to Storybook, but I never use it.

The future

Same old story: I’m planning to move it to FastAPI and start using plain text files for storage instead of a database.

At some point I want to refactor the outline UI and add search functionality.


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Bookshelf intro

Yet another entry in the forever-long series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Bookshelf is my reading tracking app. It’s a Python app running Django. The name comes from, uh, the thing that holds books.

Overview

Behold the books:

bookshelf-1.png

At the top there’s the stats panel, which shows how much I read the last six days with color coding for the genre tags (and yes, Wednesday and Friday I didn’t meet my 100-pages-per-day goal), my page total so far this month (932), how many books I’ve finished so far this month (2), and how much of my reading this month has come from each tag (I usually try to read around 50% nonfiction, but I usually fail).

And then there’s the book list itself. Title, progress bar with some extra data (including how long since I started the book), current page number (clicking this opens a panel where I can record the page I’m on along with a comment), and how long it’s been since my last entry.

Each book has a staleness limit (default is five days), where if I haven’t read the book at all in that period of time, it changes the color of the title to a glaring, awful red, and that’s sufficient motivation for me to get back to that book. (To be honest, lately I haven’t seen it come up much since I’ve been reading only a few books at a time, but in those crazy days when I was reading twenty to thirty books at a time, I saw it a lot.)

Also: the sixth book (in case you were wondering) is A Disciple’s Life, which is only visible on Sundays (I reserve it for Sunday reading).

And the mobile view, for the heck of it, and since it’s the one I use almost all of the time:

bookshelf-1mobile.png

There’s also a stats page, since the statistics are surprisingly helpful in motivating me to make time for reading:

bookshelf-2.png

(Yes, as of a couple days ago I’ve read more this year so far than all of last year in total. This makes me inordinately proud even though it really doesn’t matter.)

And, lastly, the hopefully self-evident history page:

bookshelf-3.png

How I use Bookshelf

On my phone, I have it saved to my homescreen as a PWA, and that’s primarily where I use it, since I mainly read on my phone these days. On my laptop, I have it open in Firefox as a pinned tab.

I use Bookshelf every day to track my reading, both for individual books and for my daily/monthly reading goals. It’s handy, too, as a bookmark that toddlers can’t pull out.

The future

The desktop view needs some love, particularly that stats page. (I added those genre tags to it a month or two ago and realize now that I never actually looked at the desktop version. Whoops.)

Also (this should be no surprise by now), I’m planning to switch it to FastAPI along with plain text files for storage, for the same reasons I gave in those other posts.


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Momentum intro

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

Momentum is my daily goal app, for keeping a goal chain/streak going. It’s a Python app running Django. The name comes from the momentum that a long streak gives.

Overview

Goals can be either binary flags (whether I did it that day or not) or timed (in which case Momentum keeps track of the time spent). The default mode is focus mode, which shows only the top unfinished goal at a time and looks like this (with dummy data):

momentum-1.png

The thin red line along the top is a progress bar showing how close I am to finishing my Momentum goals for the day. The red boxes show the last few weeks of the streak, the green box at the right is the button for saying I’ve completed that goal for the day, and the blue text under the goal name shows how long the total streak is.

When focus mode is off, it looks like this:

momentum-2.png

You can see a partially completed timed goal along with a binary goal. Momentum also supports ignoring goals for Saturdays and/or Sundays (the gray boxes among the red), which I use for things I don’t usually do on the weekends.

When the timer on a goal is running, the favicon changes and the page looks like this, with the pink box at right showing the elapsed time for the current session:

momentum-3.png

(The idea with the timer is that it may take multiple sessions spread throughout the day to meet the daily goal, by the way — if I wanted to make sure I spend an hour writing each day but don’t usually have time to do it all in one block, for example.)

How I use Momentum

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

I use Momentum every day for my morning routine, primarily on my phone. The goals I put into it (as opposed to just adding things to my to-do list in Liszt) are things I want to do each day and, to some degree, are things I might not do if I didn’t have a streak pushing me forward (thus “Momentum”).

The future

I’m happy with the app as it is, but I’ve been thinking about merging it into Liszt, since goals like these are fundamentally to-do items. (Every morning Liszt already automatically adds all the items in my ::streak list to my ::today list, so that I can work off my to-do list without necessarily having to go back to Momentum as much.)

Giving Liszt items the ability to be timed is already in place with belt mode, so I’d just need to add the ability to keep track of both partially finished goals and total streaks. Seems worthwhile.


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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.


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