Author Archives: Steve Zeoli

My (disappointed) review of Interstellar

Interstellar image2

So I received Interstellar on DVD from Netflix the other day. I was anticipating this movie, as the hype around it made it sound like a smart science fiction thriller based in realistic science. Sadly, it turned out to be neither smart nor realistic.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

The first third of the film seemed very promising as we delved into the life of farmer/engineer/pilot Matthew McConaughey (known only as Cooper) and his family on a dying earth that has lost billions of people to some epidemic or other catastrophe that I was unclear about. I was willing to overlook some of the obvious absurdities (for example, how people of the world could exist only on corn, and how NASA could keep a secret facility that obviously cost a lot of money to operate and consumed a lot of natural resources). The extra-terrestrial communication for Cooper’s daughter, Murph, was interesting, if somewhat familiar in a Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-way. I was willing to buy the whole plan A, plan B approach to saving mankind, even if plan A seemed well beyond any technology that could be available on an earth so crippled.

Cooper is selected out of the blue to pilot the last desperate space mission to save humanity. He is supposed to travel through a wormhole to another galaxy, where 12 earlier NASA missions had gone, each with a single individual, looking for a new planet for humans to inhabit. Going with him are three crew members, the important one being Brand, played by Anne Hathaway. You know the two of them are going to fall for each other, although I will give the film credit for taking us on a big detour befour we reach that conclusion. The other two crew members are hardly worth describing, except to say that if this were an episode of Star Trek, they’d both be wearing red shirts.

I guess I should add that there is a fifth crew member, TARS, just about the weirdest robot I’ve ever seen in science fiction. It made the robot in Lost In Space seem downright pedestrian. He (I call it “he” because it is voiced by Bill Irwin) ends up playing a far more important role in the story than half the crew. I could not figure out exactly how TARS and the other robot in the story, CASE, actually operated. They seem to be able to pull their limbs apart in whatever way is necessary to do whatever they need to. They are smart, too, which of course begs the question of why NASA needs human astronauts, who require lots of extra equipment, including deep-sleeping vats, to cover the vast distances, when they probably could have launched three times as many probes each piloted by a single robot. But then there wouldn’t be THE story.

Anyway, I was still on board Interstellar even as they passed through the wormhole, but from here on the film really jumps the shark. The physics becomes as warped as the space-time of the wormhole. First of all, it takes them two years to go from Earth to Saturn, but on the other side of the wormhole it seems to take them no time at all to travel to a planet that happens to be orbiting a black hole. It is revealed that the giant gravity well that engulfs this planet will slow down the astronauts time due to the laws of relativity, so that for every hour they spend on this planet, seven years will pass on earth. For Cooper, who intends to return home to his children, this is an excruciating problem. But they decide that they can do what they need to do in an hour, and are willing for seven years to pass. Of course, things don’t go as they plan, first red shirt dies and three hours pass, so that by the time they have returned to the larger space ship, where they left the other red shirt, 23 years has passed.

Interstellar image

While they’ve been away, messages from earth have snuck through the wormhole, so Cooper can see his children aging before his eyes as they send videos his way (for some reason, Cooper can’t send replies). Now Murph, Cooper’s daughter who had been receiving messages from beyond, has grown up to become Jessica Chastain and is working with Brand’s father (played by Michael Caine), a noted physicist and apparently the leader of the NASA facility. All along the action has been jumping back and forth between the astronauts and the people back home on earth, but now that hip hopping becomes more frenetic. We learn that the big scientific breakthrough that would help the earthlings launch their mammoth space ark, which Michael Caine had promised Cooper he would crack before Cooper returned from his mission, was always hopeless. This breakthrough required data from inside a black hole, and, of course that was impossible to get.

But wait! Cooper is nearby a black hole. At this point, of course, the big reveal that comes at the end of the film becomes obvious. And it just seems like the remainder of the movie is a slog to get to that point — and we’re still only about two-thirds of the way through.

There’s no need to rehash the rest of the film but I need to get a few more complaints off my chest:

  • I had no idea what was going on with the Matt Damon character. His motivation and what he was hoping to accomplish was completely murky to me. It seemed stuck into the story just to make the final desperate gambit necessary.
  • Somehow Cooper manages to enter a black hole without being torn apart, experiences some weird shit, does what we know by now he is going to do, then ends up in a bed back on the other side of the wormhole. If whatever force had the means to do all that (and by then we’re told what that force is), then why all the Rube-Goldberg nonsense? Beings with the knowledge and power to pull off all this space-time mumbo jumbo should be able to fashion a simpler resolution to the problem.
  • An aged Murph spends two years in deep sleep traveling to the Saturn space station to see Cooper. All this is kind of murky as well, because there’s no indication that two years have passed since Cooper awakens. He walks into the crowded room to see his daughter, having not aged much. She hasn’t spoken to him in 110 years or something like that, yet she knows he’s in love with Anne Hathaway (who is on the other side of the wormhole caring for a bunch of embryos, or something) and tells him to go to her. Which, of course, he does.

If you want a more knowledgable and thorough critique of the science of Intersteller, check out this article. There are a lot of others.

Beyond the laughable science, the film has other flaws. It starts out as hard science fiction, then descends into sappy, metaphysical drivel. And, maybe worst of all, earth is dying, but at no time does a character lament how human beings have brought this devastation on themselves, other than early on when a school teacher remarks that the history textbook they use has been updated to report that the Apollo moon landings were clever hoaxes created to trick the Russians into a space race that doomed communism.

As I said, pretty disappointing stuff. There is the making of a good film here. Solid acting, decent special effects (though not world class, if you ask me). And some interesting concepts. But the writer and director, Christopher Nolan, packs too much silliness into the story and loses his way. It’s too bad, because I’m still awaiting the definitive Hollywood science fiction movie. And waiting.

Categories: Entertainment | Tags: | Leave a comment

Using TheBrain as digital bullet journal

TheBrain as bullet journal - main screen

For the past 14 months or so I’ve been keeping a journal using the bullet journal method, which I wrote about here and here. During this time, I’ve found using a paper notebook quite fun and effective. I’ve been curious about how these same methods could be used with software on a computer and/or iPad. I’ve considered many apps for this, but none seemed to come close to matching the facility of pen and paper. However, I think I’ve finally found an option that could work very well for me.

The following discussion is a bit of a thought experiment on my part, rather than a report on my successful use of TheBrain for bullet journaling. That is, I’ve still only dabbled with TheBrain for this purpose, but I see real promise and wanted to share my thoughts.

Requirements of a Digital Bullet Journal

Before moving into a discussion of how TheBrain would work for this purpose, I should first define what I think are the key attributes of a digital bullet journal?

  • It would need to be accessible from all your devices, to be instantly available for recording and referencing.
  • Recording a log entry should be quick and easy. This is the “rapid logging” part of the journal process.
  • It should provide a means for identifying the logged item as a note, event or task.
  • It should provide a means for further classifying any necessary follow-up on the item:
    • Priority
    • Delegation
    • Further research needed
    • Etc…
  • I need to be able to “page” through my entries for quick and easy review.

There are many other facilities I might hope for in a digital bullet journal, but these are the ones that are required to match the efficacy of a paper notebook.

With these criteria established, let’s look at how TheBrain manages with a bullet journal.

TheBrain as Bullet Journal

Universal Access

TheBrain runs on Windows PCs, Macs and iPad, but also provides online access, so that you should have little trouble getting access to your information at any time. On Mac and PC, your files are available locally so you don’t have to be online to use them, but you can sync your bullet journal brain between devices relatively easily (though I do find the syncing a bit stodgie).

Rapid Logging

Creating one line entries is relatively easy with TheBrain. Key here is creating a new thought for each entry. At first I tried creating a thought for each day and using the notes section for the logging of entries. This doesn’t work as well because it makes it more difficult to be able to quickly scan your entries during regular reviews. There are other advantages to one thought = one entry, which I’ll get to below.

Classification of Entries

There is more than one way to classify an entry with TheBrain, but the one I feel works best for bullet journaling is using thought types. Each thought in a brain can be assigned one thought type, so I have created the following types:

  • Note
  • Event
  • Task (I’ve got one type for “Action Required” and one for “Action Completed”

One advantage to this approach is that you can visually identify the type of entry by assigning an icon to each type. See the screen shot below:

You can assign "thought types" to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

You can assign “thought types” to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

Further Classification

TheBrain allows you to assign multiple tags to your entries (one of the differences between a tag and a type). This is handy for adding classifying indicators to an entry, because an entry can be high priority AND delegated, for instance. See the screen shot below for how tags work:

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I've got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I’ve got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

Quick Review

While it is not the strongest aspect of TheBrain relating to bullet journaling, “paging through” your notes is pretty easy and effective. Everytime you click on a thought (entry), it becomes the active thought and moves to the center of the screen (known in TheBrain parlance as The Plex). You can also switch from “normal” view to “outline” view for a more familiar experience as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

So TheBrain meets all the criteria of a digital bullet journal I set out at the start. Let’s see it in action.

Using TheBrain as a Bullet Journal

Here’s how I have setup TheBrain for bullet journaling. (Refer to the above screenshots for demonstrations of what I’m referring to.)

First, I built a brain that has a thought for each day using the method I describe here.

I make today’s thought the active thought, then add bullet entries under this day, classifying them by type as I make them. I would tag each entry as needed. If an entry needs additional information, I can add that to the notes section, attach a URL or as many files as gets the job done.

I pin the current day to the top of the screen to make it a speedy return if I’ve wandered off somewhere else in my journal brain.

And that’s it for the basics. But there are other advantages to using TheBrain for this purpose.

Other Advantages of TheBrain

I have actually created more thought types than the basic three. I have two task types: Action Required and Action Completed. I also have types for book and movie notes. You can make as many types as you want, but I want to keep the number of choices small, as too many options begin to defeat the purpose of rapid logging.

I haven’t used my digital bullet journal for work, so I haven’t needed to do this, but if you’re considering it, you might use tags to indicate colleauges to whom you have delegated a task. Or to mark an entry as relating to an active project. I have tags that indicate my level of appreciation for the entry; for example, rating a movie from one to five stars. Classifying with tags in TheBrain allows you to find all other entries with that same tag, as indicated in this screenshot:

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

Because a thought can live under more than one parent thought, I can make an entry about the start of something under one day, and link to the same thought on the day I finish. I would do this, say, for tracking my reading.

I can also easily archive or backup my digital bullet journal by exporting selections of the journal to tabbed text, including notes. See below for how this looks:

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Other considerations

TheBrain isn’t cheap. Well yes it is. I’ll explain:

If you want to use TheBrain on more than one device and keep your journal in sync, then you’ll have to buy a license, which costs $299 initially, then is $159 a year. That’s not chump change, and if you’re only using the app for journaling, it may not be worth it to you. But there are two factors that may mitigate this expense. First, you might find, like me, that TheBrain becomes indispensible for other uses, and the expense starts to actually feel minimal. But the other factor may play in as well. There is a free version of TheBrain for personal use (and what is more personal than a journal?), so you can try it out to see if you like it. And, if you only want to keep your journal on one device, then there is no need to upgrade to the pro version. I believe all the features I’ve described here (other than syncing) work the same in the free version. (There’s a comparison chart here.)

The bottom line

You may have noticed that the screenshots above are somewhat sparsely populated with entries. As I mentioned, I have only been dabbling in TheBrain as a bullet journal so far, but writing about it like this has made me a bit more excited by the prospect. If I didn’t really love my paper journal, I would definitely adopt TheBrain whole-heartedly for bullet journaling. And it helps that I rely heavily on TheBrain for other purposes. I’ll report back if things develop further.

Categories: Software | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Tinderbox update available

From Mark Bernstein, developer of Tinderbox:

Tinderbox 6.1.3 includes a brand-new Help menu item, Getting Started With Tinderbox, which provides a detailed walkthrough for new Tinderbox users. The walkthrough explore outlines, maps, the new Attribute Browser, agents, and lots more, all in the context of an actual Tinderbox task.  There’s also a new Badge Picker, hundreds of new badges, and lots of additional polish.
Categories: Software | Tags: | 1 Comment

OutlineEdit is on sale this week — a brief review

There is no shortage of handy outliners for Mac. One which came on the scene more recently is called OutlineEdit. I have been intrigued by the app since first seeing it, but I tried to demonstrate a little restraint by not purchasing it. Then I learned it was on sale this week at 50% off, and that was all the rationalization I need to go ahead and buy a license.

OutlineEdit's main screen with a few feature callouts.

OutlineEdit’s main screen with a few feature callouts.

While OE operates like most outliners, it does have two less than usual features which I believe I will find useful.

The Marker

OutlineEdit Marker is a Safari add-in that allows you to mark selected text on the web and bring it instantly into your open OE document. Basically, it saves you a couple of cut and paste steps. Handy, but not going to change your outlining life, unless you do a lot of cut and paste from the web.

Nice Window Management

The OE feature that most interests me is its ability to dock or float a document window so you can reference another document (whether an OE outline or any other type of file), while working in your outline.

The docking feature in OutlineEdit will keep the current document open on screen while you switch between other apps or documents.

The docking feature in OutlineEdit will keep the current document open on screen while you switch between other apps or documents. Here it is on the right, with an Outlinely outline open on the left. As you can see, Outlinely is generally more elegant, while OutlineEdit is — in my view — more utilitarian.

Standard Outlining Features

Of course, OutlineEdit has many of the typical features you’d want from an outliner:

  • Folding. Using the disclosure arrows on the left side of the window, you can choose to show or hide sub-topics for any topic. Pretty typical.
  • Checkboxes. You can include checkboxes in your outline, but you turn them on or off for the whole outline. You can’t selectively use them for sub-topics. This matters to me because a checkbox is an indicator that there is something that needs doing. My outlines are rarely composed entirely of tasks. I would like to be able to give a quick scan of my outline to see which items need attention. If all of the items have checkboxes beside them, then I have to read each individually to see whether or not the item is indeed requiring action. Checking the box, grays out the topic.
  • Notes. You can add notes to any topic. (A note in an outliner content text which is attached to the topic and moves around in the outline when you move the topic. This makes it different than sub-topics, which are associated hierarchically with the parent topic, but can be promoted or moved to other topics.)
  • And building, restructuring and navigating your outline is pretty standard and easy to learn and adopt.
This screen zoom shows how checkboxes work in OutlineEdit.

This screen zoom shows how checkboxes work in OutlineEdit.

A Few Other Features of Note

OutlineEdit does a few other things, which are not so important to me, but may be to others:

Metrics

OE provides some handy metrics for measuring your work in the program. These are:

  • The number of topics
  • The number of levels (which the developer refers to as layers)
  • Character and word counts
  • And, it has a stop watch type feature for tracking the amount of time you work on a document.

Categories

With OE, you can create up to five categories for classifying the topics in your outline. What’s potentially powerful about this feature is that you can filter your outline to see only those topics that have a certain category. This works from the point of the selected topic, so you can filter individual sections.

Once you’ve filtered your outline, you have an option to export just that material, or create a new outline with just the filter-selected topics.

Export Options

OE only exports to as PDF and OMPL file formats, but you can also copy an outline as tabbed text to the clipboard. This should cover the needs of most users, I would think.

Some Limitations

OutlineEdit is missing some higher-end outlining features. For example it does not provide a hoist operation. Nor does it having cloning of topics. You can’t adjust the font, though you can bold, italicize or underline text. And you can’t adjust the label style.

The Bottom Line

If you’re happy with your current outliner, there probably isn’t a need to add OutlineEdit to the lineup. However, since it is on sale for $8, it can’t really hurt. I got it mostly for the floating/docking window feature, which I expect to prove useful to me.

Categories: Software | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Hewson on the advantages of Ulysses III for novel writing

I’ve become a big fan of the writing app Ulysses III from the Soulmen. It’s become my go to software for shorter writing projects — I still prefer Scrivener for longer pieces. The novelist David Hewson has become an even bigger fan than I have, and has a nice article about Ulysses and novel writing. He’s also preparing an e-how-to-book about the subject. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Categories: Software | Tags: | Leave a comment

A look at a new favorite iPad app — Mindscope

The other day I learned about a new app for iPad called Mindscope. It sounded intriguing so I installed the free version and quickly decided to spend the $2.99 to upgrade to the full version.

Each workspace in Mindscope is called a board.

Each workspace in Mindscope is called a board. You can adjust the color scheme to suit your tastes.

Mindscope is a terrific app, elegant, easy to use, and incredibly useful. The developer calls it a “multi-level magnet board for your brain.” While that’s a perfectly accurate description of the app, it hardly does it justice. Mindscope has elements of a mind-mapper, outliner, personal wiki, and white board. Basically, you write short entries — from single words to phrases — and place these where you like on the screen via drag and drop. If you tap on a phrase, you drop into that topic where you can add sub-topics. This would be like a “hoist” in outliner parlance. (It is also reminiscent of how the much more sophisticated map views in Tinderbox work.)

So you can build complex outlines with Mindscope. But there’s more. The developer has included the ability to build grids on screen, which you can use to visually organize the topics at any level.

Add grid lines to your boards to organize your thoughts.

Add grid lines to your boards to organize your thoughts.

Because you can add lines and direction connectors between entries, you can build simple diagrams. You have to manually create each link, so this isn’t the most efficient platform for doing complex diagramming, but it is certainly satisfactory for down and dirty diagrams.

Create simple diagrams using Mindscope.

Create simple diagrams using Mindscope.

What makes a Mindscope diagram more powerful than some other diagramming apps is how each entry in the diagram can be the rabbit hole to another level, which can be a diagram, a table or just a list.

The export options are still a little rudimentary, but those that are available work well. To me the most important is getting the text out in a usable outline, and that works just fine. The export function works from any board and includes only that board and any sub-boards. The output is a nicely indented outline.

I used the copy command under the export menu in Mindscope to make a copy of the "Example" board above. Then pasted the result in NoteSuite.

I used the copy command under the export menu in Mindscope to make a copy of the “Example” board above. Then pasted the result in NoteSuite.

The developer includes a list of upcoming features and invites suggestions. Here are mine:

  • Add navigation keys to the keyboard to make it easier to edit an entry.
  • Allow users to save boards as templates for quickly setting up subsequent boards. For instance, if you set up a SWOT table with your own layout, you might want to use that over and over again without the hassle of setting it up each time.
  • Allow for distinguishing entries in some way other than just text size. For instance, with a little icon or with a color different than other entries in the same board. (Right now you can change color on a board by board basis, but not on an entry by entry basis.)

I’m sure there are other improvements that will become apparent as I use Mindscope, but I have to say that for a version 1 app, it is remarkably mature. Kudos to the developer. I look forward to using Mindscope for a number of different purposes and projects. In the meantime, if you’re interested, check out the video on the developer’s website, as it does a much better job of demonstrating how the app works than I’ve been able with my simple screen grabs.

Categories: Software | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

A quick look at Hanx Writer

You’d think it would be enough for Tom Hanks to have won two academy awards and be adored by everyone. Now he’s making software for the iPad.

When I first heard about this, I decided I had to take a look. The basic app is free, so I installed it, and much to my surprise I had a lot of fun typing on it. I even wrote most of this review in the thing.

The gimmick of Hanx Writer is that it mimics typing on an old-fashioned typewriter, like the one I wrote all my college papers on. The main way it does this is by keeping the cursor centered on the screen while the editor (looking like a sheet of paper) travels back and forth as you type. The keyboard is in disguise as old keys, and appear to be depressed as you type. The default type face is typewriter, of course, and looking as if you are in need of replacing the ribbon.

Hanx Writer successfully (mostly) recreates the look and feel of writing on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.

Hanx Writer successfully (mostly) recreates the look and feel of writing on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.

You can add pages to your documents, and access them through an interface that is reminiscent to Daedalus Touch:

Save your documents, and leaf through the pages in Hanx Writer.

Save your documents, and leaf through the pages in Hanx Writer.

After you are done composing your master work, you can send it off via e-mail, open it in other apps on you iPad, or do with it pretty much what many writing apps allow.

A few drawbacks:

  1. Using the touch screen to navigate the document and select text is challenging, as the auto-centering function makes the text a bit of a moving target.
  2. The app is missing the ability to add a period to your text by double-tapping the space bar.
  3. You pretty much are limited to plain text composition, although you can change text color to red or blue, and you can center your text.

Hanx Writer is free. But if you upgrade you can change the typewriter style, and you can change background colors and a few other frills.

I doubt this app will make me more productive, but it is a hoot to use.

Update: For a contrary view (and one I can fully appreciate), see this blog post by the mystery novelist David Hewson.

Categories: Software | Tags: | 3 Comments

Garner and Bacall

With the death of Lauren Bacall, one more member of the Hollywood elite has passed on. Was there ever a more beautiful actress?

The epitome of noir glamour!

The epitome of noir glamour!

I’ll always remember her guest appearance on The Rockford Files. She and James Garner made a great pairing.

James Garner and Lauren Bacall in an episode of The Rockford Files.

James Garner and Lauren Bacall in an episode of The Rockford Files.

Bacall always did like the rogues.

Categories: Entertainment | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Rest in peace, James Garner

Jim Rockford

I am very sorry to hear of the death of the great actor James Garner.

So who didn’t like to watch James Garner work on screen? The man seemed so at ease, so self assured, even when he was playing characters in audacious predicaments, as he so often did on Maverick and The Rockford Files. Garner was a hero who most often used his wits to win the day.

My favorite Garner film is The Great Escape, where he played the scrounger, Hendley, but that’s because of the film as a whole, which is a great story and jam-packed with terrific actors.  My favorite Garner film role is the title character in Murphy’s Romance, a sweet and tender film, where an older Garner falls for Sally Field’s single mother. I also have a soft spot for the Sunset, where Garner plays the aging Wyatt Earp and helps Bruce Willis as Tom Mix solve a murder in silent-film era Hollywood. It’s far from a great film, but it is great fun and Willis and Garner have terrific buddy chemistry.

But it is really as Jim Rockford that I’ll always remember James Garner. Among my top two or three favorite TV shows ever. I have the whole series on DVD. Watching it now, it feels dated because the pacing is deliberate, even slow, especially in the early seasons. But Jim Rockford is such an iconic character, and the quintessential private eye. The show was funny and the stories were intriguing. It was, however, James Garner who made the show an all-time classic. As Jimmy Joe Meeker might say, he just fit that character like a hound dog wears its fur.

Categories: Entertainment | Tags: | Leave a comment

Quick Tinderbox 6 highlight – Adornment Table

[July 8, 2014: Updated with a quick “how to” screen capture at the end.]

I just uncovered another great little feature inherent to Tinderbox 6. You can now add columns and rows to a map adornment.

Add rows and columns to an adornment in Tinderbox 6 so you can make a nice clean table of your notes.

Add rows and columns to an adornment in Tinderbox 6 so you can make a nice clean table of your notes.

An adornment is a background feature of maps in Tinderbox, which allow you to fence off or corral specific notes. I was just trying to work out what note-management systems are truly cross-platform. So far I’ve come up with four (note the empty sixth row, just waiting for another entry — please suggest). Anyway, this isn’t an earth shaking feature, but it sure feels handy.

To see more posts about Tinderbox, check in on my Tinderbox index page.

Update:

Here’s how to access the grid properties for an adornment:

To add a grid to your adornment, first select the adornment. This will show the little grid icon. Click that and the Grid Properties dialog opens.

To add a grid to your adornment, first select the adornment. This will show the little grid icon. Click that and the Grid Properties dialog opens.

Categories: Software | Tags: | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com. The Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 376 other followers