Bob Schwartz

Tag: apps

Use Simplenote


If you don’t make and take notes, you probably should. Those great thoughts won’t remember themselves. And when you make and take notes, you should use Simplenote.

Simplenote is free and simple. Nothing fancy, not multi-function. It just lets you make text notes and sync them across devices. It is available for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux and the web.

Simplenote was bought a few years ago by Automattic, the folks who give you WordPress, the platform for this and multi-millions of blogs.

Simplenote is my most used and valuable app. Some notes are just one sentence or a link. Some notes are longer, the length of an essay, a poem or a blog post. In fact, the majority of my blog posts start out as Simplenote notes. Like this one did.

MUJI to Sleep: Minimalist Essential Wonderful Free App

MUJI Waterfall

Japanese retailer MUJI has a free gift for you. A tiny gift that will delight you and transform your phone or tablet into an instrument of wonder. MUJI for Sleep.

MUJI sells minimalist furniture, home goods, apparel, and other personal products—online and in a small number of stores in New York and California.

On their U.S. website, MUJI explains its philosophy:

MUJI is not a brand whose value rests in the frills and “extras” it adds to its products.
MUJI is simplicity – but a simplicity achieved through a complexity of thought and design.
MUJI’s streamlining is the result of the careful elimination and subtraction of gratuitous features and design unrelated to function.
MUJI, the brand, is rational, and free of agenda, doctrine, and “isms.” The MUJI concept derives from us continuously asking, “What is best from an individual’s point of view?”
MUJI aspires to modesty and plainness, the better to adapt and shape itself to the styles, preferences, and practices of as wide a group of people as possible. This is the single most important reason people embrace MUJI.

MUJI sells a successful line of sleep products for travel. Which explains the MUJI to Sleep campaign, featuring their Neck Pillow and the MUJI to Sleep app to go with it.

Simplicity and minimalism hardly describe the app. It has five screens to swipe through, each a different color, each with a brushstroke sketch of a scene, each scene with a flow of continuous sound: a river, a bird, a waterfall, a fire, a forest. There is a timer to keep it running for 30, 60, or 90 minutes. Touch on, touch pause. That’s it. As simple as a flashlight app. And more valuable.

You can fall asleep to MUJI of course, which is what it intends. Or you can play it as background for your activities or non-activities, a sort of aural incense. It will contribute to your life in ways unexpected and wonderful.

The MUJI to Sleep app currently has less than 100,000 downloads on Google Play. It should have millions.

When you have true practice, then valley sounds and colors, mountain colors and sounds, all reveal the eighty-four thousand verses. When you are free from fame, profit, body, and mind, the valleys and mountains are also free. Through the night the valley sounds and mountain colors do and do not actualize the eighty-four thousand verses. When your capacity to talk about valleys and mountains as valleys and mountains is not yet mature, who can see and hear you as valley sounds and mountain colors?

Zen Master Dogen
Treasury of the True Dharma Eye
Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors (1240)

The Strange Case of App Ops and Android Privacy

Last week Google removed a privacy capability from the latest version of its Android operating system. Odd because Android is all about onward and upward. Always more and not less.

Not so odd in its being under-reported and relatively unnoticed. The capability was something that’s been called App Ops—application options—that allows users to pick and choose which permissions an application can have. It would, for example, allow you to tell that flashlight app that it could use your smartphone lights but it could not read your list of contacts (which, infamously, one flashlight app has done). App Ops was included last fall in Android 4.3, but was never officially documented and was unreachable and unusable by the non-tech oriented.

But Android fans never sleep, and so dozens of apps were developed just so that a user could access the capability and tell even the most popular apps to quit snooping around places they didn’t need to be to be functional. Then, with the release of Android 4.2.2, App Ops was gone.

You may be one of the many millions who don’t care, because all you want is for your Android device to run trouble-free, and even because you have decided that privacy is something you give to get—in this case to get some pretty awesome apps for free.

In case you do care, here’s a brief on how we got here.

Android is the most popular mobile operating system in the world, with iOS substantial for Planet Apple, and Windows insurgent. Development of Android apps has been like nothing in digital history. Anyone can do it and has, to varying degrees of technical and user success. Just as importantly, with Android apps, free is the norm. To make free work commercially, developers to varying degrees scrape your device for personal data that can be synthesized and used for marketing purposes. Permission to gather the information is requested, but on an all or nothing basis: either you agree to all the requests or you use some other app.

That is, of course, why App Ops is so radical and dangerous. Many of the permissions don’t in any way affect the functionality of any given app. They are there for collateral purposes. If users could just cut off the flow of personal information, certain commercial support would be hindered, if not collapse entirely. To put it another way, users might have to start paying for apps that they take for granted are free. Or they might look for similar apps that are actually free.

Google now says that App Ops was never intended for users. It was built for developers working on Android 4.3 as a testing and experimental capability. It was supposed to be removed before the new version was released. It was, in short, an accident.

Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation are understandably upset. They have been pushing for just such a capability, and now that it appeared and just as quickly disappeared, it is defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Even if the victory was accidental.

All is not lost, not entirely, not for everybody, not for the moment. Because of the tortuous path to Android upgrade, some of the most popular smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 just got their update to 4.3, which is App Ops capable. If you are in that cohort, please check out one of the many simple enablers on Google Play, such as Permission Manager – App Ops.

For those who like Android and privacy esoterica, here’s one last point. App Ops doesn’t just allow you to turn permissions on and off. It also allows you to see how often and how recently the app has used that permission. In that respect, it is actually kind of heartening. The assumption has been that with these permissions in hand, developers have been using our devices as open books. It turns out that a number of well-known apps have never used most of the permissions they’ve requested and been granted. This is no reason for a party, and if anything proves the contention that they didn’t need those permissions in the first place. But it does provide the tiniest bit of comfort knowing that your personal life is a little less compromised than it might have been. At Bat App

About the game of baseball, you cannot say enough great things. No matter how many players in other sports wear John 3:16 eye black or bend a celebratory knee in devotion, baseball is the sport God invented and intended for great athletes to play—proven, among other evidence, by the 60 feet from home to first that is the perfect balance between the speed of a running batter and the speed of a ball thrown from shortstop. Proven also by that fact that very few stars in those other sports have succeeded at baseball, including the greatest of all basketball players, Michael Jordan. If baseball is God’s game, the curve ball is God’s wicked joke.

About the business of baseball, it is more equivocal. As with all sports, teams face daunting changes as the financial stakes have grown exponentially. Some teams have handled the challenge with professionalism, skill and finesse, and with respect for the game, for players, and most of all for fans. With other teams, the terms self-interested and heedless of baseball’s best interests may apply. Right now, a number of Florida fans consider Miami Marlins owner Jeff Loria the poster person for that.

About Major League Baseball, the enterprise overlord that oversees all this, there is even more equivocation. Most of that is centered on the Commissioner. Just as historians talk about the evolution of the Imperial Presidency, the Imperial Commisionership grew out the infamous Black Sox Scandal in 1919, when players on the White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series. The next year, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed Commissioner to take control, and ever since, the Commissioner has served an increasingly central role in the fortunes (metaphorically and literally) of the game.

The best modern Commissioner, who combined the myth and poetry of baseball with its down and dirty aspects, was Bart Giamatti, whose tenure was truncated by his untimely death. Giamatti knew how to manage huge and venerable institutions as president of Yale, but also understood the soul of the sport as a writer and a passionate lover of baseball. The current long-time Commissioner, Bud Selig, is more controversial, and a bit less generally beloved or respected in some quarters. Selig is no poet, nor was meant to be, but some knowledgeable fans also believe that as the game both succeeded and suffered over the past decades, he was a catalyst for both.

Whether or not you are a fan of the Commissioner, or of the direction MLB is taking, or of the direction your particular team is taking, it is time to give credit where it’s due.

Baseball fans are as fanatic as any—some might say more than any—in delving into the details, past and present. Once upon a time, that might have meant reading the Sporting News, especially as spring training for a new season began. Then magazines began popping up, and then fantasy leagues, and then more magazines to inform the fantasy leagues.

But nothing beats the comprehension and immediacy of digital for any special interest, and baseball is no different. The very thought of having a mobile app to feed your baseball addiction is almost too much to bear. The sad news, though, is that with one grand exception, baseball is not yet successfully mobile. Typical for the mobile realm, there’s a bunch of junk and some almost-decent efforts.

The exception: love, hate or question MLB, you have to admit that the free At Bat mobile app is a model of how to serve a universe of fanatics. (As an extension of their online offerings, there are paid premium versions that include live games.) Scoreboard, standings, players, teams, rosters, news—it is all there, in an admirably usable and appealing form. They keep working at it too, with a major overhaul just as spring training began. It is not perfect, but it will do until something better comes along.

If you are a real baseball fan, married to the game, you have reasons to complain and moan about MLB even as you are ecstatically thankful for your bliss. Set aside whatever those complaints are and here, as another season begins,  consider downloading the At Bat mobile app today.

Permissions and Privacy: Medium

As with all mobile apps, please read carefully the Permissions requested by the developer. Users should be diligent in weighing potential privacy issues against the utility and value of an app.

The Ultimate Notepad?

The best reason to get a very expensive, very powerful smartphone is to have it serve as the ultimate notepad.

No. But if you are someone whose practice has been, since the beginning of time (that is, since the earliest digital days), to go around with a pocket memo book, you may have noticed that the notepad has become vestigial, like a no longer useful appendage about which you still maintain some habitual affection, even if it is no longer useful.

Smartphones are remarkable notetaking devices. Even without the added convenience of voice-to-text, with the right keyboard (recommended: SwifKey) and the right app (recommended: AK Notepad), the flash-of-brilliance scrawl has now become the flash-of-brilliance digital non-scrawl, polished, spell-checked, and ready for prime-time.

A state-of-the-art memo book (Mead top-bound) ended up squarely on a desk next to a state-of-the-art smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S2). Here are some observations.

They are both quite elegant. They are almost exactly the same size: memo book 3×5 inches, smartphone 2.60 x 4.93 inches. The memo book is considerably cheaper, less than a dollar (pen not included), while the smartphone can be hundreds of dollars, depending on the contract. There is no contract available for the notepad.

Obviously, the notepad will never run out of battery power, even if the notetaker does. The worst that can happen is that you run out of ink, at which point lipstick, burnt matches, or dozens of other things will do in a pinch. The upcoming J.J. Abrams television series Revolution is about a world where all electric devices suddenly and completely stop working. Dystopia or utopia, if this possibility lurks on the fringes of your thoughts, for eighty cents or so, you can buy an insurance policy against your most groundbreaking but ephemeral thoughts being lost forever. Seems like a bargain.

Breathing and Relaxing with the Department of Defense

The U.S. Department of Defense might seem an unlikely place to look for cutting edge technology to relieve stress and promote psychological well-being. That is exactly what you find at The National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2):

Our mission is to lead the development of telehealth and technology solutions for psychological health and traumatic brain injury to improve the lives of the Nation’s Warriors, Veterans, and their Families. T2 seeks to identify, treat, and minimize or eliminate the short and long-term adverse effects of TBI and mental health conditions associated with military service.

Out of this work, T2 has developed some remarkable mobile apps , aimed at military communities, but available and valuable for anyone. Two of these will be of particular interest to those who believe that simple breathing techniques are a primary key to psychological health.

Tactical Breather and Breate2Relax are simple yet sophisticated tools for an instant, easy-to-follow exercise of breathing for stress reduction and relaxation.

Tactical Breather is the much simpler of the two apps and techniques, involving just a four-count system of inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Along with the onscreen prompts and guiding voice, there is an introduction and tutorial.

Breathe2Relax is more comprehensive in terms of supporting text, videos, and UI, offering a host of options for the interface: beautiful background images (including photos from NASA and NOAA),  relaxing background music (with titles such as Ambient Evenings and Evosolutions), and more. The deep breathing exercise is simply inhale/exhale, and you can change the length of each breath (default is 7 seconds) and the number of cycles for the exercise (default is 16). Coolest of all is a floating body scan animation about the effects of stress, showing a virtual human with highlights about organs and systems that are compromised by stress—with all the flash and special effects you would expect from the Pentagon.

At some points, the apps reflect their military origins and mission. In Breathe2Relax, a Wellness Tip suggests that “Problems with drinking and drugs can be tough to work through on your own. Talk to a chaplain or health care professional.” On the one hand, this gives a non-military user—no matter how beneficial the app is for everyone—the feeling of intruding someplace where civilians don’t belong. But then again, using the apps may be a strangely good reminder of a price we ask our military members to pay. These and the other interesting apps from T2 are twenty-first century ways of making their situations a little better. That others of us get to share in the benefit is a bonus.

Hey, You, Get On Your Own Cloud

The PocketCloud Explore app from Wyse Technology has won numerous awards, including being named LAPTOP Magazine’s Best of Mobile World Congress 2012. It deserves consideration as one of the best apps of all time, for choosing to do something so essentially simple so well.

The Cloud is supposedly the digital version of heaven. Your stuff will be out there, floating around, accessible wherever you are. Your stuff gets there either by your effort or, more frequently now, by being automatically synced and transported there.

Of course, there are challenges. Space in The Cloud is not unlimited and not always free. And many of us still have all our stuff on an old-school legacy device known as a PC, a machine surprisingly spry and popular for a technology reportedly on its last legs. Wouldn’t it be great if our PC could be our own personal and private cloud? Now it can.

As Wyse describes it:

Your Stuff…Your Device…Your Cloud!

PocketCloud Explore brings an intuitive view of your Windows/Mac file systems to Android and iOS smartphones and tablets, and lets you search, view, organize, and share across all of your computers.  It enables you to create a personal cloud out of your computers plus an online “Cloudbin” (PocketCloud Web beta) for anytime, anywhere access and sharing.

“Create a personal cloud out of your computers.” This sounds too good to be true or, as is the case with so many ambitious apps, too complex and difficult to be smooth and painless—or to work at all. But five minutes later, after installing the desktop companion software and the mobile app, an entire PC hard drive was accessible on a smartphone—to seamlessly access documents, books, music, videos. Your 32 GB (or less) mobile device is instantly your 500 GB PC.

That is more than a cloud. That is digital heaven.