Month: February 2009

A humble case against everything buckets

Alex Payne recently wrote The Case Against Everything Buckets, which earned a rebuttal from Buzz Andersen.

Alex Payne’s post is ranty and prescriptivist, but there’s a nub of a good point buried in there: “Computers work best with structured data…With an Everything Bucket, you … miss out on opportunities to do interesting things with data”

What Alex Payne means by an “everything bucket” is a notebook-style application that you dump all your random notes, clippings, web links, pictures, etc into. There are a lot of independent software developers making interesting apps that fall in this general category. I don’t use one myself, mostly because I don’t need to manage big piles of notes.

I’ve always gravitated towards structured data—I put my contacts’ info in my address book, my links on delicious, and so on. And this can pay dividends—on a Mac, if you use the Address Book, other apps know where to look for your contact info and can do “interesting things” with it—like sync it to your phone, or check whether incoming e-mail is from someone you know. That’s what Alex Payne means by “interesting things.”

Here’s what’s funny, though: the distinction between the everything bucket and structured data may be a false dichotomy. That is to say, there’s still a difference in how you would get to the endpoint, but you’re still getting to the same endpoint of being able to do interesting things with your data. Those two paths are what Mark Pilgrim referred to as million-dollar markup vs milllion-dollar search.

Macs today (and also about ten years ago, right before the switch to OS X) come with “data detectors,” which will notice when a chunk of unstructured text contains something that looks like, say, a date, and will offer to create an iCal entry based on it.

Long before that, Simson Garfinkel wrote an app called SBook that looks like an everything bucket, but also attempts to do interesting things with your data. This is pretty much limited to contacts and related notes, but the idea is there.

Google searches can recognize mathematical formulas to give the results, personal names to give their contact details, musical groups to give their discographies, and so on.

If the software is smart enough—perhaps with a little coaxing from a person—to recognize the structure into which a chunk of data might fit, it shouldn’t really matter whether everything gets tossed into an everything bucket or meticulously sorted into multifaceted, hierarchical, schematized structures. The tools aren’t quite there yet, but there’s no technical reason it wouldn’t work.

Right now, though, it doesn’t work, and the benefits of those interesting things outweigh whatever cognitive load is associated with context-switching between different containers for different kinds of data.

Backing up your Delicious library on a Mac

The recent implosion of Ma.gnolia and a growing skepticism of entrusting your data to the cloud got me thinking about the data I’ve got that’s “out there.” One particular point of vulnerability is Delicious, where I keep my bookmarks.

Fortunately, Delicious makes it pretty easy to download all your bookmarks if you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, you have to know what you’re doing, at least a little.

With that in mind, here’s a simple Applescript that any Mac user can run to create a backup. Delicious requests that you do this sparingly, so I’d recommend doing it only, say, once a week.

To make this work, open Script Editor on your Mac (it came with it, and should be lurking about somewhere unless you deleted it) and paste the following into it, changing the username and password. There may be a linebreak on the last line—edit it so that it is all on one line. Save it using “Application” as the file format with whatever name you like—this will result in a mini app that you can double-click to run.

Running it will create a file called deliciousbackup.xml in your Documents folder. That file will not be in the most readable format, but it will have all your data. Each time you run it, it will overwrite the previous version of the file. It would be possible to do multiple snapshots, but I haven’t gotten that fancy.

set thefile to "deliciousbackup.xml"
-- change myusername to your username, keep the quote marks
set theusername to "myusername"
-- change mypassword to your password, keep the quote marks
set thepassword to "mypassword"

-- this is where the magic happens
do shell script "curl https://" & theusername & ":" & thepassword & "@api.del.icio.us/v1/posts/all -o \"$HOME/Documents/" & thefile & "\""

Butterfly garden blog

butterflygarden

Gwen and I were walking home from the gym, and swinging past the neighborhood greenbelt when we spotted the sign above. I’d noticed the sign before, but not the URL. We exclaimed and laughed that the butterfly garden—a tiny, improvised corner of something that can’t even be called a park—had its own blog.

A couple of guys were walking a dog behind us, and one of them said “Hey, that’s my blog!” He apologized for the fact that both the blog and the butterfly garden were looking sorry because of the drought.

It’s great that one of the neighbors has stepped up and decided to do something interesting with that corners, and it’s great that he’s got a blog for it too.