I Get Questions re: Adonit Pixel, iPad 6th Generation, and Notetaking #amwriting

A reader recently asked:

I read your post about using the adonit pixel with an ipad 6th gen!

I’d like to buy this gen ipad for notetaking @ school. You mentioned this pair worked fine (despite not being listed on adonit’s site as a compatible apple device)

I was wondering if you could describe what it likes to actually write notes on a notetaking app? it would help a lot with making my decision on whether or not to just chuck my pixel for the apple pencil.

First, my disclaimer: I’ve never actually used my iPad for note-taking in class, nor do I use anything else. I’m the world’s worst classroom note-taker. I survived my university experiences by borrowing others’ notes, reading classroom handouts, or by reading the text. Just reading, not taking notes. Occasionally, I’d use Post-its to mark important passages. My ADHD makes it difficult to learn from listening; if I try to actually take notes at the same time the result is that I learn nothing. My primary learning modes are reading and hands-on. I will make notes during hands-on exercises, though.

So given that my experience is 95% based on creating background notes for my novels, any note-taking app will work with the Adonit Pixel; turn it on and it will act like a plain capacitative stylus, or your finger. The problem is that if you want to be able to use its pressure-sensitive and palm-rejecting capabilities, you’ll need to use a note-taking app that supports those. Adonit have a list of apps that support these features with the Pixel on this page.

What’s more important, in my opinion, is choosing a note-taking app that works well with your method of note-taking. If your system works well with, say, Apple Notes, then use Apple Notes. Same for Notability, Goodnotes, or my personal favourite, NoteShelf. There are many others to choose among. I chose NoteShelf for its flexibility and its superior integration with Evernote, but Evernote integration may not be important to you. If the note-taking app which works best for you doesn’t support the Pixel’s pressure sensitivity and this is important to you, by all means go get an Apple Pencil.

Thoughts on Bullet Journalling #amwriting

Bullet journalling is a popular concept now. Be creative with your personal information system! Free yourself from the tyranny of electronics! My ADHD brain said, “Oooh! Something new and shiny!” So I bought myself a beautiful journal and expensive pens, and started in.

Fortunately, the experiment didn’t last too long.

An example bullet journal index, from BulletJournal.com. The problem with this is that I have to find the index page that contains the pointer to the information I want…

Bullet journalling works on the same principles as the old Franklin-Covey paper system I was taught in the 80’s—and the principles have probably been around a lot longer than that. Write things down on they day they happen, or are supposed to happen. Write an index for them every month. Refer back to related things as you write. They work for many people—but not for me.

Paper doesn’t beep, you see.

Paper is cool, it’s sensuous, and I can spend lots of time and money finding just the right journal and the perfect set of pens for my stuff. I’d love to handwrite all my organisational notes free-form on paper, but… I have to have an alarm set to remind me to update them or look at them. And I can’t find things that I need as reference, because I can’t remember what category I filed them under or when they happened, so I have to search all the index pages, and then all the other pages, too. I can scan them into Evernote to make them searchable, which begs the question: Why bother with paper at all?

If I want the benefits of handwriting and a free-form personal info system (with elaborately decorated F-bombs in) I can use an electronic free-form notetaking app such as my favourite, Noteshelf, which is searchable online (when connected to Evernote) and can be tied in to various automatic cattle-prod-zap systems I’ve already set up so as I won’t neglect it. And Evernote’s search functions mean that I don’t ever have to try to write indexes, or try to find something via a handwritten index. (Yuck.) Seriously, categorisation is difficult for me, as it is for many with ADHD. Remembering when something happened is also difficult. The beauty of Evernote is that I can search by anything I remember about a note, without having to wonder what category I put it in, what tags I stuck on it, or when I added it. (I found some writing notes under “Recipes” recently. No, they weren’t about food. I don’t know how they got there.)

I do better with creating a structure that’s both external and automated, so that once I decide to do a thing and get it into my system, it periodically punches me in the face. Eventually, it will get done, or I decide not do to it, and delete it. Meanwhile I have rewards (via Habitica) and punishments (via Beeminder) built-in to help me keep on track.

So no, no elaborate paper tracking systems for me—at least not until they make paper that beeps.

The Danger of Creeping Complexity

When you've seen one ridiculously over-decorated late eighteenth century building, you've seen 'em all...
When you’ve seen one ridiculously over-decorated late eighteenth century building, you’ve seen ’em all…

I have a regrettable tendency to over-complicate my productivity systems. Generally, this takes the form of adding new tools, in some cases better tools, to my system by “integrating” them, which means not abandoning superceded systems. Net result — I spend so much time updating my systems that I get nothing actually done unless I completely blow off said system. Sometimes, I dig into detail — so much detail that, as before, I spend a ridiculous amount of time maintaining the system, and get nothing actually productive done unless I abandon the system.

Take the UNESCO World Heritage site to the left, for example. I no longer remember which site, or even in which city it was (I’m reasonably sure it was in Germany, though) — at this point, a week or more into my river cruise of central Europe in 2014, I was so burned out on eighteenth century architecture that I didn’t even bother to take a photo of the interior. When you’ve seen one palace with every available surface decorated, painted, carved, or gilded, you’ve seen ’em all. (By the way, a lot of them were done by the same architect. Popular dude.)

My productivity systems are just about at that level of baroque-osity. Damn.

Right now, I am dying on the hill of my Google calendars. They exist primarily so that a) I don’t try to do everything at once, and b) stuff to do gets automatically fed to Trello. I do not need to tag every single thing in them as done, cancelled or whatever; that record exists in Trello. It possibly also exists in Evernote if the thing to do came in that way. But nonetheless, I mark them, and take a screenshot of my mostly-completed weekly calendar to put into Evernote, as if it were a Franklin Planner page.

But I no longer take notes on my calendar, not really. I type them directly in Evernote, or handwrite them in a Noteshelf notebook which is automatically uploaded to Evernote. In extremity I will scribble on a Post-it which gets photographed and uploaded to — you guessed it — Evernote. There they are all searchable by the date I uploaded them, the calendar item that was going at the time, the location I was in when I made them, any other tags I care to add, and the digitized, scanned, and interpreted content gleaned from the scrawled handwriting within.

I don’t NEED those weekly calendar screenshots, and in fact could dig back through my Google calendars if I needed to see them in a week-calendar format. But in thiry-plus years keeping the stupid things in various formats, I’ve had to dig back farther than last month maybe once or twice a year. I don’t need those screenshots; they are the last remnant of the Franklin Way, and I need to drop them.

Then, too, there are the charts I keep in the Hacker’s Diet Online. I am reluctant to stop updating them because of years of weight history charts (mostly up) and exercise charts (mostly blank.) But Beeminder will keep that data for me, automatically, and even spank me when I have a tantrum about watching what I eat and getting exercise in. I need to drop that rock, too.

There, I’ve said it. Perhaps I’ll even do it.

Why Handwriting on the iPad? (Or why the loss of Penultimate bugged me.)

2015/01/img_2529.pngI’ve mentioned that I have had several handwriting apps on the iPad, but not how I use them, or perhaps more importantly, why.

Firstly, paper is my nemesis. It absorbs everything I want to keep track of into a formless mess, and then taunts me with the knowledge that what I want is in there, somewhere. My response has been to move to digital records as fast as my personal technology has permitted. I became accustomed to stylus input during several years when I used Palm OS devices. Handwritten documents just stick in my brain better than typed ones do. After I switched to an iPad, the lack of handwritten or drawn input was painful. I once sketched on my Palm, and used it for quick hand input when I wanted to take notes now and worry about accurate typing later. So, one of the first things I did after getting my iPad was to find some handwriting and sketching apps for the iPad and buy a cheap stylus.

The quick input function was taken care of nicely by MyScript Memo. I still use this free app from MyScript Labs for taking down contact info quickly. If I’m lucky I can even export my recognized scribbling as text. If not, then I can export as an image and type the information later. It launches fast and gets me writing (without having to watch what I’m doing) as quickly as finding a notepad and pen. But as a sketching app, it stinks. It doesn’t sample your strokes very often, so my drawing comes out jerky and angular (as does my handwriting.)

I’m not very demanding of digital sketching. Think sketchnoting–doodles and illustrations during meetings to augment written notes. If I want to do serious digital artwork, I go to my Mac and use GIMP. So while I’ve acquired iPad sketch apps such as Sketchbook Pro and the Adobe free apps, truthfully my handwritten note apps serve that purpose better for me.

In fact, with Evernote I don’t need much handwriting translated to typed characters. As long as I can get my scribbling into Evernote, it’s searchable, and for a lot of things that’s all I need. For these reasons, I had moved both my notetaking and my journal to Evernote’s Penultimate. Hence, the panic when Penultimate was trashed. I was looking at going back to paper journaling and paper notes to be photographed into Evernote; now, with Noteshelf, I can avoid that. It doesn’t matter how poor my writing is–Evernote will be able to recognize something, and I’ll be able to search. I can take the scribbled, illustrated, largely illegible to anyone but me, notes I prefer electronically and avoid paper altogether.

Handwriting recognition–using handwriting instead of typing, either on-screen or using a Bluetooth keyboard, has until now been a pipe dream for me. Apple was and remains opposed to pen input for iOS on principle, and did not support third-party on-screen keyboards until iOS 8. Even back in the “good old days” of Palm OS, my experience of handwriting recognition was negative. I had to learn a new handwritten alphabet, and even then the recognition process was far too error-prone. It was frustrating–I gave up and went back to typing. As far as recognition on my iPad went, the recognizing apps (other than the limited MyScript Memo) just didn’t fit my workflow.

Now with the advent of third-party on-screen keyboards for iOS, I can use handwriting anywhere, and with much better recognition than I ever got from Palm OS. My preference is WritePad for iPad, for its multi-word recognition and input. (I started out using PhatWare’s Penquills iPhone utility, but a very patient tech support person pointed out that on iPad, that third-party keyboard capability is available in WritePad. NOT WritePad Pro–and in plain WritePad, I must say it’s well-hidden.) I seldom need to hand-correct as usually the phrase I mean is one of the alternatives that WritePad offers. My writing is so horrid if I rush it, though, that I am more often erasing strokes because even I can’t read them. Or the words are as badly misspelled handwritten as typewritten. This causes amusing results when recognition tries to figure out what I just wrote (but hey, autocorrection for typing is just as amusing…)

So yes, I may end up returning to typing for long sessions of word production. It will likely be faster, simply because my net typing speed exceeds my net longhand speed even on paper, and recognition and its associated errors must slow handwriting down. But a stylus is much more portable than a Bluetooth keyboard, and can be used in situations where typing on the iPad screen with both hands isn’t practical (like in the driver’s seat of my car while I’m waiting for a customer.) And my longhand speed exceeds my one-finger typing speed under all circumstances.

Penultimate 6.0 — A Handwritten Software Fiasco

Screenshot 2014-11-17 20.29.48I spent 30 years in the software development industry, leaving before I wrote a mobile app, alas. But the tale of Penultimate 6.0, Evernote’s latest revision to its only in-house handwriting input app for iOS, is a classic tale of software acquisition disaster.

I got heavily into the Evernote (EN) ecosystem in February. I got all of EN’s free apps for the iPad, and deleted most except for Evernote itself, and for Penultimate. It was a cool little hand-notetaking app, with a zoom-and-drift handwriting interface that was unique as far as I know. You zoomed in on your page, turned on drift, and the “paper” would scroll under your finger or stylus at your writing speed. Handwritten notes were easier to get into EN with Penultimate than by photographing a piece of paper, even the fancy Moleskine/Evernote notebooks. So, if I needed to handwrite and didn’t need/want real paper, Penultimate was a good tool. I have two other handwriting apps on my iPad, and have tried half a dozen more. I’ve used the others for special-purpose stuff, but I kept coming back to Penultimate for basic handwritten input. Still, I was always nervous — EN had bought Penultimate from its original developer, and hadn’t put a lot into updates. I was afraid it would be abandoned, like Evernote Hello.

No more. The Penultimate user community is up in arms over the unusable complete rewrite that Evernote unexpectedly foisted on us on Thursday 11/13/14.

Some of it is just quality assurance issues: Crashes. Pen response time lagging unusably. Glitches in drawn characters or objects. This is stuff that you’d expect from a major overhaul. If it were just that, I’d grit my teeth and wait.

But there’s more. No more drift adjusting itself to your writing speed — the major advantage of the the app (in my opinion) is just gone. Poof. No more landscape input, either. That’s a deal breaker for me, as well. I take my iPad out of landscape mode only under duress (i.e., to use an iPhone app or an insanely great iPad app. Penultimate was never insanely great, and now it’s just insane.)

A lot of people are also complaining about the removal of pages within the notebooks — now a notebook is just a long scroll of scribbling rather than a paged book. This one doesn’t surprise me, though. Those pages were never supported over in EN; they came over to EN as a series of images — not even numbered images. Now you just get one long continuous image both in Penultimate and in EN. Yes, your handwriting is still scanned and put through OCR and indexed, but it doesn’t help much in a long notebook.

I never depended on that, though. I kept my Penultimate notebooks short, sensing after 30 years’ experience that if a software company doesn’t support a feature in its premier product, it won’t last long in auxiliary ones.

As well, you can’t store your work in Penultimate any more; you have to use EN to save your work. Folks who had notes only in Penultimate found that those notes were — just gone. Again, I am not surprised — EN is in the web services business, not the app business. If something doesn’t cause people to use their web service, it serves no purpose for EN. I feel for the stand-alone users who lost all their notes, but… well… it was inevitable. EN does not make money from you storing your work on your iPad alone. Still, EN could have warned its users that stand-alone notes were going away. They didn’t.

I’ve come out of the whole business pretty clean; I managed to re-install the old Penultimate, convert all my notes to PDFs, and upload them in that form to EN. I’m now playing with other handwriting apps, and mourning the zoom-and-drift writing feature. I have two handwriting apps — Notability and Noteshelf — that will let me upload to EN. Notability has the better interface, but Noteshelf has tighter integration to EN. I may spend another few bucks and try GoodNotes as well, even though I was unimpressed back in 2013 when I gave its free version a try.

Blah.

—– Update 11/18/14 12:30 PM. I’ve settled on Noteshelf for its tighter Evernote integration. Noteshelf notes go to Evernote as images rather than as a PDF, which is the only option in Notability. Also, if I make changes to a note, Noteshelf will update that note automatically in Evernote; with Notability a changed note goes to Evernote as a new note and I have to go back through and cull versions by hand.

I’ll also be investigating (cringe) Microsoft OneNote. If it’s even available for iOS (I don’t know) maybe it’s worth a shot. It’s hard to trust a company that is, bluntly, ignoring customers’ data loss issues.

—– Update 11/19/14 11:41 AM. I did a little digging on Google and LinkedIn. It is as I suspected: the original developer of Penultimate left Evernote’s employ in July, just over two years from Evernote’s acquisition of Penultimate. Now, I don’t know this happened, but I saw it go down three times as an employee of acquired software companies:

  • Original developer gets two-year contract as part of the acquisition deal.
  • Original developer and new owners see the future of the software differently.
  • Original developer leaves acquiring company as soon as he legally and decently can.
  • Several months after the developer’s departure, a new “version” of the software is released, containing not one line of the old software’s code.

If this scenario is the one that has gone down at Evernote, then the old incarnation of Penultimate is dead, dead, dead. Evernote will never revise it, nor re-release it as an alternative. There may be legal issues; there are almost certainly technical issues that the current development staff don’t understand and can’t ask the old developer about any more. They may re-develop some elements of the old software (and probably will, given the outcry) but not one hexadecimal digit of old Penultimate will ever be re-used.

Too bad.

—– Update 11/21/14 10:15 AM
Evernote issued a handsome apology on 11/19/14. To me, though, it was significant that

  1. Penultimate 5 isn’t coming back despite the unusable update.
  2. Data loss is still being awkwardly ignored.

I still like the Evernote cloud service, and nothing has been lost or compromised from their cloud, but at this point I don’t trust their app development process. If I can use a third party app to do what an Evernote app does, I will.