The Perfect To-Do List Manager

Posted in Hacking, Random thoughts, Technology trends at 5:11 pm by ducky

There are a huge number of to-do list managers (TDLMs) out in the world now, but none of them do what I want.  Apparently, it’s not just me: I just read an article which said that when students were asked what mobile apps they really wanted, 20% said they wanted “a comprehensive to-do + calendaring + life management app that helps them better organize their lives”.  TWENTY percent!

Is it really that hard?

I have strong opinions about what I want, and I don’t think it’s that hard, so I will describe my desires here in the hopes that somebody will make me the perfect TDLM.  (Some of the features you can see in a TDLM which I wrote for a class project.  Sometimes I think about writing my perfect TDLM, but I’m busy with other things.  I want it to exist, not to write it myself.)

The most important thing is that the TDLM should make you feel better about your tasks.  The biggest problem with TDLMs right now is that they make you feel guilty: the list grows and grows and grows because there are an infinite number of things it would be nice to do and only a finite amount of time.  This means that every time you open the TDLM, you feel overwhelmed by guilt at all the things you haven’t done yet.

1. Hide stuff you can’t work on right now because of blocking tasks.  Don’t show me “paint the bedroom” if I haven’t finished the task of “choose colour for bedroom”.  (This means you need UI for showing what tasks depend upon which other tasks, and I warn you that’s not as easy as you think.)

2. Hide stuff you won’t work on right now because you are busy with other things.  Don’t show me “paint the bedroom” if I have decided that I’m not going to start that project until I finish doing my taxes.  “Do taxes” is not truly a blocking task — it’s not like I am going to use the tax forms to apply the paint — but hide it anyway. (This means you need UI for showing what the sequencing of tasks is.)

3. Hide stuff you won’t work on right now because it is the wrong time of year.  Maybe you want a task of “buy new winter jacket”, but you want to wait until the end of winter to get take advantage of the sales on coats.  You should to be able to tell your TDLM to hide that task until March.  (Or until May, if you live in Manitoba.)  Or “rotate tires” is something which only needs to happen every six months.

Note that this implies connecting the TDLM to a calendar, at least minimally.

4. Allow recurring to-do list items.  I don’t want to have to make a new task for our wedding anniversary every year.  I want to set it once and forget it.  Usually people put things on their calendars for repeating events, but “Wedding Anniversary” goes on August 22ns and is not a task.  “Plan something for anniversary” is a recurring task but should be hidden until at about August 1st.

The TDLM should distinguish between recurring tasks which expire and those which do not.  Non-expiring tasks are ones like “pay phone bill”.  Even if you forget to pay it by the due date, you still need to deal with it.  On the other hand, “run 2km” is an expiring item: if you couldn’t do your 2km run on Monday, it probably does not mean that you should run 4km on Wednesday.

5. Make me feel super-good about finishing tasks.  A lot of TDLMs handle checking something as done by making it disappear.   This is the worst.  I’ve spent hours, weeks, or months looking at that dang task, and when I finally finish it, I want to savour the moment!  I want my TDLM to cheer, to have fireworks explode on the screen, and maybe even have the text of the task writhe in agony as it dies an ugly painful death.  I want there to be a display case in my TDLM of things that I have finished recently that I can look at with pride.  “Yeah”, I can think, “I am ***DONE*** with painting the bedroom!”  Maybe I don’t need full fireworks for a simple, one-step task which took 15 minutes, but if it was a 2000-step task which took 5 years (like getting a PhD or something like that), I want the TDLM to cheer for a full five minutes.

6. Let me see what I did. Sometimes, I feel like I didn’t get anything done, and it is reassuring to look at a list of the things that I actually did accomplish.  It might be nice to show it in a horizontal latest-first timeline form:

  • 4:47 pm Laundry
  • 3:13 pm Groceries
  • 12:11 pm Replace laptop display
  • (etc)

I would also like to be able to modify the task completion times.  “Oh, I actually finished replacing the laptop last night, I just didn’t feel like telling the TDLM because it was late and I was tired.”

7. Let me see what I am going to do.  People usually use calendars for this, but as I mentioned before, calendars are kind of the wrong tool.  I don’t really want to see “buy birthday present for Mom” in the same place as “Meet with boss, 10:30 AM”.  Plus, a strict time-base is makes zero sense if the dependencies are other tasks.

8. Let me import/modify/export task hierarchies.  Suppose you want to have a wedding.  (Mazel Tov!)  There are predictable things which you need to do: book a space for the wedding, a space for the reception, book an officiant, book a caterer, choose a menu, etc.   If, say, you want a wedding sort of like your friend Joanne’s, it would be nice if Joanne could email you the hierarchy of tasks that she did for her wedding, and you could just drop it in to your TDLM.  (Perhaps that way, you wouldn’t forget to rent a dance floor.)

But maybe you have some Greek heritage and Joanne does not, so you need to add “get a stefana” to your list.  You should be able to do that — and then export your new wedding task list for your brother when he gets married.  Even better, you ought to be able to upload it to a site which hosts lots of packaged tasks, maybe even a whole section on weddings (so your brother could pick and choose which wedding task list he likes best).

Needless to say, the exported task hierarchy should be in a form which lends itself well to version control and diffing.  🙂

9. Let me share my task list with other people.  I would like to be able to share my “home” task list with my husband, so that he could assign me tasks like “buy three kitchen sponges”.  Ideally, I’d think I’d like for there to be three task lists: his, mine, and ours.

My husband and I would probably set things up to both have read/write permission on all three — there are some things that only one of us can or should do.  I can imagine other couples might want to not have write permission on each other’s, only on the “ours” one.

10. Make it easy to discuss tasks.  This means assigning a simple ID and URL to the task.  If Jim and I are going to share tasks, we are going to discuss them.  It would be nice to be able to say, “Task #45” instead of “that one about the paintbrushes”.  It would also be nice to be able to email a link to him which will take him right to Task #45.

11. (Nice to have) Allow putting a time estimate on the task.  If you know that it takes you about two hours to get to your locker, change clothes, stretch, run 2km, stretch, shower, change clothes, and get back to your workplace, then it might be nice to put in an estimate for the “run 2km” task.

If you can put a time estimate on a task and adjust it later, the TDLM could keep track of estimated vs. actual, and start to help you adjust your estimates.  “For tasks which you estimate are going to be about 3hrs, you spend an average of 4.15 hrs.”

It would also be nice if the TDLM could help you make estimates based on similar tasks which you completed.  When entering an estimate for painting the living room, it would be nice if the TDLM mentioned, off to the side, how long it took you to paint the bathroom and the bedroom.  (It’s even okay if it also tells you how long it took you to paint the landscape or your fingernails; presumably you’d be smart enough to figure out which tasks were relevant.)

12. (Nice to have) Make the TDLM geo-aware.  It would be kind of nice to be able to hide tasks until I was at or near a particular location.  For example, if I am not in a big hurry to paint the bedroom, hide “buy paint” until I am actually at the paint store.

Something requested by the students in the article I mentioned earlier was being told to leave in order to make it to the next appointment.  “Doctor’s appointment at 3pm” is a calendar event, but “get to doctor’s office” is a task which needs to happen at a time which depends upon how long it takes to get to the doctor’s office from where you are.  That’s another way that geo-awareness could be useful.

13. (Maybe nice to have) Be able to mark urgency.  I am not actually certain how useful this is.  I have had TDLMs which allowed me to mark urgency, and I found that I almost never used it.  I think people will expect it, however.

14. (Nice to have, but difficult) Integrate with my applications.  Tasktop Technologies has a product called Tasktop Dev, which kept track of what you did in the source code editor (and some other applications, e.g. web browser and Microsoft Office) while you were working on a specific task.  (You had to tell it, “now I am working on task #47” so that it would know to start watching.)  Then, there was a record of what you worked on for that task.  That was useful if you needed to stop and restart the task (especially over a long period of time), or if you needed to go back a long time later and see what you had done.  (“What was the URL of that caterer with the really nice cheesecake?”)

In a work environment, it would be nice to integrate it with other task management systems (AKA “bug trackers”) like Jira or Asana or Bugzilla.

This is what I want.  If it persists in not existing, I might have to do it myself someday.


Google Glasses app to help autistic people?

Posted in Random thoughts, Technology trends at 2:11 pm by ducky

I have heard that looking at faces is difficult for people with autism. I don’t understand it, but the impression I gotten from reading descriptions from high-functioning adults that the facial recognition hardware has a bug which causes some sort of feedback loop that is uncomfortable.

What if there was a Google Glasses application which put ovals in front of people’s faces? Blue ovals if they were not looking at you, pink ovals if they are. Maybe a line to show where the center line of their face is.

Maybe that would make it more comfortable to be around collections of people.


AP takes hyphen out of email!

Posted in Email, Random thoughts, Technology trends at 11:47 pm by ducky

Today the AP decided to change its style guide to drop the use of a hyphen in “e-mail”.  I feel vindicated.

When I was writing my books, lo those many years ago, I bucked the prevailing style guides and left the hyphen out.  The hyphen in “e-mail” just looked wrong to me.  “Besides”, I said, “there aren’t any other words that use the pattern ‘<letter>-hyphen-<word>'”.

Well, I proved myself wrong shortly after that:

A is the A-list of who’s the “in crowd”,

B is for B-school to make Mamma proud.

C is for C-note (the gangster’s small change),

While D’s for D-day which cut Adolf’s range.

E is for E-mail, an electronic note,

F is for F-word (that daren’t be spoke).

G is for G-string that dancers must wear,

and H’s for H-bomb to fight the Red Scare.

I is for I-beam to make a strong fort,

and J’s for J-school to learn to report.

K is for K-9, the cop that goes woof,

while L’s for L-bracket (to hold on your roof).

M is for M-dash (the one that is long),

with N for N-dash (all over this song).

O is for O-ring of Space Shuttle tears,

Q is the Q-tips you stick in your ears.

R is for R-value home insulations,

S is for S-set used in German nations.

T is for T-shirt that Americans wear,

and U’s for the U-joint of auto repair.

V is for V-neck which looks rather dressy,

X is for X-ray which acts to undress ye.

Y is for none else but Y-chromosome,

and if I knew Z I could maybe go home.

But you probably noticed I slipped past a few

I left out the P and W.

M-dash and N-dash are sort of a cheat,

But say what you will, they do keep the beat.

But if you know how to make this song better,

Send me a rhyme for your favorite letter!

Other people pointed out F-4, K-12, K-car, K-mart, N-word, O-levels, P-Funk, P-Furs, P-channel and n-channel, T-ball, T-square, U-boat, V-day, W-2, X- and Y-chromosome, and Z-buffering.


New blog: Glyph of the Day

Posted in Random thoughts at 11:52 pm by ducky

Oh yeah.  Hubby says I should mention that I am writing a new blog: Glyph of the Day, where I plan/hope to write about a different writing system every day, hopefully briefly.

My goal is to give one “Whoa!” each day; if I can’t do that, I’d like to at least give one “huh, I didn’t know that”.


LOLcats ISO code

Posted in Random thoughts, Too Much Information at 11:15 am by ducky

I’ve been working on LOLcat subtitles for Sita Sings The Blues, and a friend asked me what the ISO 639 language code for LOLcat was.

It turns out that the ISO 639 language code LOL does exist, and is for the central African language Mongo.  Who knew that the kittehs were African!?!?

Update: My buddy Luther points out that the African Wildcat is the ancestor of the domesticated housecat.  As he pointed out, “Duh.”

Update2: Luther also asks, “I can haz bank scam?”


Dream date

Posted in Random thoughts, Too Much Information at 1:18 pm by ducky

I’ve had a constant question running in the back of my head for a long time, “Who would you have dinner with if you could?”  (I talked about this a little in the post about Steve Wozniak.)

I have expanded it a little to which three people I would like to be at the same table with, or even just to witness.  I’ve decided that my dream dinner team is Randall Munroe of xkcd, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

How to go about pulling that off is a trickier matter.  Step one would probably be to do something really interesting, such that I would be a desirable dinner date…


The view from our Canadian window

Posted in Canadian life, Random thoughts at 2:08 am by ducky

If you know us, you know we have raved about the view from our apartment.  It’s not the absolute best view in the world, but it is pretty stunning to a gal from the flat lands and buildings of Champaign, IL.


That picture (and an absolutely ginormous version) were taken and stitched together by Randy Stewart from Seattle.

Randy apparently walked into our apartment, said, “Oh my god!” or something such, and dashed into our bedroom to take pictures.   Our other dinner guest, from metropolitan Canada, was slightly perplexed/bemused by his reaction.  It is completely ordinary for people in cities in Canada to live in high-rise apartments.

Randy (and Jim and I) are from the US.  It is very uncommon for people to live in high-rises in the US.  If I think really hard, of all the thousands and thousands of people I have known, I can only think of six households who I know ever lived above the sixth floor, and one more who I think might have had a high-rise condo a few years ago.  (And three of those households were in the same building in Mountain View.)  That is it, period, total, everybody, and I had to think pretty hard to come up with that meagre ration.

Why are there so few high-rise residences in the US?  There are many factors.  I am by no means an expert, but these are a few:

  • The American Dream of owning your own house is cliche for a reason.  It is assumed that if you don’t own your own house, at least you aspire to owning your own house.  To not aspire to have your own house is sort of like not wanting to own a TV.
  • When renting, you generally get more square feet per dollar in a shared house than in an apartment, especially a shared apartment.  Even I, through all my moves, have only lived in four apartments in the US, and two of those were while I was a student.
  • In some places, the only high-rises around were “the projects” — government-built and -run publicly-subsidized housing.  Thus high-rises were decidedly un-sexy.
  • In California, where one-eighth of the US lives, cities can’t afford dense housing.
  • California has earthquakes, which makes people nervous about high-rises, even though high-rises constructed to modern codes are much safer in earthquakes than older houses on landfill or alluvial floodplains.
  • Traditionally, cheap gas has meant that it was feasible to live quite a ways from work.
  • In the US, not having a car can have a significant negative impact on the quality of your life, parking is difficult in cities, and very few US cities have good public transportation systems.  The poor transportation is due partly to density, but also part to the easy availability of guns.  Many people in the US are afraid of taking public transportation.

You should also note that Vancouver has worked very hard to develop its downtown.  The fact that it has a vibrant and vertical downtown was the result of very deliberate and careful urban planning, not an accident of fate.

UPDATE: I realized that several of the dorms at my US university were high-rises.  I’m not sure that counts.


High status people do good things

Posted in Random thoughts at 8:33 pm by ducky

In an article for Slate, Daniel Gross points out that the Davos attendees, who are quick to lionize Great Men (yes, usually men) when there are big successes, are blaming the system now that things are going wrong.

I am not at all surprised.  As I have blogged before, Larissa Tieden’s research shows that people think that high-status people do good things and that low-status people do bad things.  In this context, low-status people are not powerful people who do bad things, but the invisible, the drones, the unseen — the system.

In this case, it is rather obvious that many, many people were complicit in the financial collapse: from those who made financial policy, to those who perpetuated the policy, to those who made bad deals, to those who took risky deals.  I don’t find fault with saying that the system caused the failure.

I do think that we under-recognize how many people are “complicit” in successes.  While it might be tempting to say that Google’s success, for example, was the success of the Great Men Larry Page and Sergey Brin, perhaps it really was the system: the fertile technical environment, the fertile financial environment, the fertile educational environment, the hard work of many early employees, and so on.

This doesn’t even factor in all the people who were positive influences on the people involved prior to Google’s birth.  For example, their early, key employees were alive, while in other times and places not all of them would have survived to adulthood.  The entire health care system — consisting of surgeons, doctors, epidemiologists, vaccine producers, hospitals, clinics, and insurance bureaucrats — were thus important.  It’s the system.

If the Davos attendees really recognizes the importance of all the other people in any success, and by extension in their success, it would probably be harder for them be comfortable about their wealth and power.


Waiting dogs

Posted in Random thoughts at 9:00 am by ducky

I have been struck and somewhat puzzled by how happy my friends’ dogs have been to see me. My old housemates’ dogs, for example, would get all excited to see me, even after a gap of several years.

I realized last weekend that the dog has no idea where I’ve gone, when I am coming back, or even if I am ever coming back. It must be like someone going off on a sailing ship 200 years ago: no idea where they are, when they will come back, or even if they will come back.


Times they are a-changing

Posted in Politics, Random thoughts at 2:58 pm by ducky

Wow.  Obama announced his six national security advisers today, and white men were in the minority.  Eric Holder and Susan Rice are not white; Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, and Susan Rice are not men.

A few days ago, I read that Condoleeza Rice phoned Barak Obama twice during the Mumbai terrorist attacks and was profoundly moved by the mental image.  It’s not that there haven’t been black people in positions of power before.  I’m sure that Rice phoned General Powell more than once.  (While I dislike almost everything about G. W. Bush, I do have to give him props for not being afraid to appoint people of colour to high positions.)

What struck me was that it was a very powerful black person in one administration phoning a very important black person in the next administration.  This demonstrates that it is not tokenism, nor a fluke of one administration.  It says that having people of colour in positions of high responsibility is not odd or unusual.  And that’s the way it should be.

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