Monday 3 May 2010

Duckworth Lewis doesn't work for 20/20!

Ok, I am talking Cricket, if you didn't know that then you should probably just move along.

England just lost to the West Indies in a rain affected 20/20 match. Every time I see a reduced 20/20 match, the target for the second innings just seems way too easy.

The duckworth lewis system was designed for 50 over matches, which have a minimum of 20 overs when reduced. However, 20/20 games are often reduced to just 5 overs. When the first innings is completed and the second innings reduced, duckworth lewis will set a target that is usually a bit higher than the run rate equivalent, to account for the fact that the last overs are usually higher scoring. When you are talking about a 50 over game reduced to 30 overs, this makes some sense. For a 20/20 match reduced to 5 overs a team with 10 wickets has almost zero risk and can just throw the bat at it.

England scored a pretty decent 191 in their 20 overs. 9.55 runs/over. West Indies target for the 6 overs was 60 (thats 10 runs/over, but if you're still reading this i'm sure you could work that out). Where's the risk in that? 10 wickets to score just slightly higher run rate for 6 overs only? I was surprised it went as close as it did!

Ronnie Irani suggested on Twitter that maybe your wickets should be reduced. So you have to score 60, but with only 5 wickets, which puts the risk back into the chase.

I think a combination of reducing wickets and just adjusting the duckworth lewis formula a bit to be more appropriate to such short matches would lead to much better, and fairer, 20/20 games.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Getting Things Done - Cross Platform GTD

GTD is something I have been aware of for a number of years and only really toyed with it until recently, never really getting over that hurdle. Maybe the hurdle was higher due to the tools I tried or maybe I just didn't put enough effort into setting it up well and using it properly.

Back to today. I use a Mac at home, and Linux and Windows at work (side by side), truely cross platform. I also have an iPhone. I'm going to blog more about general cross platform things at a later date, but here I am concentrating on GTD.

For the last few months I have been using Evernote for GTD. Evernote is not strictly a GTD application, but using its notebooks and tags you can use it for GTD without too much trouble. The best thing about Evernote is it runs on Mac, Windows and iPhone, and syncs to the cloud. Unfortunately I recently decided that the generic features of Evernote don't work well enough for me for GTD. I blogged about hierarchical tagging recently with an example of how Evernote doesn't cut it for what I was using it for.

So I have been looking at other tools. I had heard about Omnifocus and gave the free trial a go. Omnifocus is Mac and iPhone only. With no Mac at work I knew this wouldn't be the solution for me, but wanted to check it out. Omnifocus seems to do everything right and is built for the job, unlike Evernote. Contexts have hierarchies which work just how I want them, you can click on a parent and see all tasks with the child contexts. It also has folders for projects, which also work the same, so useful for projects with sub-projects, or having top level items such as 'Work' and 'Personal'. Another feature of Omnifocus which seems good is the parallel or sequential project types which determine which tasks are actionable. Tasks can have sub tasks, useful if you need to break something down further. Omnifocus doesn't just have the feature set, it has the UX - navigating around the app is great and data entry intuitive. If there was a windows version, or an online version, I would be all over this.

Another Mac only app that gets lots of attention is Things, but for the same reasons it's not for me.

When you run three different operating systems you often end up using web based cloud solutions. There are dozens of Task and GTD based web apps out there. I'll skip through a few I tried for only a few minutes:

  • SimpleGTD - as the name suggests, simple, too simple.
  • TODOIST - still too simple, it has hierachy but it doesn't do anything but indent.
  • Remember the Milk - not a nice UI, not really GTD.
  • Toodledo - Tons of features, horrible to use though.

So I finally ended up at Nirvana, literally, well close anyway. Nirvana is great and appears to be actively developed with new features on the way. It seems designed well for GTD, great looking UI and really nice to use. I am sticking with this for a while. However there are some things that I would like it to do and hopefully the guys will implement them soon.

  • Project hierarchies, like Omnifocus does it. They are working on something along these lines called Areas of Focus.
  • Context hierachies, like Omnifocus does it - this seems less likely based on how it currently works.
  • Actionable tasks - there is the concept of 'Next' but only for non project tasks.
  • Contexts and Projects to show how many items there are in them - I want to see, at a glance, that I have some things to get done at the shops.
  • Project tags - Projects can have tags, but it's only useful for filtering the list of projects, they should work on all the tasks within the project too.

Looks like Nirvana will work for me and hopefully some of the features above will come along soon.

So have I missed anything? Would something else tick all my boxes better than Nirvana?

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Gmail labels - on mails or conversations?

I make use of Gmail labels (tags) to categorise my email and I like the way Gmail keeps all emails from a thread in a single conversation. However, I have never been able to work out exactly how they have implemented it..

From the interface, a label is on a conversation - either in the list of conversations, or when you open up a conversation and get the labels at the top (not on each email). This seems fine, it is how I would expect it to work since conversations are a major part of Gmail.

The problem is, i'm not sure it is really implemented as it would seem. If you label a conversation, then send a reply to that conversation what happens? Is your reply really labelled? Try this - send two separate emails and label them both from your Sent Mail. Now go into the first one and reply to it. Now click on the label and your'll see both your conversations - but what order are they in? It's the order of the original two mails, the reply didn't affect the order. It might not matter in this case, but what if you replied to an older mail in a label that has lots of conversations in it - I have often got confused looking for a conversation that I knew I had replied to on a particular day but it was actually in the list a lot further back, maybe not even on the first page.

However, if you send those two separate emails, reply to the first one and THEN label them, you get the expected order.

Maybe this is deliberate, but I cannot see a scenario where this makes sense - everything about the UI and operation of Gmail indicates that a label is on a conversation not an individual mail, but it just doesn't seem to be implemented like that!

Monday 12 April 2010

Gmail tags and folders

Everyone knows Gmail uses tags (or rather labels) instead of hierarchical folders. Tags are quite common in applications these days and allow a more flexible means of organising things without the limitations of folders. Traditionally email apps have used folders though, and lots of people have got used to that - so lots of people don't really get on with gmail labels and want folders.

Some people go to the extreme of saying they don't need tags OR folders in Gmail because the search is so good, but that's missing the point - there are two use cases in play with email:

  1. Finding a specific email that you are looking for - search works well here
  2. Finding all emails about a particular subject - it's pretty difficult to come up with search criteria to do this for you
Tags allow you to categorise your mails, and most importantly, use multiple tags on the same email, which you cannot do with folders. This is a key feature.

Gmail just added some hierarchy to their tags (mentioned by ReadWriteWeb) but its a fairly hacky looking 'labs' feature from what I can tell. The ReadWriteWeb article seems to get it a bit wrong really.. I see no evidence of giving up on tagging - the feature simply allows you to organise your tags in a hierarchy, cleaning up your list of tags. 

Proper hierarchical tagging is something I would like to see, and not just in Gmail - how about Evernote and other apps? In fact Evernote might be an easier example..

In Evernote they have a similar nod towards hierarchy that actually does nothing but organise your tag list. I have a tag hierarchy for my house project, 'House -> Top Floor -> Office' etc, but I have to remember to tag an item relating to my office with 'House', 'Top Floor' and 'Office' to achieve what I want. What is it I want? To be able to click on 'House' and get all items relating to my house, or 'Top Floor' and get all items relating to the top floor. If I just tagged with 'Office' the fact that 'Office' is actually a tag in a hierarchy is completely lost other than where I click on the tag name.

Do any applications implement a decent hierarchical tagging system?

Friday 2 April 2010

Mac and Windows Backup Strategy

For a while I have been thinking about and gradually improving my backup strategy and I now think I am close to being happy with it - for a while at least!

I have a MacBook Pro, a MacBook and a Windows desktop which is mainly just a server for my music etc. So, a mixed operating system setup, which can complicate things.

Anyone reading about backup strategies should already know that it is important to have multiple backups, onsite and offsite. Different kinds of backup are useful for different scenarios - sometimes you just need to recover some files that were accidentally deleted, sometimes a whole drive may have failed, and sometimes that drive may be your main OS drive and you need to be able to get up and running as quickly as possible.

With that in mind, everything needs to be backed up, in some way or another, but some data may have specific backups. Things that are important to me are my music files, my photo files and my documents so I pay particular attention to these.

So where have I got to?

Local backups and archives...

My MacBook Pro is my main machine, this is backed up to an external USB drive using Time Machine - this gives me backup of my whole machine, with decent history, useful for those deleted/corrupted file scenarios. My MacBook is also backed up this way.

I like backups that are accessible without using any special software. I backup my photos from my MacBook Pro to my Windows server - this is my iPhoto Library as well as my RAW files, getting on for 100GB. I also backup my MP3s to my server too. Actually my MP3s are created on my server, so I actually sync them from my server to my MacBook Pro, then they sync back once iTunes has added cover art to them.

It took a while but I finally found something that does this reasonably well - ChronoSync. This covers both scenarios above - one way backup, and bidirectional synchronisation. After a few hiccups in setup, this appears to now be handling the iPhoto Library package file properly. With this setup I have two copies of my photos and MP3s in forms accessible on both machines.

Convenient Sync...

My documents - I have an extra requirement for my documents, I like to be able to access them from multiple places, including at work where I use both Linux and Windows. This is where DropBox is excellent, all my documents are automatically synchronised via the cloud to all my machines. DropBox triggers the sync when any file changes. I'd love a local version of this so I could use it for larger files between local machines, my ChronoSync setup is on a scheduled basis, not triggered.

So apart from my documents all my data is still onsite, albeit in two or three places. Also, although DropBox keeps a history and deleted files it's best not to rely on this as a backup - if you delete a file DropBox will delete it off all your machines.

Backup to the Cloud...

There are lots of places that do cloud based backup, with varying feature sets and costs. I settled on CrashPlan for a few reasons: it is cross platform and the license covers multiple machines, these requirements whittles down your shortlist very quickly! Unlimited data is also important. Another feature of CrashPlan is being able to backup to a local disk, external disk, another machine on your network or even another machine over the Internet, eg a friends machine. All these cost you nothing, apart from the CrashPlan Central cloud storage itself. I am yet to test a backup recovery, but it appears to meet my needs.

I use CrashPlan to backup my Documents and photos (just my jpgs) from my MacBook Pro to both the cloud and my server. The photos is overkill and were setup before ChronoSync was setup, but it doesn't hurt. It is redundant since all the stuff I backup to my server is also backed up to the cloud by CrashPlan. So that means all my photos and MP3s, in addition to this, I also have all my music in FLAC format on my server, which is also backed up to the cloud.

So what is missing? If you have paid attention you will realise that my FLAC files are only in one place locally. Getting 200GB+ of data back from the cloud would take a long time so a local backup is needed. This is on Windows though, so ChronoSync won't help me, it's also licensed per machine which is annoying. I am going to give SyncBack a go to duplicate my FLAC files to a separate disk in the server or maybe an external drive.

Clone it...

There's also something else to try - if my laptop drive fails I have all my data, and Time Machine will get me back to where I was fairly well, but you need to have installed a new drive before you can restore from Time Machine, both of which take time of course. The solution? a clone backup. SuperDuper seems the popular choice for this. A clone backup means you can boot from the external drive and be backup and running in seconds. Of course you still need to get that replacement drive and copy over, but at least you can do stuff in the mean time.

That's it. I've never needed any of this, but one day I will. The only time I have had problems is when my only backup was a Time Machine backup of my laptop. However, the backup drive failed, and a few days later the laptop drive failed! This highlighted the need for multiple backups very well! I managed to recover nearly everything though using the old trick of putting the drive in the freezer for a minute or so. Yes it works! I had to do it about 10 times as I could only copy a certain amount before it would fail again.

Think about what data you have and what would happen if a drive fails. Are all your backups local? Some people take disks round to the friends house weekly, but for me and automated system is the only way, anything manual will not get done at some point.

Thursday 1 April 2010

A year..

It's been a year since I setup this blog and I haven't written anything since. Been married a year now and moved into a nice big house 6 months ago. Maybe I will starting blogging about some vaguely interesting things soon!