Evolving Notes

In a decade where it was hard to escape news about how fast technology was advancing, I experienced stability. Wherever I went I carried a laptop. Emacs was always open on that laptop.

This stability led to me finally adopting a journaling system that I could stick with. I just kept a file open in an Emacs buffer, and dropped notes about what I was doing in there as I went about my day. Exact details changed as years past, but mainly:

  1. Plain text, mostly Markdown-ish in syntax.
  2. One file per month.
  3. Start the day by typing day name and date on the next empty line.
  4. Commit the file and push to a remote git repo to backup.

Yes, there are a hundred other tools I could have used. These were the low-energy entry points that meant I kept using it.

That stability has ended, though, and Mac-plus-Emacs is no longer ever-present for me. Now I’m as likely to have only my iPhone or iPad at hand. I still depend too much on digital media and communications to move to a paper notebook, as my father has always carried, no matter how nice Moleskines look.

I’ve tried a new solution for a month now, and I think it’s going to stick: Bear. Other apps came close, but Bear pulled a few important things together in one place: export, sync, price, and usability.

Almost every note-taking application supports note export in some form. Even Apple’s Notes exports to PDF. Bear exports to many formats, and documents doing so in a way to leads me to believe this is a feature they care about. Export to Markdown means that I can maintain my git-repo backup habit for now, and will make it easy to fall back on Emacs if necessary.

Syncing is equally ubiquitous. Bear syncs via iCloud. (CloudKit in particular, which is a bonus point of pride for me.) I love that this means I don’t have to sign up for yet another service, that this service isn’t going to go away if the Bear team does, and I don’t have to think about what data Bear could mine from my notes.

The features I need in Bear are not free. Gaining access to them is $15 per year. But, that price covers Bear on all of my devices. Separate charges for desktop and mobile apps, I understand, helps teams justify the development of each. From my consumer perspective though, I bought access to Bear and now get to use it everywhere, and that’s great.

There are many nice touches in Bear’s usability (two-finger swipe to go to the top or bottom of a note, or automatically pulling a URL from the clipboard when adding a link to a note, to name a couple). But the most important to me is that it doesn’t replace the standard Mac keybindings. My Emacs muscle memory appreciates the basic cursor movement shortcuts supported by all standard Mac text fields.

Bear is working great for me. So much so that I’ve begun to expand usage beyond my journal. The last two blog posts here were written in Bear – the export to WordPress on iOS is smooth. I’m experimenting with archiving recipes, using nested tags.

There are a few places I think Bear has an opportunity to improve, including a bug or two. But they’ve done such a nice job with the fundamentals, and sprinkled just enough extras on top, that it’s already app I’m happy to use. Here’s hoping I get another period of tech stability out of it.

Like/Shrug/Dislike Gains Traction

Steven Frank agrees that 3-choice voting (like/shrug/dislike) is plenty. It’s great to see someone else suggest it. Maybe we’ll see it pop up in a few more places.

BeerRiot solves the specific problem Steven is grappling with (the sea of “average” ratings) in another way, as well: all BeerRiot ratings are personalized. You’re less likely to have to deal with a mess of vague ratings on BeerRiot because a social clustering algorithm is being used to sift the wheat from the chaff. BeerRiot can figure out which users’ votes are more important for your score, and uses them to give you a clearer picture. This means the score you see is much more likely to be in-line with your impression of the beer, not just the “average community rating.”

For those interested, here is my reasoning for keeping the ‘neutral’ vote around, in opposition to John Gruber’s suggestion.

Don’t Throw Out “Maybe” Yet!

Don’t Throw Out Maybe Yet!

Jeffrey Zeldman’s post “Maybe” is one option too many caught my eye this afternoon. I completely agree with him that “maybe” is a pain in the neck. From my vantage point, yes/no (or like/dislike) are the only user inputs that really matter.


Most of you will notice that BeerRiot has a third option – “shrug”. It wasn’t always this way. The first versions of BeerRiot had no middle ground – you liked a beer, or you disliked it. I was staunch in my position, callously telling people that they should make up their mind.

It wasn’t until over half of the first twenty people to which I showed BeerRiot asked, “Where’s ‘meh’?” that I started to change my thinking. I started to realize that being forced to make a black/white decision was making people uneasy. They really wanted the comfort of being able to postpone making their choice.

The decision was pretty easy at that point. I wanted people to stay around my site. Therefore, it seemed a good idea to make them comfortable. Shrug was born.

In the time since introducing shrug, I’ve found it to be more than just indecision. It’s a way to acknowledge the existence of a thing, without passing judgement. For beer voting, it lets me know that although I have no strong feelings about a beer, I have tried it (something I have trouble remembering with the wide variety available). I can see it working similarly for party invites: it lets the organizer know that even though I don’t know my schedule, I have, in fact, received the invitation.

Here’s another way to think about it. Suppose there is no “maybe” option. You must either accept or decline the invitation. So, what are people who don’t respond? Are they not “maybe”? Maybe you’re a pessimistic person: you consider non-responders “no”. Okay, then, if all non-responders are “no”, then why even have a “no” option? Why not just have “yes”? A unary system – respond “yes”, or you don’t exist.

For BeerRiot, at least, that would seriously cut my dataset. I think the same would be true for party invites. You couldn’t even tell what kind of buffer you might want to plan for – all you would know is the number of people who are definitely coming. Or in BeerRiot’s case, I couldn’t tell if a beer is controversial – I’d only know the number of people who like it.

So, I say don’t throw maybe out yet. It’s more than just indecision. It’s user comfort and metadata all rolled into one.

I’ll leave you with this, though: I don’t see the point in more than three choices. “Kind-of-like” and “Sort-of-dislike” are even less data than maybe to me. At least with “maybe” I can tell the voter is unsure. With “maybe-like”, I can’t tell if she’s unsure or genuinely less positive about this beer than others.

P.S. I love Bill W.’s comment about rating other people’s ratings. It’s exactly the kind of problem that BeerRiot tries to solve.

BeerAdvocate’s “Judging Beer”

BeerAdvocate Magazine’s Defending Beer article in the May 2007 issue, titled “Judging Beer”, speaks directly to the problem that we at BeerRiot are trying to solve.

“Beer, by its very nature is an inherently subjective commodity,” writes Andy Crouch. The rest of the article continues to list a number of the flaws in official contests and the fickle nature of popularity.

I couldn’t agree more. No expert can cover the tastes of every individual. Nor can any majority. It doesn’t matter how many people like a beer. If you like it, you like it – the fact that someone else dislikes it shouldn’t change that.

This is the aim of BeerRiot. Rather than bore you with the opinion of yet another expert, or confuse you with yet another popularity contest, we attempt to find those people that are actually more likely to have opinions you agree with. The scores you see here are based only on the opinions of those people.

We hope it will be just like learning about beers from your close friends. You know exactly which ones to trust and which ones to question. Here we hope to enable you to filter a much larger population automatically.

(By the way, if you are anywhere near Boston the weekend of June 16, you owe it to yourself to get tickets to BeerAdvocate’s American BeerFest. Nowhere will you find more beers to taste at one time.)