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Posts from 19 December 2017

  • Organization, Part 2

    We came back from a brief trip to Orlando with over 700 new photos in tow. I dutifully uploaded them to Photos.app1, and realized that it's almost impossible to find anything.

    In fairness, Apple does have some automated tooling to make looking for specific photos easier. Faces, events, and upload groups make finding a specific event and flipping through photos for projects or just recollection simple, but there are some flaws. It's not clear to me if they got rid of the feature to flip through all unnamed faces or if I just can't find it—either way, it reflects poorly on Apple2, and is just another marker of their trend toward entropy.

    So I'm sitting at my computer, looking at over 16,000 photos, trying to make sense of them. What ends up working, and what I spent Sunday evening doing, is making a smart album that only selects files that don't belong to an album, then triaging. As I observe natural collections of files, a taxonomy emerges: some things are vacations or events (happening in a constrained time and place), some are of people (e.g. my wife, or the cat), and the remainder have conceptual boundaries, for the most part.

    Beyond normal tourism, the way I use my camera is to capture moments of interest ("memories"), interesting locations ("explorations"), or to record information where writing would be too slow (e.g. snapping a photo of a serial number, recording damage to the apartment). Triaging gave me the opportunity to filter some obvious duds/outdated information (I don't need to know the model number of my refrigerator two apartments ago), and to realize that this specific taxonomy predates this current push.

    Notably, when I would upload photos to Facebook in the past, the only way I could get a handle on them (and find them in the future) is to split along similar axes.

    I'm going to have some trouble making sure I'm not repeating myself here, but the broad purposes of organization are as follows:

    1. Finding trends in existing material
    2. Relocating specific material later on
    3. Reminding yourself what exists
    4. Extracting specific information (e.g. the date an event happened)
    5. Finding a general case of a specific collection

    The overall goal, of course, is to do productive work, so we need to impose just enough order on the system to allow it to work for us.

    Contrast a search engine. You might search for some restaurant in general (general case), or a particular restaurant (specific information). You might want to look for where restaurants cluster so you can go to an area with a lot of options, where you can search in person (finding trends). You might want to recall the name of that little place you visited two years ago (relocating information), or you might want to find that area you used to go all the time (reminding yourself what exists).

    I've noticed that Google has become good at a subset of these and bad at the rest. Notably, Google is pretty good at finding general information, but if you're looking for something you know exists and the information is a bit stale (e.g. hasn't been reposted or updated in a couple years), or if the search term you're using is specific but close enough to a more common term that it auto-corrects to something else, you might struggle to find "your thing." I just experienced this situation when looking for a specific comic that used to appear on reddit all the time3.

    This is where local caches come into play. I have layers and layers of data that I've been trying to keep organized; photos are just one. The app-centered model is a bit odd for some of the uses I have in mind. Case in point: sometimes (as mentioned above) the easiest way to quickly record something for later consumption/digestion is to take a screenshot of text. But this ends with a nightmare taxonomy, as follows.

    • When I just take a screenshot, that ends up in my photo stream and can be triaged quickly (it's hard to mistake a page of text for a photo of a person, even at thumbnail level). I have both a phone and a tablet, so I have to keep track of two separate streams.
    • Further, I have computers, and those screenshots go straight to desktop, so I have to deliberately aggregate them somewhere so that I can find what I'm looking for quickly.
    • Sometimes I use the "highlight" function in my eReader4, and those notes are stored… in my eReader, I guess? There's probably some way to setup a workflow to move those notes somewhere useful, but keep in mind the ultimate goal is to have stuff available for later use, so too much overhead defeats the purpose5.
    • Sometimes I copy relevant text to a note, or one of several note taking apps, and if the text becomes unsearchable some day (altogether too many pages go missing, either taken down, lost, or changed beyond recognition), then the source won't be available for contextualization.
    • And, most pathologically of all, sometimes I hand-write notes.

    So, sorting through fodder is a matter of paging through screenshots, photos in my library, text files, and scraps of paper, trying to find some specific thing.

    I don't think there's a need to solve this case in particular, but it's worth highlighting what a struggle it can be, and which has relevance to real-world scenarios6. It's not worth solving fully, but I want to have at least a first-pass handle on it so that I have a chance of finding something that I at one time thought worth remembering.

    Remember, the purpose of all this is to make things do work for you. If you spend so much time organizing that you never address any projects, you haven't won.

    A final note, and justification for the "victory" tag: a bunch of files that I thought I'd misplaced, containing a lot of business ideas and so forth, were actually filed away on my NAS.

    1. One day I'll need to talk about how hard Apple's app naming conventions have made googling for tech support… 

    2. I checked some help docs; seems it was possibly an inadvertent removal in High Sierra. 

    3. In fact, for reasons I can't quite determine, Google has gotten much worse at finding all comics, even when I would have sworn that the same search terms would yield the results I seek not even a year ago. I'm not sure if this is a result of a change in Google or the pages themselves. 

    4. Marvin, an iOS app that allows you to make clippings of text without any of the asinine copyright hurdles that the kindle inflicts on you. 

    5. Spending a day figuring this workflow out when I only read at most a book a week, and can easily recall that the thing I saw was in a book, seems rather pointless. On the other hand… for the sake of just having fodder available to inspire writing, it might be in my interest. 

    6. Off the top of my head, legal discovery. 

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