My other potting shed has been decommissioned

Another Potting Shed
Another Potting Shed

Over the last few years I’ve had a second blog called Another Potting Shed, hosted on WordPress.com. This morning I migrated all my posts from it into this blog, and it’s currently just a holding site until I figure out what I want to use it for.

I’ve never been entirely clear about the purpose of this second blog, and to be honest I only started it so that I could have a WordPress.com account and check out what was going on there. In the meantime my main blogging will take place here and I achieve some clarity.

I’m already feeling happier about the situation. Perhaps it’s simply because I’ve made a decision and have done something about it; I’ve been pondering this for months.

My other blogs all have particular themes:

Pomodoro technique for productivity

Pomodoro tomato kitchen timer
Pomodoro tomato kitchen timer

A few months ago I came across a productivity technique called Pomodoro. The name comes from a Pomodoro kitchen timer that the creator of the technique first used; pomodoro is Italian for ‘tomato’.

The technique is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility. It combines five steps:

  1. Choose a task to complete.
  2. Set the Pomodoro timer to 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task, uninterrupted, until the timer rings.
  4. Take a short break (5 minutes).
  5. Every four ‘Pomodoros’ take a longer break (15-20 minutes).

Windows 7 gadget

I thought I’d give it a go and not having a kitchen timer to hand went to look for a Windows 7 gadget that would give me this functionality. But I really didn’t like any of the specifically Pomodoro gadgets. They were either ugly (sorry), took up too much room, offered more eye candy than functionality, or were locked into a strict 25 minutes/5 minutes cycle.

This week, however, I discovered the Work/Break Cycle Timer from Daniel (he doesn’t supply his surname):

Screenshot of instructions showing how the timer works

First off it is compact and just looks great.

The timer has two states (white and blue). Set the white timer to how ever long you want to focus on work, the length of your break is set using the blue timer. An alarm goes off when the timer reaches zero; or, alternatively, the timer can control your iTunes, pausing it for the break.

The timers are easily set by clicking and dragging the hours, minutes and seconds digits up or down with the mouse.

So far I’ve found it a very useful little gadget.

WordPress upgrade: filling in the missing pieces

Missing piece

Well, where to start?

I’ve been meaning to blog about life for ages but since Reuben and Joshua were born in November 2008 other things took more of a priority.  Things like attending to twin boys, eating, getting enough sleep, and generally trying to muddle through the days.  I’ll likely write more about that in the future.

Simplifying life

Over the last few months I’ve been working at simplifying life as much as possible, and being a good Getting Things Done / Take Back Your Life disciple and disengaging from projects and tasks that I knew I wouldn’t/couldn’t complete or which were no longer priorities.  It’s felt good.

That’s given me more of a focus on the things that I do want to do.  Sorting out my web server was one of those things.

Server upgrade

I suspect that I would have blogged more about it at the time (and I now wish that I had) but I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t blog again until I’d upgraded my server.  Of course, that took a good few months longer than I had anticipated (doesn’t everything these days?).

In February I moved from Webfusion to Heart Internet, after an abortive attempt to simply upgrade to a better hosting package at Webfusion.  The killer feature that was missing from the Webfusion package was subdomains; I didn’t want to lose my www.garethjmsaunders.co.uk URL that I’d just had printed onto a custom-made laptop skin.

So far my experience of Heart Internet has been excellent.

Upgrade WordPress

The most pressing reason for moving to a better server was to enable me to upgrade WordPress, the software that manages my blog.  My old host had a bunch of really out-of-date features (MySQL 3.2 and PHP4) which just wasn’t enough to run the latest versions of WordPress.  What a relief to be able to upgrade from WordPress version 2.0.11 to the latest version 2.9.

And wow! there have been quite a few changes to WordPress in the interim: the addition of widgets and tags, as well as critical changes to the main API, a much nicer UI, etc.  So many changes in fact that my old theme broke.  So that had to be fixed.

The upgrade was pretty pain-free thanks to WordPress’s infamous 5-minute install and upgrade script.  (I tested it out first, of course, on my localhost machine using XAMPP.)  The only thing that I missed was matching the database character set encoding.  It was set to ISO-8859-1 (Latin-1) rather than UTF-8 (Unicode) so there are still a few odd character combinations on the blog that I need to track down.

Batch categories

WordPress now has tags.  Back it the day it only supported categories so I, like many other WordPress users, created tens of categories to organise what I was writing about.  I had 88 categories.

I found a tremendous plugin called Batch Categories which let me quickly (by which I mean over the course of two days, rather than weeks if I had to edit each post individually) move groups of posts from one category to another, and also add tags to groups of posts.

So I took the easy route of replacing most of the categories I had with tags and rationalising my categories down to nine:

  1. Books
  2. Computer
  3. Family
  4. General
  5. God Project
  6. Mah Jong
  7. Music
  8. Psion
  9. Web

Next …

I’m really keen to redesign my blog theme but I’m going to hang off on that for the time being.  I’ve got a couple of other things that I want to complete first.

CSS framework

The first thing is to complete work on what started as a plugin for the Blueprint CSS framework and which is now turning out to be a combination of different parts of my favourite CSS frameworks.

Website redesign

Once that’s done I’m going to work on a complete reworking of my main website www.garethjmsaunders.co.uk.  The last time I did any serious work on it was, I think, probably around 2003.  The code has a very serious dose of ‘classitis‘.

One of my biggest drivers is the number of emails and telephone calls that I still get for information about and software for the Psion range of PDAs.  I want to create some space for myself by putting a lot more of that information on my site, in a way that it can be found more easily.

Cut up your credit cards the right way

One of the most useful devices I have in my study is my trusty Fellowes cross-cut shredder.

Sadly it’s not quite so hardcore that it handles CD-ROMs or credit cards but here’s a video to show you how to cut up your credit cards so that they cannot be used to glean any personal data from it.

Windows Mobile 6.1 broke my life!

O2 Xda Zest

About 3-4 weeks ago my beloved O2 Xda Orbit phone started to act erratically, randomly switching itself off according to its own unfathomable set of rules. It was okay when plugged in, but it was getting increasingly impractical pulling an extension cable along Market Street when I went out for lunch.

I figured that resetting the Xda Orbit to factory settings was what it needed and spent an evening reinstalling everything. To no avail. It would still randomly switch itself o…

Zest

I put up with it over a weekend and telephoned O2 the following Monday morning and ordered a very similar device, the O2 Xda Zest; a rebranded Asus Crystal.

There was so much that I liked about the Xda Orbit: the built-in GPS, WiFi, GPRS Web browsing, FM radio and I could synchronize it with my PCs at both home and work. The Xda Zest seemed to offer much the same, only with a much improved screen (proper VGA 480 x 640 pixels) and a much, much faster CPU.

Except the FM radio.

And, as I discovered to my cost, synchronizing with two PCs!

Windows Mobile 6.1 flaw

You see, I naively followed the assumption that the next version of something would be a little better than the previous version of that something. That’s how advertising has reeled me in so often during these last 30+ years.

“Ooh! look! A new one. It must be better. I want it!”

Isn’t that how it usually works?

Seemingly no-one told the Windows Mobile team that. Because it seems that there was a fundamental flaw in Windows Mobile 6.1: it wouldn’t synchronize with two PCs! Even though that’s one of its key features.

Which seems a bit like buying a new car, getting it home and discovering that it drives on A-roads but not your local streets. You can use it at work, but not at home.

Getting Nothing Done (GND)

Which for many people wouldn’t be a problem, but for the last 3 years that’s been the backbone of my organization system. No matter where I’ve been, at work, at home, out-and-about, I’ve always had a full picture of my appointments, commitments, contacts, tasks and priorities.

When I worked from home, in the parish, things were in many ways easier: I had one PC with which I synchronized my Psion 5mx. It was an almost flawless system. But the introduction of a second base, my office, added a new level of complexity. Windows Mobile 6.0 (just about) handled it admirably using ActiveSync (though quite often more correctly spelled ‘ActiveSink’!). Windows Mobile 6.1, however, has let me down quite spectacularly. And not just me, as a quick Web search will prove.

For the last 3 weeks or so, however, I’ve been at sixes and sevens. Thankfully, because I’ve been backing up my Outlook PST files more often than usual, I’ve not actually lost any data but on more than one occasion I’ve ended up with a lot (a LOT) of duplicated data which is just as time-consuming to deal with.

And all the while not entirely sure of the whole picture of my life, which is rather unsettling for someone who is usually so on top of things.

What to do?

So where do I go now? How do I recover my sense of being-on-top-of-things?

  1. Sync my Psion with both

    I tried that, but again the Psion wasn’t really designed to be synchronized with more than one PC. I get errors, so have to re-sync from scratch and end up either duplicating data or reintroducing data that I’ve already deleted on one of the platforms.

  2. Google Calendar

    I’ve tried to synchronize my Outlook calendar with Google Calendar using Google’s own Google Calendar Sync. But it didn’t synchronize all my events, and what about my tasks?

    I’m going to try out XTNDConnect PC to synchronize Outlook with Google Calendar and see how that works; I’ve already tried it synchronizing Outlook with Windows Mobile 6.1 but it duplicated everything!

    Outlook 2007 will allow me to subscribe to an iCalendar feed, such as that offered by Google Calendar, which is great for when I’m at my desktop — but what about when I’m out-and-about with my my phone (or Psion)?

  3. Remember the Milk

    I then tried Remember the Milk to synchronize my Windows Mobile Pocket Outlook tasks with this online task application. But I have over 100 tasks and it didn’t copy over the categories.

    One “inbox” task list of 120 tasks really wasn’t useful.

  4. Psion

    At the moment I’m currently synchronizing both work and home calendars with different Agenda files on my Psion. It’s not ideal but at least I still have all my data in one place.

  5. Hosted Microsoft Exchange

    I have also been considering buying a hosted Microsoft Exchange account. That way — I guess — I could access all my data from work, home or on the move on my phone or via the Web. But I don’t have any experience of Exchange so would welcome people’s comments/thoughts.

It’s been a frustrating time, but I am willing to move on and use something else … I’ve just not found the right solution yet.