My Nerd Quest for an Automated Daily Journal

Be warned! This post is about to get really nerdy. If you know me and have built a mental model of me as a cool, relaxed, not-at-all nerdy person, you should stop reading. This post is going to ruin things for both of us.

I like to keep track of things. I like to make lists of things that don’t matter much to most people. I make lists of the books I read. I manage lists that count the number of times I have listened to songs in music library. I actually track the number of tweets I send each month along with the number of followers and people I follow because you can create interesting ratio games with that information.

I also like to keep track of how I spend my time. Ever since I was 8, I’ve had this idea that my future biographers (Don’t laugh. It could happen.) would need an accurate accounting of my life to use as raw data for their analysis of my accomplishments and how daily events correlate to my creative success.

I’m not talking about a diary or journal. I have one of those. I’m talking about an accurate, daily accountant-style ledger of what I did with my day. It isn’t a narrative of thoughts, ideas or insights. It is a list of things I did, places I went and when I did them. The details aren’t very exciting. I do pretty much the same stuff every day. But I love to look back at what I was doing one, two or more years ago on this very day and see what memories are sparked or how events compare. More often than not, I find that the events are very similar and that my life is more or less locked into a pattern of routine places and things. I often look back to find that I ate at the same restaurant, shopped at the same store or did the same errands exactly one year before and one year before that. That kind of redundancy is both reassuring and frightening.

I used to keep all this in paper records. I had a notebook and kept my daily log on lined notebook paper, filling in the progression of daily details from memory at the end of each day. The paper log was limited because it grew unwieldy and was very difficult to search. As the log grew, it took more and more time to page through to visit the past. Worse, my memory was imperfect and I found myself skipping details on entries or getting things out of order. I knew I needed to automate.

I wanted a daily event log that I could carry with me and update in real time with automatic time stamps securely affixed to each event.

Enter Momento. Momento is an iPhone app that allows quick, easy entries of short moments as you move through the day. The daily view allows easy editing with a calendar view for quick time travel possibilities. Momento integrates with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other RSS feeds (like this blog) so I could keep a record of all my post activities along with my daily events. I kept up with this for a few months in late 2012/early 2013 and then stopped because I didn’t like the redundancy of getting the same posts from mutliple social sites and also didn’t particularly care about link posts. I just wanted to sync original posts that somehow documented my state of mind at a time.

A few weeks ago, I tried Kennedy, another iPhone app, which lets you post easily by tapping the screen and making an entry. Text you add is supplemented by location, weather and a headline from the national and world news. The developers are striving for a tool that ties personal experience to larger world news to create a richer context. The name comes from the famous question, “Where were you when you found out Kennedy was shot?” The problem with the Kennedy app ┬ábecame readily apparent. The app is very easy to update but gives you entries like: “”Grey evening in Oak Ridge. Dinner at Aubrey’s. Four dead in Manila airport shooting” or “Drizzley afternoon in Oak Ridge. Christmas party with cousins. Turkish ministers’ son charged.”

Every update felt weird and super depressing. I moved on to Heyday.

Heyday is a location-based journal iPhone app that uses GPS to automatically tag every location at which you stop. You can add entries directly. The app also sweeps up pictures from your camera roll and organizes them into an interesting collage of daily images to supplement the text and geotag entries. It is a good concept but failed quickly. The constant GPS ran down my battery. I felt like my phone was spying on me and, worse, not spying very well. When I stopped at a red light for a full minute, it registered a visit to The Sun Tan Shop. The false tags would be humorous years from now. I’m sure but my future biographers would be perplexed by my suddenly erratic and eclectic habits.

I’m back to Momento. I use Foursquare to check-in and just ignore the duplicate posts from other social platforms. You can filter those out, anyway.

Okay. So there it is. I’m a nerd. I keep detailed records of things nobody cares about and I stress out about the best way to get it done, keep it accurate and make it searchable.

I feel like I’m in good company. After all, isn’t this what Captain Jean-Luc Picard does at the end of each Star Trek: Next Generation episode? Actually, that’s pretty much what I’m after. A voice recorder that transcribes my life for the future benefit of star fleet. There are surely mysteries that can be solved, interstellar crises averted, if only future generations have access to the tremendously dull, repetitive data of my everyday life.

It isn’t a journal. Its a daily inventory of people, places and things. So, I”m wondering, does anybody else keep a daily account like this? Am I really that weird? I mean, I can’t be that weird. People are developing apps for this. That makes me pretty much normal. This is pretty normal behavior. Right?

How my iPhone helped a blind student

Here’s one of those small daily miracles that comes from having ubiquitous internet access in your pocket and ready for action.

A blind student came into the library today. He asked for someone patient to help him scan his chemistry lecture notes into Word using OCR so the text to speech reader could parse his instructor’s notes for him. We talked about this a bit, and I told him I thought we could help.

I quickly discovered that our lab scanner is not currently equipped with OCR capability. You scan a document and can only get JPG, TIFF and PNG files. No good for text to speech readers.

Turns out there isn’t a single public use OCR scanner at the entire college. That’s a problem I intend to fix pretty quick. In the meantime, this student was out of luck and his chemistry notes were inaccessible.

Then I remembered the document scanner app I recently downloaded onto my iPhone (ImagetoText). A 25 page document. I snapped a picture of each page with my phone, let the app translate the image into text and then emailed the file to myself so the txt file could be pasted into Word. Somewhat labor intense but worked pretty well. I was impressed by how well the text rendered. His notes are complete since the chemistry diagrams are non-textual but a pretty great solution in a pinch.