Being a Night Person

Clicky Steve:

Paul articulates something of what I’ve struggled with for a long time as well – being a night person in a work world that favours early birds.

Originally posted on The Old Fashioned:

I’m not a morning person. I’ve made halting attempts at being one…but only because I thought I needed to. I’m now lucky enough to work at a place where I don’t have to pretend anymore. I can work when I’m most productive – and for me that’s often at night.

Why? Apparently it’s because that’s my “chronotype”…I just read a great New Yorker article that explains what that is, and also confirms something I’ve long suspected. That to be most productive, you should just embrace your inner time preference, rather than fighting it. If you’re a night person, find a way to work at night. I’ve been doing that more lately, and having some very productive days. It’s nice to finally have some hard science to back me up…

I got in touch with my real work rhythm in college. Left to my own devices, I’d not schedule classes before…

View original 528 more words

DMCA Rejection Retaliation

Every day WordPress.com receive a sizeable number of DMCA takedown notifications, and every day I personally reject a fair number of them for being incomplete, invalid, or fraudulent.

Many of those who find their takedown notifications being rejected are displeased with the decision, used to service providers choosing to automatically process them, shifting the burden of proof onto the user, rather than take on the risk of liability for themselves. Unsurprisingly, this displeasure is often most aggressively expressed by dedicated third party agents whose sole business model is based on scouring the web for potentially infringing acts, and who get paid per removal. Some people may say that with a results-driven financial incentive to have material taken offline, that there is more of a chance for the DMCA process to be used inappropriately – but that’s something you’ll need to make your minds up on independently.

Yesterday a colleague let me know about one such organisation that had evidently found some of their notifications rejected in the past, who had then chosen to take to Twitter to voice their displeasure about me doing my job.

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The image they linked to was of me, lying on the grass clutching a bottle of Buckfast – the weekend of the Queen’s Jubilee, if memory serves correctly.

The one they used wasn’t really very good quality though, so here’s a higher resolution one incase they want to try again:

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I’m not entirely sure what they were trying to achieve to be honest. It’s not as if pictures of me intoxicated are really all that hard to find, after all. My occasional penchant for Buckfast isn’t exactly a secret at Automattic either, given that I did my first annual ‘flash talk’ at the all-company Grand Meetup in Utah on the ol’ tonic wine.

Somebody (who shall remain nameless) suggested we reply to say:

Even smashed on Bucky, Clicky Steve knows more about the DMCA than RemoveYourMedia

Which is so beautiful it almost brought a tear to my eye.

That wasn’t the only tweet they aimed at me though.

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It’s pretty bizarre that they would choose to use that case about Napster to illustrate the potential liability for service providers guilty of contributory infringement, since there are far more recent, compelling, and relevant judgements they could have made their point with. Ah well, better luck next time, eh? As far as I’m aware they never actually sued after these bold statements on social media, but maybe they’re still preparing the paper work.

At the end of the day, whilst this has given me a hearty chuckle before I turn in for the night, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not only petty, but ridiculously unprofessional. Making ad hominem attacks on employees of a company for rejecting your legal demands is pretty sad. If I was a copyright holder, I wouldn’t be too impressed to find the agency I had employed to protect my intellectual property deploying tactics like this. Then again, it might be a bigger deal if they had more than 1200 followers…

In the world of the DMCA, there’s only one thing dumber than submitting bogus takedown notifications, and that’s having a tantrum on Twitter when your bogus takedowns are rejected.

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Hyperlinks, Copyright Infringement, and the DMCA

Hyperlinks are a fundamental part of the core fabric of the web. As the basic tool used to connect pieces of information together, it’s difficult to imagine how the Internet could function without them. 

Despite its critical nature, the role of hyperlinks has attracted the attention of those seeking to prevent particular kinds of information from being shared. One of the prime examples relates to copyright, and efforts to disrupt the dissemination of materials without authorisation. As part of this, the delivery mechanism of the hyperlink – as well as the infringing act itself – has come under fire.

Hyperlinks and Case Law

There is not a sizeable wealth of case law available that directly relates to the question of whether a hyperlink can constitute copyright infringement. As a result, discussions concerning potential liability often draw upon analogies taken from older cases – sometimes with judgements over a century old – in order to apply established legal principles to the uncertainties thrown up by technological evolution.

In the case of Hird v. Wood from 1984, the defendant was seated near to a sign on which defamatory messages were displayed. Despite not having created the sign, it was held that he incurred liability simply through the act of drawing attention to it. In the later case of Byrne v. DeanHird was referenced, the judge noting the following:

If defamatory matter is left on the wall of [a] premises by a person who has the power to remove the defamatory matter from the wall he can be said to have published the defamatory matter to the persons who read it.

Applied to our topic, it would appear that this principle would impose an obligation on the operators of websites (as well as their hosts) to remove hyperlinks that led to illegal material.

The Supreme Court in Crookes v. Newton did not completely accept the above analogy. Instead, they found the argument put forward by the respondent to be more persuasive: a comparison between hyperlinks and footnotes. In other words, both are ‘content neutral’, communicating the existence of something, but not necessarily commenting on the content. This view is one also supported by Tim Berners-Lee, credited with the creation of the World Wide Web:

The intention […] was that normal links should simply be references, with no implied meaning.

However, the court also recognised that the Internet is ‘a potentially powerful vehicle’ for defamation, and that the context itself was important in establishing possible liability. In the words of the court:

Individuals may attract liability for hyperlinking if the manner in which they have referred to content conveys defamatory meaning.

Analogy is one instrument that can be used when considering the relationship between the use of hyperlinks and the law; powerful, albeit imprecise. The issues involved in real life situations are more complex than can be addressed by analogy alone, and courts have often taken differing approaches in making their determinations.

One of the first cases to directly challenge the legality of the use of hyperlinks, and their potential to constitute an infringement of copyright concerned their use on the website of a Scottish newspaper named the ‘Shetland News’.

The links in question were published on the Shetland News website. They took the form of headlines copied from the site of a rival paper: the ‘Shetland Times’. By visiting the Shetland News website and clicking on these links, visitors were taken to the corresponding articles on the Shetland Times website. Confused yet? The way things were set up meant it was possible to completely avoid having to visit the Shetland Times’ homepage, and therefore missing out on its advertising. As a result, the Shetland News website was receiving ad-based income for providing direct links to articles that they themselves had not authored. 

Understandably, the Shetland Times weren’t too pleased about this, and succeeded in having the use of the links halted through the use of an interim interdict. The reasoning for the decision was that the links came in the form of headlines that had been copied verbatim from the other site, and so there was potential copyright infringement. Disappointingly from an academic point of view, the case was settled out of court, with no final judgement made on the actual liability arising from the use of the links.

One of the first significant cases in the US regarding the status of hyperlinks was that of Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp. This concerned the display of thumbnail images from a professional photographer’s website in search results. The images were available both as resized thumbnails, and full sized previews, which is akin to the functionality provided by Google Images. Arriba was sued for copyright infringement, and the appeal judgement from the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco found that the thumbnails were protected under the doctrine of fair use. However, there was liability incurred for the displaying of the images in a new display window – a practice known as ‘in-line linking’. After an amicus brief filed by the EFF, the judgement was revised; the concerns about the in-line linking removed, with the fair use affirmation standing. 

In the case of Intellectual Reserve, Inc. v. Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Inc., the court found that hyperlinks pointing towards illegally distributed material could in of themselves be considered to be contributory copyright infringement. In this particular situation, the facts were complicated because the owner of the website in question had originally stored copies of the protected content on their own servers, before replacing them with hyperlinks to copies stored elsewhere. It was the context of these actions that was important – echoing the ratio decidendi in Hird.

One of the more commonly cited cases in this area is the infamous Grokster case, in which the Supreme Court introduced a new potential for liability: that of inducement. It was held that where technology is created for the intended or actual purpose of encouraging its users to breach copyright, then the creators themselves could be held liable for contributory copyright infringement. Ultimately, Grokster was shut down. Despite the concern by service providers over the precedent of this case, the facts were very particular to this situation, with the platform actively fostering the ‘blatant and overwhelming’ infringing activity of their users. It is extremely unlikely that the same definition would be applied to the majority of contemporary online intermediaries.

Hyperlinks, the DMCA, and Contributory Infringement

Online service providers often receive DMCA takedown notifications that target hyperlinks leading to allegedly infringing material, rather than material that resides on their servers. They are faced with an interesting quandary as a result: whether or not to remove the link.

On the one hand, hyperlinks generally do not constitute copyright infringement. However, it is the context that is the determining factor when considering potential for liability. A link created by a user to illegal material may well be infringing, but where does this leave the service provider?

Service providers are afforded safe harbor immunity from the infringing actions of their users, provided they ‘remove or disable access to’ material upon receipt of a valid DMCA takedown notification. However, it is unclear how this would apply in the case of hyperlinks. In our example, the infringing material itself is located on servers out-with their control, but there is still potentially infringing activity taking place on their platform. Would a host be liable for a failure to remove a hyperlink to material, where that hyperlink was found to be an infringing act, based on the context?

We can take some insight into how the decisions of future courts may fall in this scenario by considering the ‘server test’ discussed in the Perfect 10 cases. Here, the facts concerned the display of websites in Google’s Image search that were infringing upon the copyright interests of the plaintiff. It was found that Google was not liable for direct infringement on the basis that the material at issue did not reside on their servers, and was served up from another host through their use of framing, or ‘in-line linking’. With regards to contributory infringement specifically, the court held that there was no liability, as the infringing activity itself would still exist irrespective of whether or not Google Images existed. In other words, they were not found to be encouraging the copyright infringement.

In Flava, the defendants were operators of a ‘social bookmarking’ service called myVidster that allowed users to share videos from different locations around the web, which were then embedded on their platform, served up from the original locations. They were sued for contributory copyright infringement, based on the actions of users that were sharing clips that had been uploaded without authorisation.

The service provider had already received a number of takedown notifications regarding the material, and it was argued that they had not taken enough action as required to qualify for safe harbor protections. However, that is not the be all and end all. In the words of the court: ‘a non-infringer doesn’t need a safe harbor.’ The parties who uploaded the videos in the first place were the ones whose activity was infringing, and the question is whether myVidster had encouraged their infringing activity to an extent that constituted contributory infringement. The court did not find this to be the case, holding that myVidster was neither a direct or contributory infringer. In other words, they were too far removed from the infringing activity, 

My View

Irrespective of the potential for individuals to incur liability based on the context of hyperlinks which they create, the application of the DMCA should not extend to their removal.

Part of the criticism of the DMCA is that there is a substantial burden placed on copyright holders to track down and report instances of infringement across the web. Much like the mythological Hydra, as one falls, more spring up to take its place. Slaying the beast requires attacking the root of the problem; treating hyperlinks as valid subjects of takedown notifications is to mis-understand the task, and only serves in the creation of extra conceptual heads to pursue.

Rather than target hyperlinks, the focus of enforcement efforts should be on the actual source of the infringing material: the host. Take out the location pointed to by hyperlinks, and they are instantly rendered obsolete. This is not only a far more effective approach in tacking infringing activity, but one that also avoids creating extra and unnecessary work. Financially, this means less is paid to third party agents such as DMCA.com, whose revenue is based on successful takedown notifications.

The DMCA is already a blunt, and powerful tool. Abuse of the system is rife, and often deployed for the purposes of censoring legitimate expression, rather than to curb copyright infringement. To extend its remit to include the removal of hyperlinks is a dangerous step, that fundamentally alters our relationship with a core structural element of the web, and risks a (further) chilling effect on freedom of speech.

Despite recent case law seeming to support this principle, the judgements have been extremely dependent on the circumstances involved, and there has been no definitive authorities. As a result, it is up to online service providers to shape the approach to the issue, rejecting DMCA notification takedowns that concern hyperlinks. Policy decisions such as this create the normative frameworks that have the power to help ensure or hinder a free and open web, and it’s critical that tech companies lead the charge, rather than taking a minimum risk stance.

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The Scottish Government’s Plans for a National Identity Database

Over the past couple of weeks, it has come to light that the Scottish Government are holding a public consultation on changes to the National Health Service Central Register (Scotland) Regulations 2006. 

The NHSCR is essentially a database that holds records on every single person in Scotland who was either born – or registered with a GP – in the country. This is tied to a unique number called the UCRN. Since the bulk of us need to see the doctor now and then – and don’t have private healthcare – that means pretty much all of us is on there. The changes would allow the register to collect some additional information (in the form of postcodes), and then share that data with other public sector organisations.

The proposed aims of these changes are as follows:

i. Improve the quality of the data held within the NHSCR

ii. Assist the tracing of certain persons, for example, children who are missing within the education system and foreign individuals who received NHS treatment in Scotland and left the country with outstanding bills

iii. Enable the approach to secure and easy access to online services (myaccount) to extend beyond services of Scottish local authorities and health boards to a wider range of public services

iv. Enable the identification of Scottish tax payers to ensure the accurate allocation of tax receipts to Scotland associated with the Scottish Rate of Income Tax.

So hold on, how on earth will changes made to a register held by the NHS help trace missing people, or to sort income tax? I’m glad you asked!

Data Sharing

Despite being buried away in a seemingly minor consultation in an innocuous piece of legislation, the proposals are actually pretty significant. In essence, they are seeking to use NHS records as a central location for a whole manner of other organisations to track details about people resident in Scotland.

On the face of it, the sheer dishonesty involved in appropriating a database which has been collected through public trust for other purposes is dismaying enough. However, there are some legitimate aims in there. After all, who could argue with attempting to trace missing children more efficiently? Given the sensitive nature of the information involved, I’m sure that we can expect that the other organisations which would gain access to view and share these types of personal details would be small, and tightly controlled. Right?

Wrong.

In the proposed new schedule, there are 98 different organisations listed who would get access to a core set of records. Amongst them are:

  • The Scottish Ministers
  • The Scottish Parliament
  • Revenue Scotland

Well, okay… not great, but hard to really justify spitting the dummy out over.

But wait, there’s more:

  • The Foods Standard Agency in Scotland
  • The Drinking Water Quality Regulator in Scotland
  • The Queen’s Printer for Scotland

Err… what?

That’s not all though!

  • Glasgow Prestwick Airport
  • Cairngorms National Park Authority
  • Scottish Canals

and… possibly the best one of them all:

  • Quality Meat Scotland

Yep, that’s right. Quality Meat Scotland.

Don’t believe me? See the full list for yourself.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I see absolutely no reason for these people to have access to my private information:

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I’m sure they’re wonderful human beings that do a great job, but when I go to see the doctor about a private matter, I don’t expect that information to then be available to anybody else, especially not a seemingly arbitrary selection of other public organisations.

Here’s some other possible data exchanges that I find curious:

  • The Forestry Commission sharing information on people with the National Library of Scotland (to find out which books are pulped most, perhaps?)
  • SQA (the exams people) sharing information on people with The Crofters Commission (finding under-qualified Crofters?)
  • Scottish Canals sharing information on people with The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh (?!?!)

There are other, more serious potential implications though:

  • The address information of vulnerable people being discovered, or exposed to disgruntled or abusive ex-partners
  • Details of people’s personal medical records (including mental health issues such as depression) being laid bare for others to access – with the potential for discrimination on that basis markedly high

These possibilities are purely hypothetical at this point, and would arguably be outside of the scope of the proposals in their current form. However, they illustrate the risks that are presented by linking up disparate data-sets in this manner. Once the UCRN is deployed across the public sector, there is little to prevent the above examples from being enabled. The consultation does not the risks that are presented by this, and haven’t given the impression of any sort of detailed consideration about either the privacy implications, or general public interest of this move.

One would expect there should be detailed regulations in place to control the sort of information transfer being described, yet the consultation remains remarkably quiet on the matter, stating only the following:

In each of the proposed amendments outlined above the minimum amount of data would be shared for the specific purposes outlined. The organisation will provide information on the individual they wish to identify and will receive equivalent information from the NHSCR and the principal reference number which is the UCRN. Where an organisation wishes to take advantage of this legislation it will also require to have in place data sharing agreements to ensure that appropriate processes are put in place and followed and that the data is used for the specific purpose identified.

That’s all very well and good, but there is a worryingly scant supply of details on the framework that would ensure these protections would be afforded, or what these ‘appropriate processes’ might be to prevent extra data being shared between organisations without justification. There is also nothing to stop this limited, and disparate set of aims (tracking missing children, establishing a more efficient online user account system for public services, and ensuring Scottish people pay income tax) from expanding in the future to share much more data.

This is a far bigger issue than it is being presented as.

Here is a summary of the issues:

  • The proposed changes would create a single national identity database in Scotland
  • There have been no adequate considerations of the privacy or data implications outlined in the consultation
  • There is no way to guarantee that the scope of the data to be shared would not increase in future, once the mechanism is established
  • The changes would undermine the public’s trust in the NHS, by using it as a vehicle to deliver these proposals

The consultation is woefully inadequate for the significance of these proposals, and the questions framed as if their premise is already universally accepted as a good thing. Almost laughably, instead of leaving space for any potential concerns, the consultation asks about suggestions for other organisations who the data should be shared with. That’s in addition to Prestwick Airport and Quality Meat, for the record.

The Scottish Government should halt the proposals, and instead move to recognise these changes for what they are: a significant development in our relationship with public sector organisations, requiring a full debate in Parliament, with the chance for both MSPs and the public to scrutinise them.

Read more from the Open Rights Group on this here.

Details on the Consultation itself is here. If you’re looking to do so, make sure and get yours in quick, as the closing date is the 25th of February.

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Productivity Apps: Alfred Remote

Two weeks ago, the creators of one my favourite Mac apps – Alfred – released a second app: Alfred Remote.

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What does it do?

Alfred Remote is an app for your smartphone (currently iOS only) that integrates with Alfred, and allows you to control your Mac from your phone. You can launch apps, interact with the system (to logout, dim the brightness, shut down the computer, etc), or run more complicated workflows.

What’s the point in that?

At first it isn’t quite clear what the point in some of the features of Alfred Remote are. They might be designed really nicely, and work well… but why bother launching an app on your computer from your phone if you then have to be at your keyboard to use the app anyway? It would be awesome if there was some way to input text into open apps, for example, but there currently isn’t – not easily anyway. I was a bit disappointed, as it seemed like a nice idea that didn’t have much use outside of controlling the screen when you were giving presentations.

However, as with Alfred itself, the ways in which it can become useful don’t come clear until you start to dwell on them a bit more. I realised there were more than a few things I would do on my laptop that would be great if I could control remotely – like when I was watching films on Netflix or VLC. As more and more people use computers as media centres, this app will prove more and more useful. It might be true that many of the issues that it can solve are very niche, but often they are the hardest ones to find a solution to.

On top of controlling your computer remotely, rather than thinking about it in terms of something that would be used instead of the keyboard or mouse, we need to consider the benefits of using it to augment them. As one fellow Alfred forum members put it, think of it as ‘Alfred Sidekick’ rather than Alfred Remote.

What do YOU use it for then?

The ways in which Alfred Remote will be useful will differ depending on your own needs and expectations. The beauty of the app is having the framework there, ready for you to create your own custom solutions to your individual problems.

For me, the first thing I did was to create a workflow for the media player VLC.

We don’t have a TV at home – as I don’t think the licence fee is worth the cost. As a result, we watch a lot of DVDs and other media files on a big LCD external monitor. Not having a remote control can be a bummer, so… I created one!

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The basics are there – play/pause, and buttons to change the volume – but there’s also a few that I added in specific to issues we came across, like to turn subtitles on or off, to fullscreen the window, and to increase or decrease the audio delay to compensate for lip synching issues. Simple, rough, but works great. Download VLC Remote Control here.

Next was Flux. Flux is an app that gradually changes the colour temperature of your screen throughout the day, in order to prevent eye strain. I hated it at first, but now I love it. Along with Alfred, it’s one of the first apps I’d install on a new computer.

The one problem with Flux is that it can interfere with the colour rendition for when you’re playing movies, or working on photos. There are ways to make up for this, but often it can be a pain if you’re sitting on your couch to go into the settings and find what you want. So…

Flux Alfred Remote

Here is my Flux Remote app. I can disable it for an hour, until sunrise, for the current app, access the preferences, enable movie or darkroom mode, and even quit the app completely. Download it here.

Third came Flickr. I love Flickr, particularly browsing through other people’s photostreams and seeing their work. Problem is, I’d really love to do it sitting with a glass of whisky, with the pictures in high resolution glory on my big screen rather than on my laptop. Luckily, Flickr’s interface has some keyboard shortcuts built in. I used these to create…

Flickr Alfred Remote Control

Flickr Theatre. This is really simple at the minute, but it lets me load up a big stream of pictures, browse between them, zoom in on them if I want, view them in lightbox mode, and then add the ones I like as a favourite. Pretty basic, but in the future there are a whole load of other things that could be possible. Download it here.

Now on to something that is more along the lines of the ‘Alfred sidekick’ mindset that I mentioned above. I edit a lot of pictures, and I am terrible at remembering the shortcuts to open common things like Curves, Contrast, etc. No matter how often I use them, they just don’t stick. So I had an idea… why not create a dedicated Alfred remote page to control these?

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This is still a work in progress, so not online to download yet – but essentially I can keep my iPhone open at the side of the keyboard whilst editing pictures, and call up the tools I use frequently without having to worry about remembering their keyboard shortcut. Awesome.

These are just a few examples, and there are plenty more coming out all the time. I also use the built in iTunes control, and some others – but have chosen just to focus on the ones I’ve created specifically, as there is documentation out there on the rest. The Alfred community is alive and well, and the possibilities available by using workflows are pretty powerful. There have already been hints that future versions will contain more advanced features based on the feedback that has been received so far, so it’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

Where do I get it?

Currently the app is only available for iOS, but that should hopefully change in the future. It’s available for $4.99 on the App Store, or £3.99 in the UK.

To find out more, visit the Alfred Remote page.

Productivity Apps: Bookmarking with Shiori

Shiori

Bookmarking

Bookmarking. It’s something I’ve always struggled to find a good solution to. The in-browser features don’t really make it easy to quickly find common URLs, and I’ve tried to use other websites in the past, but they just didn’t seem to stick in my mind.

What I’ve Tried Before

The closest I’ve come to finding an answer is in Alfred, which I’ve blogged about before. There are a few different ways you can bookmark with Alfred, but I didn’t quite find that any of them matched what I was looking for.

First, I tried using the ‘web search’ feature to associate bookmarks with particular keywords. The problem with doing this though, is that you need to remember the exact keyword to call up the site you want. As as a result, it isn’t all that great for keeping track of lots of different locations.

Another solution was to use the Alfred Snippet Manager. This could be a really good solution, as you would be able to search by the title and description that you enter, as well as the content of the actual URL itself. However, if you already use the Snippet Manager for predefined replies – more like a clipboard manager – then having a large number of bookmarks in there could pollute the results, increasing the time it takes to find the things you need effectively.

I set out to find an alternative, and made use of my old Delicious account to create a workflow that could search through my bookmarks by making use of the private RSS feed. It worked, but was a bit clunky, and not as intuitive as I’d have liked. That meant that I didn’t ever really make use of it.

The real solution came in the form of a different app altogether…

Shiori

I stumbled upon Shiori completely by chance, and was surprised I hadn’t seen it mentioned anywhere before.

Both the website and the app itself are beautifully simple, and easy to use. You simply set it up to connect to a Delicious (free), Pinboard ($11 annually) account, or both. Call up the interface with a hotkey, and you can search through all of your bookmarks in an interface that is awfully similar in feel and operation to Alfred.

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The similarity isn’t a criticism, as Alfred is amazing. You can search via tag, words, or even abbreviation. Like Alfred, the more you use the app, the smarter it gets – picking up on the type of searches you use most commonly to find particular bookmarks. Because it uses your login details (and doesn’t just pull it from the RSS like my hacky method above), it’s really fast too.

There’s also a hotkey that can be set to bookmark new websites quickly from the browser. If you have Keyboard Maestro installed, Joseph Schmitt has created a pretty sweet workflow which you can assign to an additional hotkey. It takes the highlighted text and automatically adds it into the ‘notes’ field. More on Keyboard Maestro in a later post.

This type of bookmarking is often called ‘social bookmarking’, as they are largely designed to be public, to share with friends etc. I’m not really into that, and prefer to keep my URLs private. Shiori makes it easy to automatically tag new bookmarks as private, to avoid having to do it manually yourself every time.

You can add in certain domains (if you want to keep particular – ahem – websites – private), but if you stick in an asterix, it will capture them all.

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In summary, I love Shiori. The design is as nice as Alfred (and it works just as well), it arguably works better for bookmarks, and it helps keep things compartmentalised. Snippets are now assigned to one hotkey, Alfred another, and Bookmarks another.

Where can I get it?

You can download Shiori for free (yes, completely free) here.

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Productivity Apps: Hazel

Time for another look at one of the tools I’ve found that has come to be invaluable in staying productive whilst working online. That is ‘Hazel': a personal maid for your computer.

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CC Picture by ‘Robert Wade’

No, not that kind…

This kind:

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Hazel is the most wonderful sort of productivity app, because you just set it up, and let it go. It carries on quietly in the background making sure that your Mac is kept clean and organised without you having to worry about anything. It’s so good in fact, that I had forgotten most of the tasks I had designated Hazel to look after, and so had to go back in and check for writing this article.

So what is it for?

I used to always get criticised by colleagues for having a desktop cluttered with all sorts of files – the tech equivalent of having a messy bedroom. The reality was that the desktop was the first place to pop up in the save dialogue, and it was handy to drop things there for quick access. I tried everything to get it under control, including monthly clear outs, and apps like desk drawer… eventually I just hid the icons on the desktop completely, so at least nobody else would know that they were there. The shame.

Hazel takes repetitive tasks like clearing up your desktop, and does it for you automatically. Ever since I hired in her help, my laptop has been more organised than ever before.

How does it work?

Setting Hazel up couldn’t be much simpler. There’s no intrusive menu bar icon (unless you want there to be), and the app runs as from a straightforward preferences pane. Here’s what mine looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.22.18

You choose the folder or location on your computer where you want Hazel’s actions to take effect on the left hand side, and then in the right hand side you set up the sort of things you want Hazel to do.

What sort of things can you do?

Let’s take the top example from the above image for a closer look: ‘Move Screenshots to Pics > Screenshots’.

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I take a lot of screenshots throughout the day. Some of them are useless, and should be thrown away eventually, but others are quick notes, or things I want to hang on to for later reference. The default OSX behaviour is to place them on the desktop, which is convenient… at first. It can be a real pain to go through and move them all manually into a different folder. In the above image, you can see that I’ve set up different criteria. Basically if Hazel finds an image on the desktop that contains the words ‘Screen Shot’, it moves that file into a dedicated Screenshots folder under Pictures. That way I know where they all are, and periodically can go through them to see which ones I want to keep. The important thing is, they aren’t cluttering up my desktop, mixed in with all sorts of other guff.

Let’s say you don’t want to keep any of them indefinitely though. All you’re interested in is keeping the screenshots for the amount of time it takes to upload them online somewhere. No problem. Head on back to the main Hazel screen, create a folder grouping on the left for the Screenshots folder, and then create a new action to tell Hazel what to do with them:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.28.59

There’s all sorts of things we can have Hazel do here. In this case, if the screenshots have been added more than a week ago, we can get Hazel to Move them to the trash, or maybe Sort them into a subfolder named ‘old’, or archive them… or add tags to remind us to go back and clear them out. There’s all sorts of possibilities.

What’s even cooler is the level of gradation you can get in the timescales:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.31.47

You can get pretty specific about when, to make sure you target exactly the files you want.

What do YOU use it for?

Here’s an idea of the things that Hazel does for me:

  • Launches downloaded torrent files, and throws them away afterwards
  • Moves all downloaded, compressed files (zip/rars) into a single folder after 1 day has passed
  • Moves all downloaded RTF, DOC, DOCX, and TXT files into a ‘Misc Documents’ folder in ‘Documents’ after 1 day has passed
  • Moves all downloaded DMG files into a dedicated folder after one day has passed, and then deletes them from there once they get over a month old
  • Moves all downloaded app files into the ‘Applications’ folder (something I always forget!)
  • Moves all downloaded PDF files into a dedicated ‘Misc PDF’ folder under ‘Documents’ after 1 day has passed
  • Organises GIF, JPG, PNG, and PDF files into appropriate folders away from the Desktop
  • Deletes incomplete downloads that are aged from before this quarter

I also make use of the handy Trash settings:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.46.48

The above is pretty self explanatory, but essentially it means that I hardly ever have to look at the Trash again.Oh, and the secure deletion option is pretty sweet. Not just restricted to Trash, Hazel can also keep an eye out for when I delete Apps, and offer to clean up the residual files that get left behind. If you later change your mind, and reinstate the application after deleting it, Hazel will offer to reinstall all of the associated preferences files for you!

Hazel keeps things ticking over, without me needing to worry about the little details in life.

But wait, there’s more…

Up until now I’ve really only scraped the tip of the iceberg with what Hazel can do. What I haven’t mentioned is that one of the actions that can be performed is to run an AppleScript or Automator workflow. This means that there are plenty of fairly complicated ways you can make use of Hazel if you sit down and take the time to work out the sort of tasks that would be helpful to your specific workflows. You are only really limited to your imagination (or the extent of AppleScript, anyway).

Here are some examples:

  • Set up a dedicated ‘resizing’ folder, where any images that get dropped in will be resized by Hazel and spat out to a subfolder.
  • Get Hazel to organise different files into different places based on coloured ‘flags’, like learning to ignore certain files from deletion if they are flagged ‘green’.
  • Organise PDFs saved from specific websites into dedicated folders. For example, if you download your payslips every month, Hazel can analyse the source and make sure they get put automatically into the right place.
  • Look out for e-mails from designated people, and send them to a particular Evernote project.

If you come up with any cool workflows, I want to hear from you.

How much and where!?

I know, I know. You want to employ Hazel right now. It’s understandable. You can get a free 14 day trial, or dive right in for a cost of $29 from Noodlesoft here.