Using Reminders to get better at Omnifocus

This might seem redundant: I’m using one task management tool (the reminders app built into iOS) to help me improve my usage of another(Omnifocus).

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Part of this has to do with the ‘blessed’ status of Reminders: as one of the built-in apps (a peer of Mail, Calendar, and Contacts) its basically always up-to-date. Omnifocus, on the other hand, needs to be open to sync. If a task is due at 5pm, and I check it complete from my Mac at 3pm, I’ll still get pop-up reminders on my iPad and iPhone until Omnifocus is updated.

My intention is for these reminders to be temporary- these are simply habits I want to build. Where my task management has been failing me lately is in these transition contexts: things I want to do or take with me when I leave in the morning, or leave work, or on the weekends when my schedule is more complex than “work” and “home”

Github + EC2: Integration Opportunities

Before the holidays, I was tasked with creating the first iteration of a tool that allows our developers to spin up their own private servers, in our Amazon Virtual Private Cloud. In my first sketch of the idea, I called it “Thinglauncher” and (to my delight and coworkers chagrin) they name has stuck.

Meanwhile, we are nailing down our installation of Github Enterprise– a behind-the-firewall version of Github.com, with all the things that make Github useful: code repositories, gist, wiki’s, and social features. Trust me, It’s awesome.

What follows are some ways the two systems work together.

Authentication

One of my first thoughts was: this new launcher tool should use Github as an login mechanism– it avoids two kinds of authentication pain that I’ve dealt with:

  • Making users remember a new password
  • and the alternative, making me figure out how to authenticate against something like  ActiveDirectory

Win, win. See also the “oauth as identity” section of How Github uses Github to build Github.

Key management

When you create a (linux) EC2 instance, you specify an SSH public key, which gets added to the authorized_keys file on the newly created server. As long as the corresponding private key is installed on your workstation, you’ll be able to log in.

Github uses SSH keys as well– once you add your public key to your Github account, you’re able to push and pull code from any workstation that has your private key. The Github API also exposes your SSH keys. This means that an app that authenticates against Github, can also grab a users public keys via the API. If what your app does is launch EC2 instances, the key can be grabbed from Github and used to launch the EC2 instance. You’ve allowed your user to log in to the newly created instance without making them create a new password or new SSH key.

More key management

If we are in fact creating servers for development work, then the servers need to be able to push and pull code to and from Github. We could expect users to do the whole ssh-keygen dance for each server, or to remember to upload their private key to each server they create. No fun, right?

After some digging, I found a handy recipe for generating new key pairs in Python. The first time a user creates a server, a new key is created and stored behind the scenes. The server template (What Amazon calls an “AMI”) we’re using includes Ubuntu’s CloudInit bootstrapping system. The new private key is installed in the users SSH configuration, and the public key is added to the users list of keys in Github. Users can log in to the new server, and push and pull to github just like they can on their local machine.

Code checkout during provisioning

There’s not much magic here: When the user creates a server, they can specify a repository and branch name that get checked out to the users home directory on the new server.

Server configuration in git

This part is a little magic. If the repository you checkout includes a file called ‘fabfile.py’ in the root folder, it assumes it’s a Fabric script, and runs it against your new server. This can be used to further customize the server for the code you want to run. For example, if you’re developing a wordpress theme, Fabric can be used to install PHP, MySQL, the libraries that integrate the two, wordpress itself, and import a wordpress database.

I hate to use the word “synergy”, but…

It was striking to me how all these nice integration points appeared. Whenever I scratched my head about how to solve a particular problem, the answer was usually “use this feature of Github” or “that feature of EC2”. I’m sure there are more that I haven’t discovered, yet.

This should all get less abstract, soon: we’re working on our process and policies to open source (really, public domain) all of our code, and releasing Thinglauncher is on the roadmap.

ifttt.com is how the internet should work

If you had reason to divide technology users into two groups, those who are curious enough to look behind the curtain and figure out how things can be made to work better, and those who aren’t– I can think of no better line than the humble email filter. Tinkering with email rules isn’t rocket science (or even computer science), but it marks a person as belonging to a certain tribe. Lets call them People Who Think The Computer Should Be Working Harder.

ifttt.com (If This Then That) is for people who think the Internet should be working harder. It’s basically the same principal as email filters: instead of applying rules to incoming emails, you assign them to particular triggers– which could be a Craigslist search, incoming Facebook messages, new posts to an RSS feed, photos on Instagram or Flickr, videos on YouTube or Vimeo, and any of dozens of other triggers– even email. Triggers are grouped by source, called a “channel”.

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Most of the channels can also be the destination of an action. For example, here are some tasks I use:

  • Send posts from the CFPB blog to Instapaper (I figure it’s probably good practice to read the stuff my employer publishes)
  • When ever there’s a new post to the official Django blog, email me– these are most often security updates.
  • Longreads is a great source of good (and, long) articles. I like sending those to Instapaper, too.

As you can see, I’ve barely scratched the surface– I could be doing a lot more with this. Here are a few some contrived examples, mostly for fun:

  • Post to Twitter, every time I “love” a track on Last.fm
  • Whenever I post a new Facebook status, post it to LinkedIn as well. Or Tumblr. Or Posterous. Or WordPress.
  • Every time I send an email attachment to a certain address (provided by ifttt), save it to my Dropbox account.
  • Send me an email whenever someone is selling a particular item on craigslist.

Explore it yourself, and I think you’ll find several examples of ways it can make the web more useful for you. This is one of those sites that I wish I could pay for. What they do is so useful, I hope they find a way to make it sustainable. It’d be a shame for it to go away.