Ubiquitous Capture Roundup

Ideas can vanish as quickly as they take shape, so the ability to capture them right away is a critical part of both one's creative process and overall productivity.

I've tried many ubiquitous capture systems (a key component of David Allen's Getting Things Done), but I've yet to settle on just one. As such, I'd like to explore the pros and cons of several systems here.

Note: This article is about capturing ideas and thoughts. It is not about bookmarking things on the Internet or saving articles to read later. I have separate systems for those things. (See: Yojimbo and Instapaper, respectively.)

On My iPhone

Many capture tools are iPhone apps. My iPhone is always within arm's reach, so in many ways it's the ideal ubiquitous capture device. These are the capture-capable apps I currently use, with varying degrees of frequency.

  • OmniFocus: The powerhouse of to-do apps, OmniFocus features an omnipresent quick capture button. This feature allows you to add an item to the app's Inbox at any time, even when syncing data. As I mentioned in my home screen app roundup, I don't love OmniFocus. It's loaded with features, but its utilitarian design and lack of personality make it feel very cold. It's not fun to use, although I know many can't live without it. I suppose they would argue that a task manager isn't supposed to be fun, but regardless, I rarely feel compelled to open the app, even to capture an idea. I've thought about switching to Things, but its update cycle makes me hesitant, and I'm not sure I even need such heavyweight to-do apps at this point in my life. App Store: $19.99

  • Mail: I keep my inbox at zero, so if there's something in there, it means I have something I need to take care of. Sending myself an email is a decent way to make sure I don't forget about an idea because I look at my inbox throughout the day. But, emailing myself is a cumbersome process: tap Mail, tap Compose, type email address, type subject, type message, tap Send. Too clumsy for my taste.

  • Noted: This app solves the problem with using Mail for ubiquitous capture, which is a lack of speed. When you open Noted, you're presented with a blank text field. You type, hit Send, and the message automatically gets delivered to your email address. That's it. Noted does one thing very well. Currently, I keep Noted in a folder on my third screen, so it's not the easiest app to access. I could move it, but I question how necessary it is for my capture system to involve email. App Store: $1.99

  • Notesy: A beautiful and feature-rich notes app, Notesy replaced the default Notes app on my iPhone long ago. It syncs via Dropbox, and it's very reliable. I use it to keep running lists, or to take notes if I ever find myself in a meeting. Notesy opens in the same state you left it, so if that's somewhere you don't want to capture your idea, you'll have to back up a screen and select a different/new note. App Store: $4.99

  • Clear: A beautiful, musical, and innovate to-do list app, Clear is quite wonderful. It occupied a spot on my home screen for a while, but I've since moved it to screen two. List items in Clear can only be a handful of words long, so it's not great for capturing complex ideas, but adding things to lists is quick and easy via its gesture-based UI. I use this app for running lists as well, such as books to read and gift ideas. It's better suited for capturing brief to-do items than it is for remembering complicated thoughts. App Store: $1.99


In the last week or two, a few new capture apps have come onto the scene.

  • Drafts:. Like Noted, Drafts always opens to a blank note, which lets you start typing right away. Several smart folks (including Dave Caolo, Stephen Hackett, Ben Brooks, and Federico Viticci) have all had positive things to say about Drafts. After watching the video on their website, I have to say Drafts looks mighty useful, particularly due to the array of actions you can take once you've captured your idea. You can tweet, email, and copy text easily, and it supports Markdown syntax, previewing, and exporting to email. I don't love the icon, but I must admit Drafts seems like a great app, and one that was specifically designed for ubiquitous capture. It doesn't have sync yet, and there's no iPad app, but I might be willing to overlook those shortcomings. App Store: $0.99

  • Pop: The first offering from Patrick Rhone's brand new development team, Minimal Tools, Pop is like Drafts, but without all the features. That's not a bad thing, as the Minimal Tools philosophy is: "Feature number one should always be as few features as needed to perform the primary purpose." I dig that mindset. Write, Read, and Copy All are the only features you'll find in Pop. It truly is a digital piece of paper. Plus, it's got a ballsy icon. App Store: $0.99

  • Dropkick: A simple and elegant to-do list app, the full Dropkick suite for Mac, iPhone, and iPad will only cost you twelve bucks. It syncs over the Internet and looks like a great, few-features to-do system. Again, it seems better suited to capturing tasks than ideas, but it could be a great option for those who just want lists of tasks with checkboxes. App Store: Free, with an in-app purchase for full functionality.

Old School

Sometimes, it feels good to write with a pen and paper. Despite my atrocious (and worsening with age?!) handwriting, I keep a pen and scratch pad on my desk so I can scrawl ideas, thoughts, and to-dos immediately while I'm at my computer. This works very well, because when I get an idea, I don't have to wonder about which app I want to use to capture it. I just jot it down and go back to what I was doing. I highly recommend keeping a blank notepad next to your computer for this reason.

I've also just recently started carrying a small notebook with me at all times, for when I feel like writing something down by hand.

There are two components to capturing ideas longhand:

The Pen

At my desk, I prefer writing with the Pilot G2 0.38mm in black ink. (I don't acknowledge blue pens.) I used to use the 0.7mm, but my handwriting is too messy for such a thick line. The difference between the two is drastic. Obviously, the 0.38mm has a much thinner line, but it also has a scratchier feel, which I wasn't sure of at first, but I've grown to love it. However, my yoga studio uses the 0.5mm, and I always love writing with it, so I might try a happy medium in the future.

The problem with pens is carrying them in your pocket. While I often have a backpack with me, I don't always, and so into the pocket the everyday-carry pen must go.

I'm wary of putting anything extraneous in my pockets. I throw out most receipts immediately, and spare change always goes into my piggy bank or my car's center console. If I'm going to disrupt my pocket-carry system (iPhone front-left, wallet back-right, keys front-right), it better be because of something awesome.

The Fisher Space Bullet Pen is pretty awesome. Designed by Paul C. Fisher, it promises to write anywhere and everywhere, even in zero-gravity, underwater, or in extreme temperatures. When closed, it measures just 3.75 inches — perfect for a pocket. When open, it's a standard 5.25 inches. Despite its size, it has an impressive weight to it. That's what she said. The Fisher Space Pen writes very smoothly, although not like the Pilot G2. It feels more like a (shudder) Bic pen to me, but I might not be used to it given the scratchiness of the 0.38mm G2. The Fisher Space Pen is refillable, and people claim to go a full year on a single ink cartridge. I think the pen comes with the medium point by default, so I'm going to try the fine point for my first refill to see if it makes a difference. Special thanks to Patrick Rhone for introducing me to the Fisher Space Pen via this post on his daily pens.

The Paper

Obviously, you can't carry a full-sized notepad in your pocket, and I'm reluctant to put a napkin in my pocket (gross) regardless of how brilliant an idea it may contain.

When it comes to pocket-sized notebooks, the two frontrunners are Moleskine and Field Notes. I have limited experience with Moleskines, and while they look very nice, they seem too thick and heavy, and too fancy to get beat up and sat on all day in a back pocket.

Field Notes, on the other hand, are made to be used and abused. You can get a three-pack for $9.95 (less than the price of one Moleskine), and they come in blank, lined, and graph paper varieties, as well as special edition colors and more. Field Notes are thin; they have just forty-eight pages, which is plenty for jotting things down. Field Notes are also made in the USA, which feels good.

I ordered a three-pack of lined Field Notes a while ago, and I still haven't filled them up yet. I think my next pack will be graph paper, as it allows you to write both horizontally and vertically. Not that my handwriting adheres to lines of any sort, but you know.

A Perfect Ubiquitous Capture System?

Together, the Fisher Space Bullet Pen and Field Notes make a great on-the-go capture system. I've only been carrying them for a few days (pen front-right, paper back-right, for now), so I'm going to stick with it and see how it goes.

At the end of the day, I still haven't decided which ubiquitous capture system I'm going to use longterm. But, it's great to have options, and hopefully this has elucidated some of them for you. If and when I settle on one, I'll be sure to update you.

The ability to capture ideas quickly and without friction is very important. If you've never thought about developing your own ubiquitous capture system, I highly suggest you try it. Your brain is full of stuff; don't trust it to remember all of its brilliant ideas.

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Byword: Love at First Type

As I tweeted yesterday, I have always written everything for Quarter-Life Enlightenment in Byword.

The fine gentlemen at Metaclassy just released Byword as a universal iOS app yesterday, so I thought it time to pay my respects to my favorite text editor.

Regarding Preferences

The minimalist writing app market is incredibly rich, but for me, Byword has always maintained just the right balance of features and simplicity. There are preferences, but there aren’t that many. Choose your font, column width, and whether you want a light or dark background, but otherwise, you won’t find much to fiddle with here.

Ben Brooks, however, disagrees:

I don’t dislike Byword for any one reason — I dislike it because it doesn’t work for me because of the fact that I am a tinkerer and using an app that I can tinker with, when I want to focus, is a truly bad idea.

Of course, having options doesn’t make Byword a bad app, and I know that’s not what Ben is saying. It’s the responsibility of the writer to have the self-discipline to “set it and forget it” when it comes to preferences. Ben’s text editor of choice, iA Writer, famously has zero preferences. For him, no preferences is best because it helps him do the work.

I, on the other hand, love going through preferences. Usually, the first thing I do when trying a new app is look for the Settings button. I like to customize the app to my liking, and when it comes to text editors, I think there’s value in being able to choose, for example, your font size. If I find an app aesthetically and functionally pleasing, I’m more likely to use it. Preferences allow me to tailor an app to my needs, thus increasing its aesthetic value or functionality for my experience using it.

Once I’ve set my preferences, I generally have no problem forgetting about them. Once in a while I’ll try a new font or something, but otherwise, I set it and forget it. But, that’s just me, and some may find Byword’s modest preferences to be too much.

My Writing Workflow

As of this moment, I’ve done very little long-form writing on my iOS devices. I have no desire to type hundreds of words with my thumbs on my iPhone, and while I can type at a pretty good clip on the iPad, I encounter friction when it comes to managing my documents. Allow me to explain.

I write articles on my Mac in Byword using Markdown syntax. Once an article is ready to be posted, I log into my Squarespace account and copy and paste the text into a New Post field. Then I schedule the publish time and date, hit Save, and I’m done.

Everything I write gets stored in Dropbox. QLE posts are all saved in the QLE folder. This way, I have everything I’ve ever published in one place, and it’s all safely backed up via Dropbox.

When trying to write on an iOS device, the friction I’ve encountered heretofore stems from knowing where the document is and getting that document into the QLE folder. On my iPad, for example, if I write a post in PlainText, it gets saved to my Dropbox in the PlainText folder. I then have to move the file to its proper place whenever I get back to my Mac, assuming I remember to do so.

Now, yes, most apps with Dropbox support allow you to change the Dropbox destination folder. But, some don’t, and they might rely on iCloud or some other syncing service.

My problem with writing on iOS is that I’ve never felt like I had a good sense of where my document is. For example, in Phraseology for iPad, my documents are in the Phraseology app, and to get them out, I need to export them, or email them to myself, or… something.

I’m not saying these apps don’t offer solutions to my consternation, but they’ve never “just worked” when it comes to my writing workflow. They’ve never fit perfectly right out of the box. They’re all great apps with great features, for sure, but the thought of using them to write usually makes me wince rather than tap and start writing.

Until Byword.

My Desktop Workflow on the Go

I’m not going to spend a lot of time telling you about Byword’s features or interface. (See Shawn’s and Viticci’s excellent reviews.) It’s simple, clean, and beautiful, with just enough options to make it your own. I love how it looks and works on my Mac, and the new iOS versions are no different.

Byword for iOS has created the mobile writing workflow I didn’t even know I was looking for.

When I opened Byword on my iPhone for the first time, I was given the choice between iCloud and Dropbox for syncing. I use Dropbox because it lets me know where my files are: in a folder on my Mac, which is backed up to the cloud. If I need a document, I know where to go to get it. With iCloud, documents are in the app… but I feel like I can’t get to them outside of that app. They’re somewhere in iCloud, but I can’t “touch” them, so to speak. They’re isolated to the app itself, and I can only work with them there. I believe this is what Merlin was talking about when he expressed his concern about iCloud.

Now, I do use iCloud for contacts, calendars, bookmarks, and more. It’s great. But, my writing is too precious for me to not know exactly where things are. That’s just me. I do hear that iCloud sync works beautifully in Byword, and even slightly faster than Dropbox sync.


After choosing Dropbox as my sync preference, Byword automatically created a Byword folder in my Dropbox where new documents would be saved. I changed the folder to my QLE folder, and in seconds, all 259 files were visible in a clean, beautiful list. The kicker was that, by default, the list was organized by Date Modified, so I could see all of my posts in chronological order, which is so much more useful than alphabetical order. Tap on a post, and there it was, just as if I’d opened it via the Finder on my Mac.

The best part though, is that if I type a new document on one of my iOS devices, it gets saved right to my QLE folder alongside every other post I’ve written. Now, no matter what device I write on, the document goes right where it’s supposed to go. I don’t have to worry about it.

I’m sure other apps can be configured the same way, but for me, Byword just rocked my face off from minute one. The interface is gorgeous and offers just what I need — no more, no less. Byword is reliable; I feel like I can trust it. I also love being able to use the same app across all three devices. It just feels good.

No longer do I feel any friction when writing on an iOS device. When I want to write, I can pick up my iPhone, iPad, or Mac. In all three cases, I open Byword, write, and things get saved to my QLE folder in Dropbox. I feel like a whole world of mobile writing has opened up now that I always have Byword — my writing weapon of choice — by my side.

Actually Writing on iOS

Patrick Rhone has infamously been writing long-form pieces — like a-thousand-words long — on his iPhone using the onscreen keyboard. I was among the skeptical as to how it could be done, but with Byword, I can finally see it.

This entire post, which Byword tells me is currently 1,309 words, was written on my iPhone in landscape mode, with my feet up on my desk. Just my two thumbs and me.

It actually feels really good. Byword’s Markdown shortcuts make block quotes, parentheses, brackets, etc. relatively painless. The biggest annoyance is switching to Safari, going to a web page, and copy/pasting a URL you need for a link. Otherwise, it’s quite pleasant.

Will I be writing on my iPhone or iPad on a regular basis? Maybe, but probably not. I’m still much faster on my Mac, of course. Then again, the slower pace is kind of nice. Either way, it’s great to know that when I’m away from my Mac, my preferred writing environment is right in my pocket, if and when I need it. With Byword, I can definitely see myself starting articles on the go, when the mood strikes, rather than jotting down ideas in Notesy and waiting until I get back to my Mac to actually write.

Love at First Type

I get excited when my favorite apps are updated or when something new and great comes out, but I’m particularly passionate about Byword. It’s my style. It just clicks with me, and the new iOS apps are no different. I can’t wait to see how the app progresses.

I can honestly say that without, Byword, this website might not exist as it does today. Byword makes me want to write. For a writer, such an app is truly priceless.

You can buy Byword on the Mac App Store for $9.99 and on the App Store for a special introductory price of $2.99.

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Should You Put a Case On Your iPhone?

Dave Caolo, of 52 Tiger fame, has noted that Gizmodo wants us to stop ruining our phones with stupid cases. Writes Jamie Condliffe:

It’s time to lose your cover for good, and let your phone roam free, nude, as nature intended.

I have no love for Gizmodo, and while I disagree with the tone of Condliffe’s article — even though it bears the site’s “Rant” tag — I also don’t use a case on my phone. I frequently discuss the issue with fellow iPhone users, so I thought I’d lay out my thoughts here.

On my iPhone 3G and my current iPhone 4, I’ve used a handful of cases with varying degrees of intensity. I started with the tank-like Otterbox Defender on my 3G, which can supposedly withstand being run over by a truck. Eventually, I realized this case was overkill, and over time I settled at the opposite end of the spectrum with the minimalist Incase Snap. This case offered little more than scratch protection, but it felt good.

When my Incase Snap cracked, I replaced it with what turned out to be (according to reviews) a knockoff from Amazon, which was made of a different material and didn’t fit properly. Well, no iPhone of mine wears a knockoff case, so I decided to go try going without. I haven’t used a case for probably six months now, much to the shock and awe of my friends and family members.

In retrospect, I believe my progression from indestructible to minimalist cases helped grant me the confidence to let my iPhone go naked. When it came time to ditch my phony Incase Snap, I asked myself, “How much protection is this case really providing anyway?” In other words, going from a very thin case to no case at all wasn’t much of a leap. If you’re contemplating going sans-case, might I suggest moving to a thinner case first as a stepping stone.

But that brings us back to the original issue and Gizmodo’s article: why would you want to go without a case?

Let’s take a look at Gizmodo’s three points. The first is that “it’s unnatural”:

Putting a case on your phone is a little like painting your Ferrari with rust-proofing paint, then wrapping it in burlap. Sure, you’re less likely to scratch it. But you obscure every beautiful detail of the bodywork. “It’s sensible,” you say. Lies. It’s not more sensible. It defeats the point of designing the phone in the first place.

There’s a valid point here. The iPhone 4/4S is a beautiful device, no question about it. Much of this beauty is due to the glass screen and back, which consequently give it a fragile feel. I’m not going to go into the technical specifications of the type of glass Apple uses, but what it comes down to is showing off your beautiful device versus protecting your prized possession. If you drop things a lot, a case might in fact be the “sensible” option. That’s up to you, not Gizmodo.

Personally, “showing off” isn’t the reason I don’t use a case. While it does look better, it also feels better. Holding a bare iPhone after using a case for a long time is pretty amazing. If you haven’t taken your case off in a while, try it, and remember how the device is supposed to feel, if only for a moment. That being said, there are some wonderfully grippy cases out there that feel great in the hand. Still, I prefer the feel of a naked iPhone. Giggity.

Side Note: You might wonder why I use a Smart Cover on my iPad if I prefer having nothing on my iPhone. While I do prefer the feel of my iPad 2 without it (considerably thinner), the Smart Cover was designed by Apple specifically for that device. It doesn’t just add protection with minimal bulk. It also provides increased functionality as a stand and sleep/wake mechanism. If Apple came up with a Smart Cover equivalent for the iPhone, I’d probably jump on it.

Gizmodo’s second reason is that “it’s not worth it”. They say you’re going to upgrade to new phone in a couple of years, and any scratches only reduce the resale value by what a case would have cost anyway. Plus:

But remember that a few knocks along the way add character. Those little scratches will remind you of things that actually happen in your life. I have a ding in mine from when I walked into a wall drunk. That was a good night. I like that it reminds me of it.

But then, maybe things don’t actually happen in your life, given you spend so much time worrying about protecting your damn phone.

If you need to damage your phone to remember your drunken escapades, you might take a step back and reevaluate. Perhaps consider the Camera app. But anyway, ignore the quoted douchebaggery here for a moment, and let me say what could have cut this response down by about a thousand words:

Whether or not a case is “worth it” is a matter of personal preference. If it helps you sleep at night, by all means, get one. If you think it’s a waste of money, don’t buy one. It’s very simple. There’s no reason another person’s decision about their phone should cause you personal angst.

A $40 case is an expense, for sure, but if you’re accident-prone, it’s probably worth it for you. I will say, however, that I’ve treated my iPhone 4 better since removing the case. When it’s not covered in plastic and rubber, I remember that I’m holding a beautiful, $300 piece of technology. I’m more mindful when using it. I rarely even toss it on the couch or my bed.

My phone is usually in one of four places: in my front left pocket (alone… keys go in the front right pocket, wallet goes in the back right) with the screen facing my leg; in the center holster of my car; on the flat surface next to me; or in my hand. When my iPhone is in transit between these locations, I’m very aware of where it is. I always put my phone in my pocket before getting out of the car. I usually put it down on top of a book or legal pad if I’m at my desk, and I make sure the surface doesn’t have crumbs or other abrasive materials. These are habits I’ve built since going case-less. It’s not to say accidents don’t happen, but being consistently mindful has helped me reduce the risks and feel confident about having a naked iPhone.

On to Gizmodo’s third and final point:

A quick survey reveals that every phone in the Gizmodo office is nude. That’s right; we’re not just talk. Our phones run naked and free, as nature intended, and haven’t yet had occasion to regret it. Neither will you.

“Our final reason for being anti-case is that none of us use cases.”

All right.

A phone case is a matter of personal preference, and thus my point is two-fold.

First, the preference. If you’re going to be stressed out carrying $300 worth of unprotected technology around in your pocket, do get a case. The forty bucks is worth the peace of mind. On the other hand, I happen to think it’s worth learning how to live without a case. It’s nothing to be scared of. It just takes a bit of mindful practice. I’ve no interest in forcing anyone to adopt my point of view, although I’m happy to share it.

Which brings me to the personal: You worry about you and your phone. I’ll worry about me and mine.

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How I Remove Friction from Writing

Aaron Mahnke has a great post on Frictionless Writing:

Any place I can find friction, and remove it, is an area of my life or business that I can push closer to my goals. So naturally, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to smooth my processes and methods for doing things. And my writing time is no different. Over the years I have gathered a number of helpful tips for making the writing process as smooth and frictionless as possible

I think about this concept often. As I wrote in a recent post, the easier it is to start writing, the better the chance of writing actually taking place. Writing could be as simple as opening a new document on your computer, but sometimes even that seems like a lot of work. So the goal is to make that process as simple as possible. For example, I use Alfred to launch Byword (a very frictionless text editor) in just a couple of keystrokes. It's easier than going down to my dock or into the Finder to double click on an application. Those few seconds often make a big difference.


Aaron divides his frictionless writing process into three areas, the first of which is Capture. After reading Getting Things Done by David Allen, I realized how important it is to be able to capture any idea — no matter how small — in the moment. It frees you from trying to remember things, which keeps your brain clear, calm, and relaxed.

My iPhone is always within arm's reach, so I often capture ideas in Omnifocus or Notesy. I also just started playing with Noted!, an app I found via Patrick Rhone. It lets you instantly type and email a note to yourself, which works well for me. I keep my inbox empty as much as possible, so if there's something in there, it means something needs my attention. I'll often email a tweet to myself if it contains a link I don't have time to check out at the time. I'm always going to check my email, so putting things there is a good way to ensure I don't miss anything.

I bought my first pack of Field Notes late last year. They're great, but I haven't yet developed the habit of carrying one with me all the time. I'm torn between keeping my pockets empty and being able to jot something down freehand. Carrying a notebook also means carrying a pen, so I have to give it some more thought. I'm leaning towards carrying one though.

Speaking of writing freehand, I also keep a scratchpad next to my computer, which is great for capturing random thoughts, making lists, and outlining posts while I'm at my desk.

I usually get ideas when I'm reading my RSS feeds in Reeder. I always get my feeds down to zero every couple of days, so when I come across something that I want to link to/write about, I just keep it unread until I have time to do so.


Management, Aaron's second aspect of frictionless writing, is probably my least systemized. All of my writing for this website is stored in a single folder in Dropbox. Link posts are named in a "Link - Author Title" format, while my original pieces are named with their title.

Now that I think about it, practically everything on my computer is stored in Dropbox. I've yet to setup a proper backup solution, but if my computer did spontaneously combust, all of my documents would be retrievable via Dropbox. My passwords and software information is stored in 1Password, and most of my apps are from the Mac App Store and easy to redownload. All of my music is kept on an external hard drive and is synced with iCloud/iTunes Match. I'm not a huge picture or video guy, but I suppose I do need a backup plan for those. At some point, I'll buy a second external hard drive and make copies with SuperDuper. According to DaisyDisk, I'm only using 47 GB of my MacBook Pro's 250 GB hard drive, and I could probably stand to clear some stuff out. Good to know when buying my next Mac.


Aaron concludes with the importance of Prioritization:

So after finding the best method for capturing your ideas, and building the right system for managing all of it, the final key is to install a sense of urgency and priority around our ideas. To grow as a writer, it is important to write. And it is easier to sit down to write with a nicely collected tome of ideas and sketches than it is when you can’t remember the great ideas you know you’ve lost.

This is something I've been trying to focus on in the new year, especially as I try to write more original pieces for the site. Writing something of my own Monday through Friday is a challenge, but the thrill of hitting Publish and sharing it with others is incredibly rewarding and worth it. But, my publishing goal also means I can't afford to skimp on my capture or management systems. If my system makes it easy to lose ideas, writing becomes much harder. Any stray thought could develop into a great idea, which could turn into a strong post. As such, I need to minimize the risk of losing my ideas by being able to capture and manage my thoughts quickly and easily.

The systems I have in place seem to be working pretty well so far, but I'll undoubtedly continue to tinker and refine them as time goes on. Writing is hard work, so like Aaron, my biggest focus is to make it as frictionless as possible. The easier it is to get ideas out of my head and onto my computer screen, the more likely others will get to read them.