True Confessions, or My Palm and I

Palm Tungsten EFor the past week, I've been using a Palm again. (Pause for effect, let the gasps of the audience subside.) It's true, I swear: not a word of a lie. And it's given me pause for thought.

You may have tripped across my Hipster PDA kit and remarked with some degree of shock that I do indeed carry a Palm, a wireless keyboard, and earbuds in my bag. But it was mainly as a way to read news, carry encrypted documents, or listen to MP3s or audiobooks: I ceased using a Palm as an organiser about 18 months ago, when I switched to paper.

Just to put things into perspective, I've owned five or six Palm handhelds over the years, all the way back to an original Palm Pilot and Palm Pilot II. And I wasn't just an occasional user... I pushed each one to its limits through my work and play. In fact, for a job I had last year, I used to sync my Palm Tungsten E with two Mac boxes, a Windows box, and two Linux boxes, essentially to keep my data fairly consistent with whatever computer I was using at the time. Graffiti is second nature to me and has even affected my handwriting, and --at one point-- I even tried my hand at programming the little beasts. So you'd definitely call me a power user.

A little over a week ago, I needed to revisit a project I worked on a couple years ago, and it just so happened that all the data was stored in files on my Palm. As I was using it to retrieve and read through the material, I suddenly had pause for thought. What exactly did I see in the Palm? Why did I use it so heavily? At that point, I decided to try using it again for a week, to try to recapture some of my former portable geekiness.

In my absence, however, much like a lover spurned, my Palm has learned to hate me.

It started simple enough. After my first sync with my Powerbook in nearly a year, I noticed that both iCal and the Palm's datebook had many copies of most holidays and birthdays, including 5 Christmases, 5 Boxing Days, and 6 provincial holidays for Alberta. Hmmm. Okay, spend the better part of an hour deleting all the extraneous ones via iCal, including for all future occurrences. Sync again.

For some reason, all my contacts had their addresses set at "home", even if there were two of them (one for home, but one for work). To make matters worse, my Palm's contact entries seemed to contain strange non-printing characters that told certain lines to overlap previous ones. The first bit I could fix (only 400 contacts to go through), but the second required re-entering most of the phone numbers in manually. Hmph. I'll skip that one for now. Seems right on the "edit" screen, anyway.

All my tasks and memos no longer had categories, and many were there several times. Hmmm. Delete the extraneous. Delete all the categories. Sync. Create new categories on Palm. Set tasks and memos to categories. Sync.

After many hours of fixing things, I finally started using it again. I transferred a few dozen tasks from my paper planner, but had to pause half-way because my hand started to cramp. Appointments weren't a big problem, since I don't have many of them. I chose nice little icons for them, like tiny cars and tennis rackets and red blobbish things.

It was time to write a page or two of notes. I tapped and dashed the first paragraph in Graffiti, but my hand started to cramp again. I took out the Palm Wireless Keyboard and started typing. Cool. I remember why I liked it. The number keys require some weird shifting (they're doubled as letter keys), but other than that, it's quite a handy contraption, so long as you have somewhere flat to use it. The only problem is that my Documents To Go 6 tends to be rather slow for some reason, and each time I sync, it creates another copy of the file I'm working on, taking forever to do it (up to three minutes for a four-page document). Not sure what's up with that. Okay, let's just skip the word processing and write in the Memo application instead. Okay, that works. Sync, then print it out for review and marking up with my red pen. (Reviewing and revising is not an intuitive thing to do on a Palm.)

I soon ran into a friend who gave me some directions to the local U-Haul place, so the tech-savvy guy I am, I used the Notepad application to draw a little map. Unfortunately, the map resembled a blocky little scribbling with no discernible way of telling me which way to go (there's something there about Bonavista, or Bon Jovi, I think...). I jump into Memo again, and note the street names and turns. Okay, that works better. I'm yearning for an index card and a pen right about now.

Fast-forward three days: my week is up. I'm at a Tim Horton's coffee shop waiting for someone, and I reach into my gadget bad to haul out my Palm and a Hipster PDA. I spread the little cards across the table and for some reason I'm reminded of a conductor waving his baton at the various sections of his orchestra: his woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings. My calendar, next actions, waiting for, project cards, story ideas, checklists, references. I pick up the little Pilot G2 and it flies madly, moving a week's worth of productivity onto the cards in minutes, even taking the time to doodle and sketch ideas. My double-double is still piping hot when I finish.

But there's a strange and unaccountable feeling of having been unfaithful. It's strange, because... well... after all, these are just piles of cards and paper, right?

Did I recapture the lost geek, get my techno mojo rising? A little, I guess, but there was a very important lesson I learned through this little experiment. While the technical problems with syncing weren't insurmountable (just a lot of endless point-and-click work, done mainly while waiting in line-ups), the nature of the Palm has tended to stifle my free-form ideas and notes. I've done very little by way of creative thought in the past week: the well of my inspiration has been capped. Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with the ability of a handheld to help manage my contacts, meetings and tasks, but that's where the line seems to be drawn for me.

Thus my little Palm goes back to being an MP3 player and news reader. On the bright side, I did use the occasion to download and read the free Plucker version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. I'd much rather I had my dead-tree version handy, though....

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Sounds familiar

Just like my personal experiences - if you don't sync on a regular basis (at least weekly) things go mad. I found that I'm a paper planner person. My iPaq is mainly for navigation (TomTom - that's what I bought it for), reminding me of recurring tasks and for reading and reference. No note-taking, no time-planning. Planning has to be on paper.

Imagination is intelligence having fun!

pda->paper

Hi Doug:

I have been using Palm Zire for my contacts for some time now. Yesterday, I had an, um, what we could describe as an 'incident' in the security world. I lost all my contacts. I sync up my pda only on a semi-regular basis - and I think I did lose some important contacts. I could get back some of them by rummaging through my organizer.

And then I read your post. I am now into heavy-duty thinking mode. I am seriously thinking of migrating completely to my classic planner. Lets see.

That was an excellent post by the way.

Happy Thanksgiving, all the way from India :)

Mouli