Getting Back Into Evernote

When I decided to put macOS back on the notebook a week or so back to remove some of the friction I was consistently rubbing up against when trying to work, I decided to also give Evernote another try. There was a time when the note application was my go-to resource. It was used extensively between 2011 and 2013 on the iPod Touches I had and, after getting an iPhone, the application became even more useful thanks to all the geo-tagging that could be done with the notes. Evernote was so much a part of my day-to-day life that the prototype version of 10Centuries was an Evernote-based blogging tool1. However, some time around 2015 the company started to change. The applications were slow, bloated, and too difficult to use on the phone. The desktop application did the job, but wasn't as good as previous versions as a result of a bunch of extra "chrome" that was added at the bottom of every note. By the autumn of that year, I uninstalled the software and let my premium account expire. The system just wasn't for me anymore.

The next couple of years weren't particularly great for digital note-taking. I tried OneNote and an array of alternatives that were all trying to be like Evernote, but none could solve the problems that I actually had. What I need from a note application is not at all revolutionary. In fact, Evernote did everything I needed and then some … but the applications were just hard to use. In 2017 I decided to give the service another try, installed the application on my phone, and almost instantly regretted it. My inbox was hit with a slew of spam from Evernote! They wanted to welcome me back. They wanted to offer a discount for a year of premium service. They wanted to let me know about new features. They wanted so much for me to centre my entire life around their service, which is not how notes work. Less than two hours after installing the application, I uninstalled it and added to the mail filter, sending everything automatically to trash.

Not having a decent digital note system is not an option anymore, though. An entire 150-page A5 book is filled with hand-written notes every five weeks for all the things I'm doing at the day job. Another one for 10C sees 15~20 pages written every week with ideas, bug analyses, data structures, and more. All of these things can remain in paper form and still be quickly referenced, but this still works out to over 1400 pages that I'm hand-writing every year just for development projects, not to mention client work and the various essays I've been working on that are in various states of completion.

Plain text files have been used, but don't easily support attachments or meta-data. Word processors like Microsoft's Word or LibreOffice's Write are overkill and do not have decent PDF OCR and indexing built-in. Try as I might, the best tool for the job since 2011 has been — in my mind — Evernote. So here I am with a trio of these …

Evernote's Squared Smart Notebook

This third time around has actually been quite positive. I'm not being inundated with spam. The applications on the tablet and desktop are actually pretty decent. The advertisements — for the moment — are minimal. I've even started scanning receipts and other documents into the service again, which is something I once did religiously in order to keep track of important things that needed to be quickly searchable later. For the most part, I'm enjoying the reduced friction that comes with using a tool that is wholly aligned with the things I need from a note management service.

My only hope is that the service continues to leave me alone while being dependable going forward. I'll get the premium account. I'll get the notebooks that make it easier to have hand-written notes and sketches get processed. I'll even learn to use Penultimate on the tablet with a stylus2. So long as the marketing engine doesn't get in the way of the service, it might just remain part of my digital toolbox for the foreseeable future.

  1. Quite literally. The only way to publish a post with Noteworthy is via Evernote.

  2. Much to Steve Jobs' chagrin, of course.

Another Bill To Pay

At one time I thought The Cloud would change things for the better. People would never again call me in a panic because their computer had crashed in a literal sense and all of their photos were stuck on a hard drive they could no longer access! Backups would be invisible and plentiful! Data that exists at home would also exist at work! The Cloud was going to free us from the hassles that come with being even mildly proficient at using a computer! Unfortunately, this is only half true.

iCloud Is Almost Full

Does The Cloud make things easier for just about everybody? Oh, yes. There's no doubt about that. Does it improve my productivity and general well-being? Most certainly. Is it cost effective? Hmm …

At the moment I currently pay Evernote, Dropbox, and Google for cloud services. If I don't want to change the way I use my tools, I will need to fork over another 1,700円 to get 15GB of storage with Apple, bringing my total annual cloud storage costs to 23,900円. This won't break the bank by any stretch of the imagination, but I do see a near future where I'm spending upwards of 50,000円 per year just for my own personal cloud storage.

I'd really much rather invest this money into storage devices that I own and operate from my house. There must be a better way to do this.

Dealing With Cloud Failures

Over the last twelve months how often have we seen cloud services go down? Amazon's AWS problems in their US East data center managed to take tens of thousands of services and websites offline. has seen issues at least once a quarter. Microsoft's Office 365 has recently had problems. As the Internet moves from IPv4 to IPv6 we'll likely see a number of other cloud providers go down, even if only for a few hours. Anyone who's worked in IT is likely painfully aware of how often our servers have gone down, be they local or otherwise, and how difficult it might be to keep them running for years at a time. If websites and services are supposed to be more failure resistant by being hosted in the ephemeral place that is the cloud, how can organizations look reliable when their offerings completely fall off the planet when a cloud provider fails?

People who use Amazon's AWS have the option to spread their services across multiple data centers. This isn't always the most cost effective solution, but it gets the job done. This is how I mitigate some of my employer's risk with our websites and API servers. However, as people start to experience or hear about terrible cloud failures, we're starting to see a new trend: the twin-cloud solution.

Two Clouds Are Better Than One?

Two CloudsA friend of mine has recently shared his experiences with me regarding Amazon's huge services failure. Everything his company did was through these servers. The corporate CMS, all of the websites, two crucial APIs, and all offline storage disappeared. His company, for better or worse, was thrown back to 1995 with sales staff using pens and notepads for several days to take orders and manage processes. For him, it was a month of anarchy. Even after the servers returned and people were able to access their systems again, his department was made responsible for "catching up", because none of the other people wanted to enter thousands of orders by hand.

Oh, fun!

To ensure this doesn't happen again in the future, he's asked the boss for a bit more money and has migrated the company's systems across two providers: Amazon and Rackspace. Round-robin DNS is used as a simple way to distribute visits between the two providers and, should one set of servers go down, the DNS record will be updated to remove the affected systems (though this could take a few hours to ripple across the web).

Not a bad solution, but what about the databases? To get around this, the company implemented a simple Master-Master replication across the two domains, but this would introduce some problems with latency as well as incur huge bandwidth costs between the providers.

It's not a perfect solution, but it is certainly one of them.

Going Forward

The idea behind cloud computing is certainly interesting, but there are still areas for improvement. What I'd like to see from a provider, be it Amazon or someone else, is the ability to have synchronized stand-by instances in another data center and a watcher service that monitors the health of operational units. Should a region fail, the stand-by units are brought online and take over. Load balancers are updated if necessary. DNS records are updated if necessary. The whole shebang. It should be completely transparent to the client, while simultaneously sending alarms to the people who maintain the servers.

This doesn't seem to be something that'll happen in the near future, though …

Tilana Reserve: Poor Man’s SourceSafe and Backup Friend

“What’s the diagnosis?” he asked with a touch of hesitation in his voice.
“Not good. I’m afraid that there’s not much we can do at this point,” the man in a white lab coat replied.
“You don’t mean ….”
“I’m afraid I do.” Knowing that the next words had to be chosen carefully, the professional continued. “The hard drive has seized, and we cannot recover any of the data. There is some good news, though. We can send it away for professional recovery.”
“How long will that take?”
“It depends on how busy the technicians are, but it generally takes about four weeks.”
“Four weeks without my files….” The initial shock from hearing the poor diagnosis was beginning to wear off. “Will they be able to recover everything?”
“I don’t want to make false promises. I really don’t know how much they can get back. So long as the insides are in good shape, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get the important files, though.”
“And it’s not something I can do myself, right?”
“I’ve never met a customer that could replace the motor in a hard drive, but it’s not impossible. That said, I can’t get just a motor. You’d have to find another one that will fit.”
Giving the idea some thought, the distraught man had just one more question. “How much will it cost to recover just my pictures, spreadsheets, and documents?”
“How much was there?”
“There are about 16 gigabytes of pictures, and a gigabyte of work files.”
“Ouch. You’d better ask the recovery company that question….”

Three weeks later, five DVDs of safely recovered data and the dead hard drive arrived at the man’s home by UPS along with a bill for $2,380. Not only was the painful high cost of recovery a slap in the face, but the loss of the remaining 200+ gigabytes of data added more insult to injury.

Data (Blue)At some point in our lives, we will lose some valuable data. This can happen in many ways, and there’s very little we can do to prevent every potential threat. Fire, flood, theft, a lapse in concentration followed by an unfortunate “Format” command … the list is endless. But one fact remains: we need to be prepared for data loss.

But do you have a backup plan in place?

I’ve mentioned several times that I am a backup freak. There is at least one backup for all of my data somewhere on the globe and, for the important stuff, there are occasionally two or three different places where these files are kept. This isn’t done because the files are super important, per se, but because these irreplaceable files will be undoubtedly used sometime in the future. We all have files like this: family photos, digital tax returns, old resumes, letters sent to various people … the list is truly endless. We can lose some of these things, but to lose them all would be a devastating loss that can often breed contempt for the weaknesses involved with moving our entire lives onto the digital stage.

So, if backing up is so important, what is the best way to go about it?

Taking Advantage of the Cloud

What Is Cloud Computing?One of my more expensive online backup contracts came up for renewal a few months ago and, rather than pay $140 for another years’ peace of mind, I decided to try Tilana Reserve. The company has been around for a good while and the reviews online seemed genuine enough that I wasn’t concerned about any unmarked paid reviews. The company offers an account with 2 Gigabytes of free storage for one year, and I decided to give them a quick trial to see if they could live up to my expectations for online backup companies.

They didn’t disappoint.

For the minimalistic price of nil, I was able to backup several computers using the same account. On top of this, it’s possible to synchronize folders across multiple computers so that each machine always has the most current version of a given file. This is especially important for me as I have two computers with my programming files. Now I can write some code while on the go with the AspireOne while simultaneously synchronizing the data with the file server at home. Should the unthinkable ever happen and my netbook is stolen, I can continue working with the files from the server and notice no real downtime. Another advantage of this feature is the ability for my wife and I to have synchronized copies of certain files, such as photos. We can specify which picture folders get shared and, whenever either of us upload new pictures from the camera, the other computer is automatically updated.

How simple is that?

Poor Man’s Alternative to SourceSafe?

Perhaps my favorite benefit, though, is related to the source code that I keep on my system. Before using Tilana Reserve, everything was kept in SourceSafe. While this is great for several reasons, such as showing the differences in files, it didn’t really work well with files outside of Visual Studio. Sure, I could open SourceSafe and check out a whole directory of SQL or PHP files then check them in when finished, but this didn’t really appeal to me as a great solution. I wanted something that could be integrated to the IDEs that I’ve come to know and love. On top of this, SourceSafe wouldn’t have a copy of every change made to a file between saves, only the changes made between Check-in and Check-out. So, it’s interesting to find that the Tilana software kills a few birds with one stone by automatically versioning the files and sending them to the cloud with each save. Not only can I save myself from losing time when not paying attention and saving a file overtop another file I had been working on with the same name, but I can quickly compare and recover versions of the file right from the desktop with a few clicks!

My occasional laziness will no longer be a problem in and of itself … hopefully.

Of course, I will continue to use SourceSafe for all of the code that I might write in Visual Studio, but I don’t think it will be necessary to check SQL or PHP files in and out every time I want to make some changes.

The Bottom Line

After just a few months of using the Tilana software, I was sold on just how easy and versatile cloud storage systems could be. I’ll be the first to admit that my previous archiving solutions were … well … archaic, but they did the job. Now that I want to protect files and share others while keeping them safe from catastrophes such as fire and earthquake, it only makes sense to improve the tools of the trade. In my case, it meant making a solid move to Tilana.

But how much will it cost? Each year of Tilana service will run under $50, which will include support for an unlimited number of computers. An account can have as much as 30 Gig of storage for the $50 price tag, and each additional gigabyte is $0.50. Not a bad deal, but I’m still a little reluctant to move my entire 4 TB storage needs over at that price. That said, this should be more than reasonable for anyone that wants to save under 100 GB of data.

You can give the Tilana software a try free of charge for one year, and I would definitely recommend it. Even if you already have a solid backup plan in place, there’s little to lose from giving these guys a try.

Do you use online backup companies? What do you think about sending your important files to an online backup company? I’d love to hear your thoughts.