Android

For want of a nail…

‘k, so in a previous post I wrote how I reworked my note-taking and went back to plain text. I had to make a few changes since then:

  • I couldn’t take the atrocious UI of Epsilon Notes any longer. Fucken’a. I just accessed my notes directly through the Nextcloud app and that worked well enough.
  • Vimwiki is working quite nicely, just wish it didn’t fuck with the filetype highlighting but the built-in works well enough. Better concealment of links would be nice too.

Switched out Epsilon for Markor, which is prettier and less of a pain in the ass. But trying to set it up is when I started running into an issue with Nextcloud:

It does not support bidirectional folder sync. At all.

The way Nextcloud syncs everything means you have to access your files through the Nextcloud app instead of being able to use your usual app to open a file. It’s not that much of a change but it does prove annoying because that change is forced on you by the application instead of you (the user) adjusting your workflow organically. People have been requesting this ability since 2016 and the app still doesn’t have it.

When I was using Dropbox as my syncing backend my workflow would be like this:

  1. Mark KeePass file as a favorite in Dropbox.
  2. Dropbox syncs the file to all devices so it’s available through the filesystem itself.
  3. As the file is now stored in a local filesystem you can now navigate to it as you usually would:
    • On desktop you can use a file manager to view the file and open it. Alternatively you can use KeePass to navigate to the file and open it.
    • On Android you can open your keepass app, navigate to the database file, and open it.
    • On iOS the same flow as Android applies.
  4. Should the file change Dropbox will sync it silently in the background to all devices. Password applications will notice the change and ask if you want to reload.

With Nextcloud it goes something like this:

  1. Mark KeePass file as a favorite in Nextcloud.
  2. Nextcloud will sync the file to desktop clients but only mark it as a favorite in mobile devices.
  3. You now have a split flow as the file will be available through the local filesystem on desktop but not on mobile:
    • On desktop you use a file manager, or use KeePass itself. Same UX as you would in Dropbox.
    • On Android you need to open the Nextcloud app, navigate to the database file and the OS will recognize the filetype and open it. You can’t use your password app directly as the file does not exist in any local filesystem. When Android terminates your password app and you then have to reload the file through the Nextcloud app.
    • On iOS it looks like you can select which folders to sync to local filesystem. I haven’t tried using the iOS app myself but if someone can confirm this is the behavior it’d be awesome.
  4. Should the file change Nextcloud will sync it silently in the background but behavior will vary depending on platform:
    • Desktop: File is available through local filesystem. Password applications will notice the change and ask if you want to reload.
    • Android: You go through the Nextcloud app, same as before. Trying to use a password app will result in the app telling you the file doesn’t exist, so you then have to go through the Nextcloud app.
    • iOS: I’m not sure what the behavior is. I’d assume it’s the same as on desktop.

To replicate the default desktop behavior (syncing to local filesystem) you end up having to use other apps like FolderSync. This way files and folders are available just like any other file on the Android device, letting you use automation or customization apps without issues, and saving you from having to configure syncronization settings for each app. Looking at you, Joplin.

My suspicion is Nextcloud developers are doing it this way to increase your awareness of the brand and the application, following the footsteps of Dropbox. For the longest time Dropbox was a rock-solid syncing application that did one thing and it did it really well, but now they’re trying to force changes nobody likes in an effort to make more money.

If this is indeed the case Nextcloud developers are learning all the wrong lessons from Dropbox’ failure to understand what it had. Instead of strenghtening its core they’re throwing a million other things at the wall to see what sticks:

  • Talk: Chat server, basically. There’s already plenty of those already available and I don’t see them supplanting IRC, Discord, or Slack. Ever. Nevermind Zoom or Jitsi.
  • Deck: Project management? There are better apps for that that are easier to configure, manage and secure.
  • Notes: There are a myriad note taking applications out there that work better. I don’t need yet another one.
  • Passwords: Again, there are better alternatives: KeePass, 1Password, LastPass.

Nextcloud has a chance to do that one thing well and do it better than Dropbox ever did— that is, file syncing. I feel they’re consciously choosing to throw it away because they want to get a bit more clout and a bit more money. If they keep at it they’re going to end up like Mozilla.

Another attempt at a note-taking workflow

In a previous post I mentioned one of the tools I use is Wiki.js. It was a great thing to learn how to set it up but… I was never entirely happy with it:

  • It’s somewhat slow on loading.
  • Not that customizable yet.
  • The update process is a total pain in the ass. They want you to use Docker and this ‘ere server can run it but performance wouldn’t be that nice.
  • On mobile I have to depend on the vagaries of whatever browser I’m using (Firefox) so I don’t get that good of an editing interface.
  • This is a private repository of knowledge so if it turns out wiki.js has a security issue my wiki is now at risk until I go through the pain of updating again.

So that’s that. I’d been playing with vimwiki since it’s text-based. After a bit of playing I was able to make it work nicely on the gVim instance I run on the Windows 10 desktop and the Ubuntu instance I run in WSL.

The mobile side of things was immensely helped along by Epsilon Notes, which blows iA Writer completely out of the water. Along the way I tried using Joplin which at first glance seems awesome but then you run into this issue:

Screencapture of JoplinApp filenames

Yes, I get the logic of completely unique filenames but it also means that I’m locked into the app. This is something people have complained about as it defeats all efforts at interoperability. I mean, these are fucken markdown files. And this is an open source app!

Oh right, it also uses its own WebDAV connection to the Nexcloud instance, so slow your roll.

So back to Epsilon. It’s got a few goodies:

  • Line numbers
  • CommonMark is the default markdown dialect.
  • It’s native to Android.
  • Let’s you use front matter for tags but doesn’t require it. I personally don’t care for it.
  • It sets up its own folder in the device filesystem which you can then sync with Nextcloud.

The workflow

All right, so this is what I have right now

vim/gvim

Assuming there’s already a working Windows gVim instance, a working WSL installation, and a working Nextcloud desktop client:

  1. Setup vim with vimwiki.
  2. Configure vimwiki to store its files in a directory being synced by the Nextcloud desktop client. For the sake of simplicity and avoid changing my .vimrc file unnecesarily in WSL/ubuntu I symlinked ~/vimwiki to the appropriate directory in Windows; this way the _vimrc file in gVim could remain the same. Using either vim instance gets me to the same location.
  3. Create your vimwiki index file: <Leader>ww, and save it. It should get picked up by Nextcloud.

Nextcloud

Using the web interface or the Android client, mark the vimwiki folder as a favorite so Nextcloud keeps it synced at all times. I don’t think there’s a way to do this in the desktop client yet.

Epsilon Notes

Assuming there’s already a working Nextcloud app

  1. Install Epsilon from the Play Store.
  2. Tap the folder icon on the top right and navigate to /storage/emulated/0/Android/media/com.nextcloud.client/nextcloud/USER@HOST/vimwiki/. If you have multiple Nextcloud accounts on the same app you’ll see all of those listed with a USER@HOST folder each and you can just jump between folders.

Another way of doing this is setting up custom folders but I think doing it this way makes for a simpler configuration. It’d probably be really useful you have multiple vimwikis or multiple Nextcloud accounts though.

Bonus: Servers

I have a couple of boxes that run headless and I also wanted to have my notes available on there. There isn’t a terminal Nextcloud client but I found Rclone. I could have used cadaver but Rclone is designed specifically for cloud file storage:

These instructions worked under my Debian 10 install:

  1. Install rclone and fuse3: sudo aptitude install rclone fuse3.
  2. Configure Rclone with rclone config. Documentation.
  3. Create an Rclone mount with something like
rclone --vfs-cache-mode writes mount NEXTCLOUD:/vimwiki ~/vimwiki --daemon

Which assumes NEXTCLOUD is what you named the remote configuration, your vimwiki directory lives at $HOME, and you want the connection to remain alive until you decide to stop it manually. The --vfs-cache-mode writes flag will enable some amount of caching. Documentation.
4. At this point you can access your vimwiki as if they were on the local filesystem.

Fucken awesome amirite

SO now we have wiki-like notes that can be edited on desktop, mobile, or server, using whichever editor you prefer. Another bonus: You’re not locked in to anything. I could edit notes on desktop with Notepad++, Sublime Text, or Atom. On mobile you can edit them with whatever text editor you end up with. On a server you can edit them natively with whatever you have at hand.

And in the sad event you don’t have anything you can still access them through the Nextcloud web interface. They even got a markdown editor but I’m not sure what dialect it uses.

The only thing I dont have anymore is a nice clean way to print these notes but this is where pandoc and a print.css file should be useful. If worst comes to worst I can always paste something into LibreOffice and just change the styling that way. Another thing I’ll have to change is how I search for things but since I do have access to the terminal I can always resort to grep if worst comes to worst.

Extras

I did have a few things that led me to try and avoid using web interfaces for this

  • The Website Obesity Crisis. Comments on reddit and Hacker News
  • The reckless, infinite scope of web browsers
  • I tried creating a web browser, and Google blocked me
  • Browser bloat has been a problem for a long, long time now.
  • The proliferation of browser-based text editors (StackEdit, Dillinger, Editor.md, WordPress) that try to do too much and they end up falling flat on their face cos nothing beats the responsiveness of editing locally.
  • The flipside of the above is I can use editors native to each platform. This post was typed on vim, then pasted into WP, for example. This makes for a much, much nicer editing experience specially when doing long-form text or to-do lists.
  • Avoiding lock-in. It was a drag to move from one platform to another and paste everything manually, cos all of these tools depend on locking you in.
  • Security. My Nextcloud instance is exposed to the Internet but I can always implement more things cos I control the network, the hardware, and the operating system.
  • Other people who were also on search of a good editing experience, like this, or this.
  • Easy migration of mark-up. I’m trying to use editors that support CommonMark since that way I can always be more or less sure of how something is going to look if I export it elsewhere, and I have the freedom of switching to something else like ReStructured Text or AsciiDoc, which I have considered.

I’m super excited about this. My notes en’t locked in anywhere and they’re all in plain-text, which is the only thing guaranteed to not change in the next 20 years,

Thinking Tools: July 2020

It’s been a long while since that last post I did and my setup has changed a lot:

Web services

  • This site, which I’m trying to update more often with links and blog posts I find interesting. It’s going much better after I installed the WP Editor.md plugin to enhance the plain editor. The gutenberg editor sucks ass.
  • Nextcloud. I’m running my own instance to replace Dropbox, which I didn’t like the last time. Got the desktop client installed and it’s working quite nicely.
  • Twitter is still my social media network of choice. I’m using tweetdeck on the desktop
  • Feedly is still my RSS reader of choice but I’m looking around for a replacement that works across all my devices and it’s pretty to look at. Now that people are starting to move away from centralized social networks again there should be some movement in this space.
  • I’m running my own wiki using Wiki.js, which I’ve blogged about. This will probably merit another couple blog posts of their own specially now that I found vimwiki which could potentially run inside my Nextcloud instance.

Actual applications installed on my desktops and laptops

  • For messaging I’m now using Ferdi, a fork of Franz, to run most of my instant messaging needs. The great exceptions are Slack, Discord, and Signal; I discovered I work better when they have their own app instances running but when Signal offers a web interface I’ll probably fold it into Franz.
  • Spotify. Thinking of replacing it with a self-hosted option. I miss my graded playlists.
  • KeePass is still my password manager of choice.
  • Firefox. Mozilla keeps trying its best to kill all low-level functionality. This is easily the program I fuck around with the most, going from extensions to custom userChrome files.
  • Windows Subsystem for Linux. Much less of a pain in the ass than running a VirtualBox VM depending on what you’re doing. Using wsltty as its terminal.

There are some single-purpose utilities I’ve discovered in the interim that are extremely useful for working in Windows 10.

Mobile applications (Android)

  • The usual instant messaging slash social networking suspects minus TikTok, which is spyware.
  • Firefox mobile. Firefox needs to do better at syncing preferences into it.
  • Fenix twitter client. Twitter Co keeps fucking around with their API and preventing third party clients from achieving the excellence they used to have years ago.
  • Nextcloud mobile client for my Nextcloud instance. Needs a lot of work to compare with Dropbox, but it does its job well.
  • Moon+ Reader for ebooks. This one took me a long while to find, most ebook readers have utterly crazy skeuomorphic defaults.
  • Photoshop Express. This one was annoying but you’d be surprised how many image editors are missing features you’d consider basic (like cropping and image resizing), opting instead to overload with photo filters you’ll never use. This one has all the filters but at least lets you crop and resize. It replaced Snapseed. I’ve still to wade through open source editors but my hopes are dim on that front.

There are some things that underpin all of these applications but I think I’ll leave it as-is. It’s pretty fun to see how my workflow changes over time.

I just happen to be in the market for a new phone

Before, buying a Nexus meant you had to deal with a bad camera or poor battery life, but the Nexus 5X and 6P are the first Android devices built with few to no compromises. The one thing you could complain about is the lack of wireless charging, but we can deal with that. The camera on a Nexus is finally good. The 12.3 MP cameras can hang with phones that are nearly twice the price of the 5X.

Source: Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P review: The true flagships of the Android ecosystem | Ars Technica

I broke the screen on my Canon S100 and the camera on my Nexus 5 is not the best. So by all appearances either phone is a worthy upgrade.

Google Drive

It was just released to the wild, and yet I’ve already found cause to question the integrity of the product:

image

When looking at the list of installed apps, it’s asking me to update the app, when I know for a fact it hasn’t even been installed to my phone. I’m used a rooted phone and a custom ROM, so it’s not like T-Mobile just put it there without my knowledge.

That sort of behavior is disingenuous as best, and evil at worst. Can there now be any doubt Google has just become another company like the rest?

Plume 3

I wrote this review on the Android Market, but the service mangles all formatting so comments end up looking like crap.

I’m sorry to say that the interface changes implemented for 3.00 changed the app for the worse, just by removing two key pieces of functionality:

  • “Go to top” option.
  • “Pull to Tweet.”

Between those two, your actions will be that much slower. Gone is the ability to begin a tweet, pull up to review your timeline, then pull down again to finish it. Looking through old tweets and want to get back to the top? Too bad, you’ll have to flick through all those tweets in between.

Interface now has a “Home” screen, allowing access to search, favorites, trends, lists and “columns”, headers for which are always displayed. From here you may setup which columns you want to see on the interface, and in which order. Sadly, the “home” screen itself cannot be removed. In previous versions the “home” column was the timeline, but apparently users cannot figure that out. This all makes for additional wasted screen space.

This new version feels, all in all, made by developers who firmly believe their users are idiots who need to be hand-held to use the app. You are better off staying with the last version of Plume 2.x, at least until that basic functionality is re-implemented.

Emphasis mine.

It looks to me that in their rush to make the app compatible with Android 4.0, the developers threw aside some of the things that made their app unique. These things had been there since the first versions of the app, so it makes you wonder if the Google UI guidelines were written with an “all our users are idiots” mentality.

These changes to the app made a lot of the things that were understood implicitly about functionality to be displayed explicitly. Attempting a better User Interface made for a poorer User Experience.

When it comes down to it, another case of the UserFriendly Police beating down a good app.