Religulous

A movie review.

ReligulousI just watched Bill Maher’s documentary, Religulous. It’s been in my Netflix queue for some time now and I recently let it ride to the top. I watched it on my second monitor while doing some relatively mindless work on the other.

The movie was just what I expected: Bill Maher trying to talk reason to religious zealots. While his breakaways to movie scenes and comic subtitles were generally amusing, much of the rest of the movie was quite disturbing. It isn’t Maher’s views that bother me — I share them. It’s the stubbornness of the religious zealots he spoke to. They simply did not want to listen to reason.

Want some specific examples?

He spoke with Christians about Jesus and pointed out that an ancient Egyptian god named Horus shared much of Jesus’s history, from virgin birth to crucifixion and resurrection. This is documented in ancient Egyptian writing. Yet the Christians refused to acknowledge that the Egyptian myths exist. How can they be so stubborn?

He pointed out to Christians that the New Testament, which forms the basis of Christianity and Christian beliefs says nothing about homosexuality being a sin. He pointed out other things that are and are not in the Bible. If what he said contradicted current Christian beliefs, however, these people denied what he said. They clearly had no clue what was in the holy scriptures they swore was the word of god.

He pointed out to Muslims that the Koran contains multiple references about violence against non-Muslim “infidels.” They either denied the meaning of those references or tried to claim that they applied to another time.

He had similar confrontations with Jews, Mormons (and ex-Mormons), and members of other religions.

This went on for nearly two hours.

This was exactly what I expected and, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it very much. It’s an argument he’ll never win. None of the atheists will. People have faith — blind faith in whatever it is that they believe. They ignore the evidence that they’re wrong. They go on believing, thinking that they’ll be rewarded someday while the non-believers — or the people that believe in Brand X religion — will be punished.

Meanwhile, they keep fighting and hating and killing and keeping their women and children in the dark ages intellectually — all in the name of their god.

It makes me sick.

I’m not quite sure what Maher intended to do with this movie. He’s obviously not going to convert anyone. There wasn’t enough comedy to make it fun to watch. Was he just trying to give atheists a bit of support in their quest for reason? To convince us to speak out as he has?

What’s the point?

This reminds me of a post I read last week on Think Atheist, “Why Talk About It?.” In it, the blogger compares religion to collecting stamps:

When you are in safe company, you poke fun at the stamp collectors and their silly beliefs. You find comfort in the fact that you are not the only sane person around. In a world of stamp collectors, you are one of only a few non-stamp collectors.

Maybe that’s what Religulous was all about: To remind us that we’re not the only ones who don’t collect stamps.

Welcome to Macintosh

A movie review.

Welcome to MacintoshThe other night, I watched Welcome to Macintosh, a new documentary by filmmakers Robert Baca and Josh RIzzo.

Here’s the review I just entered on Netflix, where I gave it 3 out of 5 stars:

I’m one of the “Mac faithful” and have been for years. I found this documentary mildly interesting — especially parts discussing trivia, such as how startup tones came about. In general, however, I found it to be a rather amateurish production, with far too much time spent on various collections of old Macs. The cutaway scenes with Mac models decorating the landscape was reminiscent of the “How It’s Made” television series and rather silly. I would like to have seen more interviews with Mac users, movers, and shakers, as well as some of those old Macs running some of the software from the early days.

This movie will appeal to any Mac fan interested in Apple’s history. But Apple haters will hate this movie; it comes across as real Apple “fanboy” material.

You can read another take on the movie from its premier on the Unofficial Apple Weblog: “TUAW On Scene: from the premiere of Welcome to Macintosh.”

SPOT Messenger: A First Look

Initial thoughts about my new flight following solution.

My friend, Jim, is an Idaho-based R44 pilot with a company very similar to mine. He’s a single pilot Part 135 tour and charter operator who sometimes operates over very remote terrain.

Of Flight Plans and Flight Following

One of the challenges we face as charter operators is last-minute route changes requested by paying passengers. For example, suppose the passenger books a flight from Scottsdale to Sedona. I’m required by the FAA to file a flight plan that indicates my route so that if we don’t turn up in Sedona, they’ll know which way we went and can [hopefully] find us. But at times — sometimes after the flight is already under way — the passenger might say something like, “Can you follow the course of the Verde River to Camp Verde?” This is not the most direct route and it’s not likely to be the one I planned. But what do I do? Say no?

[The right answer is yes, say no. That’s the answer the FAA wants to hear. But the FAA is not paying by the hour to conduct the flight. The FAA is not going to refer its friends to a friendly, accommodating pilot.]

The problem is, if I deviate from a route and something goes wrong, the search teams may not be looking for us anywhere near where we are. So they might not find us. And sure, I have an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in my aircraft — even though it is not required by the FAA. But how well do those really work? It certainly didn’t help them find a pilot and his co-worker when they literally disappeared on a flight between Deer Valley in North Phoenix and Sedona nearly two years ago. They’re still missing.

And then there’s Steve Fossett. Or maybe I should have said, where’s Steve Fossett. They must have spent millions by now to find him and he’s still among the missing.

Airplane pilots and pilots flying in the flatlands of the midwest can request something called flight following from the flight service station (FSS). Flight following keeps you on radar so they pretty much always know where you are. The problem with helicopters is that we fly so darn low. Even if I flew up in nose bleed territory at, say, 1500 feet above ground level (AGL), the terrain in the area I fly is too mountainous to keep me on radar. I’d have to fly much higher to stay on radar. And if I’m going to be that high, I may as well fly a plane. So flight following is not a practical solution.

The True Geek’s Solution

Jim also flies in remote and often mountainous areas. And, like me, he’s a true gadget lover — someone who likes to fiddle with electronic toys. (I think he’s lusting for a POV.1 after seeing mine.) He was based in Chelan for cherry drying season and happened to see the SPOT Messenger displayed at the local Radio Shack. He went in and checked it out. Then he did more homework. Then he bought one and told me about it.

SPOT MessengerThe SPOT Satellite Messenger is a personal location device. It’s about the size of my Palm Treo and, as you can see here, bright orange so it’s easy to…well, spot.

My understanding of the unit is that it combines GPS receiver technology with satellite transmitter technology. So you turn it on and it acquires its position via GPS. You can then use one of four different features, depending on the subscription plan you choose:

  • The SPOT standard service plan, which costs $99/year, includes the following three features:
    • OK sends a text message or e-mail message to the phone numbers or e-mail addresses you specify. The message, which is customizable, tells the people on the list that you’re checking in OK and provides the GPS coordinates for your position. Those coordinates include a link that, when clicked, displays your position on Google Maps.
    • Help, is similar, but it sends a customizable help message to the people you specify. The idea here is that you need help and have no other way to contact someone who can help you.
    • 911 sends your GPS coordinates to the folks at the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, who, in turn, notify the appropriate emergency authorities. This is for real, life-threatening emergencies. The Response Center folks also contact, by phone, the two people you specify to notify them of the signal.
  • The tracking upgrade option, which costs another $49/year, includes live tracking, which, when activated, sends you GPS position every 10 minutes or so to the SPOT folks. This information is visible to anyone who has been given access to a Share page you configure with or without a password.

Jim went with both plans. When I bought mine on Monday, I did the same.

First Thoughts

I’ve been playing with SPOT on and off since Tuesday morning. In general, I like it and I think it’ll do the job I intend to use it for — flight following on those long cross-country flights.

After configuring message recipients, I started out by sending a few OK messages. Although the marketing material makes it seem as if those messages are instantaneous, they’re not. After pushing the OK button, the unit will try for up to 20 minutes to send your OK location via satellite uplink. It’ll send the message 3 times, but only one message is forwarded to the people on your list. For experimental purposes, I made myself one of those people. I had to wait longer than 20 minutes to receive one or two of the messages. To be fair, part of the reason for that could be my location at the time — flying between Wenatchee and Seattle in mountainous terrain. (I don’t think my cell phone was receiving very well.) The delay is satisfactory, once you realize that it’s not an instant communication.

For obvious reasons, I have not used Help or 911 yet. Let’s hope I never have to.

I did set up tracking. It took several tries to turn it on properly. The unit does not have a screen, so you have to rely on understanding the blinking lights to know what it’s doing — if anything. Twice I thought I was enabling tracking, but discovered that all I did was send OK messages. Once, tracking was on and in trying to turn it on, I really turned it off. In all cases, it was operator error. Evidently, you cannot turn on tracking during the 20-minute period in which an OK message is being sent. Since both features use the same button, it’s pretty easy to do one thing instead of the other if you don’t pay attention to how long you hold down the darn button.

My husband complained that the messages he received did not include the date and time. We later realized that it was because he was not viewing the message on his phone; he was viewing its summary. (My husband is text message challenged.)

Snowqualmie PassPad 6The e-mail version of the OK message is handy because of the link it includes. Click it and go right to Google Maps with the position clearly marked. Here are two examples. In the first one, we’re flying just to the east of Snowqualmie Pass over I-90. In the second one, we’re sitting on Pad 6 at Boeing Field in Seattle. These images are at two different magnifications. All GoogleMaps features work — it’s just the location put into GoogleMaps. My personal Messages page on the FindMeSpot.com Web site displays all points with the option of displaying any combination of them on Google Maps. It also enables me to download these points to a GPX or KML format file for use with a GPS receiver or GoogleEarth.

The Share page feature, which is still in beta, was not working when I first tried it. But it’s working now — and quite well! I set up a page that does not require a password so anyone could check in and see where I was when I was traveling with SPOT tracking turned on. Apparently, it only shows the past 24 hours of activity, so it you’re checking it now and there’s nothing going on, it’s because I’m not traveling with SPOT. But here’s what it looks like right now; as you can see, I spent a lot of time exploring Walla Walla, WA today:

SPOT Shared Page

A few things about this feature:

  • The lines between the points (which, for some reason, are not showing up in the screenshot) do not represent tracks. I was in a truck today and did stay on roads.
  • If the unit did not have a clear shot of the sky, the point that should have been recorded wasn’t. This wasn’t a problem today, since I had the unit sitting on the dashboard in the broiling sun — partially to see if heat would affect it. (It didn’t.)
  • Clicking a point in the list on the left side “flashes” that point in the display. You can also click other controls to get more information.
  • If you leave this page open, it will automatically update. So you can watch new points appear if you’re tracking someone. Way cool.

The URL for this feature is long and impossible to remember, so I created a custom URL using TinyURL: http://www.tinyurl.com/FindMaria. I invite you to try it for yourself.

Overall

My overall opinion is very positive. It will certainly give me peace of mind while flying in some of the remote desert locations I fly in. I think it’s worth the $150 unit cost plus annual subscriptions.

Even if something goes terribly wrong out there, I want to be found.

My next challenge: getting it to send OK messages to my Twitter account. Anyone have any ideas?

Letter to a Christian Nation

Another book review.

Those who know me well, know that I am not a religious person. In fact, I’m about as unreligious as they come.

In general, however, I’ve never been against any religion. I see it as a way that people fulfill social, idealistic, and spiritual needs in their lives. If they want to believe that the earth was created as it is today in seven days by a supernatural being seven thousand years ago — or any of the other ideas and themes of their religion — that’s fine with me. (Just don’t teach these religion-based ideas in public schools with my tax money.)

Sam Harris’s Letter

Letter to a Christian NationLately, seeing what’s going on in the world and the political influence of America’s religious conservatives, I’ve begun to doubt whether there’s a positive value to religion in society. No book has helped fuel my doubts more than Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. This tiny, 96-page book was written as a letter to devout Christians, pointing out the inconsistencies in Christian beliefs and how some of these beliefs negatively impact today’s world.

The main gist of Harris’s book is the fact that some policies promoted by Christian politicians and their backers are causing far more harm in good. He cites many examples. The ones that stands out in my mind are those related to sex education and their affect on the population, both home and abroad.

Consider, for instance, the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The virus infects over half the American population and causes nearly five thousand women to die each year from cervical cancer; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than two hundred thousand die worldwide. We now have a vaccine for HPV that appears to be both safe and effective. The vaccine produced 100 percent immunity in the six thousand women who received it as part of a clinical trial. And yet, Christian conservatives in our government have resisted a vaccination program on the grounds that HPV is a valuable impediment to premarital sex. These pious men and women want to preserve cervical cancer as an incentive toward abstinence, even if it sacrifices the lives of thousands of women each year.

He follows this up with some statistics from studies that show how the “abstinence-only” approach to sex education in 30% of American sex education programs simply does not work. American teens may be participating in “virginity pledges” for eighteen months or more, but they’re having oral and anal sex instead. American teenage girls are also four to five times more likely to become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted disease than teens in the rest of the developed world. Why? Could it be because they weren’t taught about condoms? Or worse yet, because were taught that birth control is “sinful”?

Mr. Harris drives the point home with this statement:

The problem is that Christians like yourself are not principally concerned about teen pregnancy and the spread of disease. That is, you are not worried about the suffering caused by sex; you are worried about sex. As if this fact needed further corroboration, Reginald Finger, an Evangelical member of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, recently announced that he would consider opposing an HIV vaccine — thereby condemning millions of men and women to die unnecessarily from AIDS each year — because such a vaccine would encourage premarital sex by making it less risky. This is one of many points on which your religious beliefs become genuinely lethal.

I’ve done some research into this statement about Reginald Finger and, unfortunately, can’t find the New Yorker article where it was made. But you can learn more about his views on this issue on Bionity.com, Wikipedia, Time Magazine, and Dr. Finger’s Web site. It’s clear from these sources that Dr. Finger is very interested in abstinence education, but whether he would oppose an HIV vaccine, as Mr. Harris claims, is extremely difficult to believe. Surely no one would go to that extreme in efforts to stop people from having sex.

More Than Just Sex

Of course, the book isn’t just about the sex education issue. Mr. Harris goes into great detail on a number of other issues, including the Bible as the word of God, morals as defined by the Bible, and the clash between science and religion, including the conflict between evolution and intelligent design. He also writes a bit about atheism and the Christian view that atheists are “evil.”

Mr. Harris presents all of his arguments calmly, with many examples and quotes from the Bible. At no time does he become offensive — he remains quite reasonable throughout. Still, I know that what he has to say will trouble most devout Christians who read it. So although I think he hopes to reach these people, I doubt that he will succeed. Instead, he may reach the more moderate Christians who can look objectively at their beliefs and see how they might cause problems in today’s world.

My Thoughts on Extremists

I agree with much of what Mr. Harris says, but not all of it. He makes some very strong statements near the end of the book about Muslims that I find difficult to believe:

The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a fantasy, and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge…most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith

Maybe I’m naive, but I still like to think that most people want to live their lives in peace. So, unlike Mr. Harris, I cannot generalize like this about Muslims — or Christians, for that matter.

I see parallels between members of the Christian and Muslims faiths. Just as there are Christians who make God and the trappings of their religion part of their lives, I believe there are Muslims who do the same with Allah and the trappings of their religion.

Both religions have extremists. In America, we use the politically correct terms “Conservative Christians” or “Evangelical Christians” to describe these people. We also use the term “Radical Muslim” to refer to Muslim extremists. (Funny how we drop political correctness for the Muslims, isn’t it?)

But do these people control either religion? Do they speak for all of their fellow believers? I’d like to think they don’t — that there are reasonable members of both faith that know which parts of the Bible or Koran shouldn’t be taken literally in this modern world.

I Recommend It!

I recommend this book for anyone who is alarmed by the growing power of the religious right in America. It will help arm you with the facts and background information you need to:

  • argue in favor of sex education programs that include birth control information, thus reducing unwanted pregnancies (and their social and economic impacts), abortions, and sexually transmitted disease
  • fight back against the proposed teaching of intelligent design in public schools
  • allow vaccinations to protect your daughter from HPV and, possibly, cervical cancer
  • enable government funding to continue efforts to find cures for AIDS and other diseases — yes, even through the use of stem cells

If you are a true believer, I urge you to consider Mr. Harris’s arguments — and the arguments made by others like him — and look objectively at how your beliefs affect America and the rest of the world. While neither Mr. Harris nor I am saying that you should give up your belief in God and the values of your religion, you need to understand that some of your religious beliefs and values cannot be imposed on others without drastic consequences for all.

Got Something to Add?

June 30, 2014 Update
I’ve finally gotten around to writing up the site comment policy on a regular page (rather than post) on this site. You can find it here: Comment Policy.

I’ll leave the comments open for this post — at least until things start getting out of control. Remember three basic rules:

  • No stating “facts” unless they are facts that can be backed up. (You can link to articles.)
  • No nasty comments directed at me or other commenters. If you think we’re stupid or we’ll rot in hell, keep it to yourself. Just state your case without getting personal.
  • Remember, what you say here really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. So don’t let the discussion get your blood pressure up. It ain’t worth it.

I will delete comments that don’t follow these rules. If you have a problem with this, read my Comment Policy to learn why.

Revenge

A book review.

Way back when, I subscribed to Bookmarks magazine. It’s a magazine of book reviews for readers of fiction and non-fiction. The subscription was expensive and the content was primarily a regurgitation of reviews in other magazines and newspapers with a summary rating system. There would also be articles about specific reader groups and a featured author or genre or both. Based on what I read in the magazine, I’d choose books I wanted to read. But more often than not, a glowing book review would point me to a hard-to-find book or a book that simply wasn’t up to par.

Product ImageProduct ImageRevenge by Stephen Fry is both of these things. What attracted me to the book was the claim that it was a “modern-day Count of Monte Cristo.” The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic story of revenge, written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844. Dumas, the French author of The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and Man in the Iron Mask, weaves incredible, well written and thought out tales of intrigue, adventure, and even love. The movie and television adaptations of his work offer shallow hints of his complex story lines. The recent Man in the Iron Mask movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio is an example that made me cringe, from the moment Leo uttered the word “Huh?” in his role as King Louis XIV to the revealing of the king’s true father at the end. (Readers of The Man in the Iron Mask know that the story has quite a different ending and is, in fact, the final book of the musketeers trilogy.)

In any case, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my very favorite books. I’ve read it two or three times, which is no small chore, considering its length and the writing style. So when a modern day version of the same tale appeared in Bookmarks with good reviews, I immediately put it on my reading list.

It took about two years to track down a copy of Revenge. (Remember, there’s no real book store here in Wickenburg and the local library doesn’t read Bookmarks. It wasn’t very high on my Amazon.com wish list, either.) I finished it on Saturday.

To understand how I rate books, you need to understand my “can’t put it down” test. These days, I read before bedtime. In most cases, I’m horizontal, propped up with a pillow with reading glasses perched on my nose. One light is on. I’m tired; it’s the end of a long day and I’ve been up since 5 or 6 AM. Most books I read these days can engage me for a dozen or so pages before I’m ready to pass out. But a good book can actually keep me awake and reading long after Mike has shut off the television, come to bed, and begun to snore. (For the record, he doesn’t snore all the time or any more than I do.)

Revenge started out a bit worse than usual. It was one of the books that I start and then put aside while I work on another one. It was well-written, but not very entertaining. The “setup” — which is where the author introduces a protagonist that you can feel real sympathy for as well as antagonists you really want to hate — was too long and drawn out. I put it down for about two weeks.

I finally got back to it when I took it to Howard Mesa. The wind was howling up there all weekend, making it very unpleasant to be outside. There’s no television there and Mike had a lot of work to do that I couldn’t help him with. So I picked up Revenge and finished it up.

I found Fry’s writing style perfectly fine. In my mind, when you can read a book without frowning at the way sentences are written or dialog is composed, the writer has pulled you in. In those books, the author has stepped back, out of the picture, and you’re just reading an account of what happened to his characters. Stephen Fry did a great job of stepping back, letting the reader get the story without interference from awkward constructions, idiotic dialog, etc. (One of my main complaints about The DaVinci Code was Dan Brown’s awful writing skills.)

That’s not to say that the story didn’t have its faults. My main problem with the book was the way it finished up — far too quickly. In The Count of Monte Cristo, main character Edmond orchestrates a complex revenge scheme that gives his betrayers what they deserve. It almost goes exactly according to plan — in other words, there was still some suspense near the end of the book. In Revenge, main character Ned begins to plot his revenge 2/3 of the way through the book, leaving only 1/3 of the book’s pages to complete it. There’s no complex scheming; he’s simply put himself into a position to extract revenge at his leisure. While I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who may want to read the book, I will say that it’s too quick and easy. While Ned doesn’t get everything he wanted, he also loses the sympathy of the reader by the cruelness of his revenge on some characters. In contrast, at no point in The Count of Monte Cristo do I feel that Edmond has stepped over the line. And while I don’t have the book in front of me now to consult, I’m pretty sure that at least half the book’s pages are devoted to his plotting and the manipulation of his characters before the final “gotchas.”

Revenge, of course, is one several age-old plot basics that can be found in books, movies, and television dramas. Dumas did it best. Fry tried and, in doing so, may have exposed a few people to Dumas’s work. But if you have to choose between the two to take along on a journey or relaxing weekend, leave Fry behind and take the classic. It’s a far better work.

As for Bookmarks — I let my subscription slide. Frankly, its self-promotional content urging readers to buy subscriptions for their local libraries was annoying me. I had also begun to suspect that many of the lesser-known titles the magazine highly recommended were planted there by the books’ publishers. (If I wanted to read advertisements for books, I’d browse the New York Times Book Review.) Coupled with the high subscription price, I decided it just wasn’t worth it.

Besides, I already have a pile of books to get through. I don’t need anymore recommendations!

Marie Antoinette, the Movie

Don’t waste your time.

Marie AntoinetteOn Saturday, after a long day on my feet as a volunteer for the Land of the Sun Endurance Ride here in Wickenburg, I found myself in front of the television. I flipped to one of the movie channels just as Marie Antoinette was beginning and decided to give it a try.

I like movies with historical value. I feel as if I can learn while being entertained. And I don’t think anyone can argue that the costumes and sets in the movie were magnificent and probably true to life.

Unfortunately, that’s where the movie’s appeal to me ended.

The movie is long and rambling and takes forever to make and complete a point. For example, the movie suggests that Marie and Louis did not consummate their marriage for more than 4 years — until after he became King, in fact. While this might be an interesting point, it dominated the plot for at least 45 minutes of the movie. One soon gets tired of seeing Marie in bed alone as the signal to viewers that she went yet another night without getting any.

Throughout the movie, I kept waiting to see when the political unrest of the people would make itself known to Marie or the ill-fated members of the French nobility. Is it possible that these people really had no clue about what was going on outside their palaces?

A serious problem with the movie was its soundtrack. While the director and composer are true to the time with the classical music played during Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s wedding dance, for example, the rest of the movie is a mix of classical and what I can only describe as European pop. Watching dancers at an 18th century masked ball, wearing period costumes and dancing period dances while modern pop music blared was weird, to say the least. It also took away from the seriousness of the movie, making it seem as if the Director was making light of the whole thing. The soundtrack was inappropriate for the subject matter.

I can’t comment on the acting because although the characters were somewhat believable, I don’t think any of the actors were outstanding. There was very little dialog. One cornball scene shows Marie, fully attired in one of her beautiful dresses, stretched out in happiness in a field of grass and flowers. It’s the scene right after she’s finally had sex with her husband. She’s happy. Oddly enough, it reminded me of the scene in Caddyshack where the girlfriend (Maggie) is dancing on the golf course at night because she knows she’s not pregnant.

While the director, Sofia Coppola, may have wanted to paint a more human picture of Marie, she certainly didn’t do much to create audience sympathy for her character. Coppola’s Marie was a party girl who ate and drank and shopped and played almost non-stop. History tells us that the people of France were being taxed to the point of starvation in many cases, yet the French nobility were living it up in sheltered isolation. Yet no where in the movie — at least not up to the point where I gave up on it after 90 minutes of boredom — is any of that shown. It’s a truly one-sided view of that time in history, a view through the eyes of an immature and spoiled woman.

I admit that I didn’t see the end. Mike joined me about halfway through and he’d already seen it. At one point, I asked him if anything interesting happens. He said no, just more of the same until the screen goes black. I’d seen enough, so I turned it off.

What got me to watch it at all was the rating in the Dish Network info box: three out of four stars. If I’d rated it, it probably would have gotten 1-1/2 stars.

A Look at OmniFocus

A quick overview.

I tried OmniFocus for a few weeks to set up and maintain a Get Things Done (GTD) routine. I’m always interested in easy-to-use productivity tools that I can integrate into my workflow.

What OmniFocus Does

OmniFocusOmniFocus enables you to set up any number of projects, each of which can contain specific actions. For example, I might have a project for Flying M Air to send out a marketing letter to travel agents. Within that project might be the individual actions to get the job done: get a mailing list of travel agents, write the marketing letter, print out the materials, stuff envelopes, mail. You can set up a project so its actions must be completed in order (sequentially) or so that they can be completed in any order or concurrently (parallel). Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any way to set up some actions within a project to be sequential while others in the same event were parallel without creating groups of actions.

Each action can also be related to a context. A context is “where the work happens.” This is a lot less intuitive but, I suppose, it can be useful once you get an idea of how to use it. For example, you might set up contexts for telephone follow-up or errands. Personally, I had a problem distinguishing between context and projects and couldn’t maintain a consistent approach.

OmniFocus offers a number of commands and options that help you “focus” on specific projects or tasks. You can flag things, set priorities, enter start or end dates, and choose from a bunch of different status options. You can then create “perspectives,” which are views of tasks matching criteria. But setting these things up can be time consuming and isn’t very intuitive.

On Intuitiveness

I did not find OmniFocus to be very intuitive. For example, each time I entered a new action, I pressed Return. Return is usually the command programs use to end or accept an entry. In OmniFocus, it starts a new one. That’s likely because of the Omni Group’s experience with OmniOutliner, which this is apparently spun off from. But when I create a list of things to do, I don’t think of an outline. I think of a list of individual items. iCal doesn’t create a new item when you press Return after completing the entry of a new one. It doesn’t make sense to me that OmniFocus does.

The perspectives view looks and works just like the main OmniFocus window. Great. Except that a perspectives view contains a subset of all items and, if the View bar isn’t showing, it’s not clear that you’re looking at a subset. You wonder what happened to an event you’re looking for and maybe, like me, you think it’s been eaten by a quirk in the software. So you re-enter it and wind up with a duplicate when you finally realize you’re just looking at a subset of all actions.

Some items don’t appear at all, depending on how options are set and how the item is coded. That makes you think twice about whether you want to set sequential items as sequential — they might not appear in some views.

And I’m still not sure how OmniFocus applies color coding to tasks. I understand the red, but blue, gray, and purple? What does it mean? Without documentation during the beta process, I couldn’t be sure. (Now I don’t really care.)

Syncing…Sometimes

One of the features that attracted me to OmniFocus was its ability to sync with iCal. I had a heck of a time doing this with the beta versions, until tech support suggested that I turn off the Birthday’s Calendar in iCal. Evidently, there’s a bug in iCal and that was messing things up. When I disabled it, syncing worked okay.

But OmniFocus syncs based on context, not project. So I needed to not only use the context feature, but set up corresponding calendars in iCal to properly sort out the tasks. Then, when I manually synced with iCal — automatic syncing is not an option — each task’s project was appended to the task name in brackets. This made the task names in iCal unnecessarily long.

OmniFocus syncs only iCal tasks, not calendar events. I also had some trouble when I marked off tasks as done in one program, it would not consistently sync to the other. So tasks didn’t “go away” when they were done.

I should mention that I need iCal syncing because I sync between iCal and my Treo to have a complete list of events and tasks when I’m on the road. My memory is bad (and steadily getting worse) and I rely on my Treo to remind me of things I need to do when I’m away from my office.

What OmniFocus Doesn’t Do

OmniFocus is supposed to make it easy to “capture” tasks from other applications. This is extremely limited. For example, although I can capture a task from a mail message, there’s no way within OmniFocus to easily link to that message — even though each message in Leopard has a unique URL. Instead, I found myself copying and pasting message text into OmniFocus.

OmniFocus falls short as an outliner in that it only gives you three levels of outlining: projects, actions, and “sub-actions” (created when you group actions within a project). Four levels, if you also create folders to organize your projects. But I suppose that if you want an outliner, you’d use OmniOutliner.

There’s no easy way to relate one action to other actions because contexts are not like keywords and you can only assign one per action.

Printing is also extremely limited, so if you want to print off a list of actions to take to a meeting or on the road, you’re stuck with standard formatting with large fonts.

When Productivity Software Reduces Productivity

My main gripe with most of these GTD software “solutions” is that they make you do so much work to set them up and implement them.

OmniFocus is a prime example of this. I wasted an entire morning trying to get my iCal events into OmniFocus , sorting them into projects, and applying contexts. And then, when I synced them back to iCal, I wound up with a bunch of duplicate items in both programs that I had to weed out. While this might be due to buggy beta software, I can’t be sure. I could be a problem I’d be dealing with every time I completed a sync.

It’s far easier for me to simply open iCal and look at my task list, which is already sorted by my existing project-related calendars, to see what needs to be done.

I was hoping that OmniFocus would introduce features that were not in iCal. It did, but none of them were features I needed or even wanted. The ones I did want — primarily calendar and task list printing flexibility — were missing.

At the introductory price of $39.95, OmniFocus was a program to consider. I might have sprung for it and made it work. But when the folks at The Omni Group upped the price to its regular price of $79.95, they made the decision for me. I’ve already paid enough money for software I don’t use regularly.

OmniFocus simply isn’t the solution I’m looking for. It isn’t intuitive enough to be a good productivity tool for me.

I only wish I could get back the two to three days I spent trying to make it help me get things done.