Recall These Thoughts
Inanity from Scott Lougheed, PhD

Okay, so perhaps not precisely the month of May, but starting in late April there’s been a spat of recalls attributable to Listeria in Canada and the United States. Looking at the CFIA recall listings for the first 10 days of May:

And if we look into the last week of April we also get:

Needless to say, for the last two weeks Listeria has had a field day in Canada. The United States is not exempt! In what Juska et al (2003) refer to as the “amplification” of food safety threats, or what Stericycle call the “multiplier effect”, listeria contamination from SunOpta Inc., a sunflower seed supplier has resulted in a massive cascade of recalls across the United States.

This series of recalls includes Sunflower Seed Snacks, trail mix, protein bars, Brown and Haley Chocolate snacks, and perhaps most stunningly 17 tons of Trader Joe’s salad.

Similarly, frozen vegetables from CRF Foods in Pasco Washington were recalled on April 23rd and subsequently expanded on May 2 to include over 42 brands and 358 products (notably, just in time for Listeria Month!)

It is rather stunning how far an error at a single supplier can reach in the contemporary food system. It almost seems as if we are reaching a level of consolidation and concentration in which the industry is too big to fail. The last two weeks has seen tens of tons of food pulled from the market and destroyed as a result of mistakes made by only a few companies… and this is only the beginning of Listeria Month!

As I wrap up a semester of teaching a third year university class and I prepare to present at the American Association of Geographers conference next week, I’ve been thinking about presentations, presentations, presentations. We’ve all seen it, or perhaps been there ourselves: The previously well-composed presenter now desperately trying to wake their computer up so we can move to the next slide, or scrambling to close embarrassing browser tabs and email messages only to then fish through a slew of personal files to locate the presentation file. It’s unpleasant to experience this from either side of the podium. It can disrupt the flow of our presentation, undo the polished public persona we work hard to cultivate, or reveal information we might prefer kept private. I have seen veteran academics, part of whose job is to regularly give presentations, melt into an embarrassed and frustrated mess. This has always been surprising for me. It is the things we do on a regular basis in our jobs that we should have mastered, the kinks long-ago ironed out. For some reason when it comes to technology this seems not to be the case. The beautiful thing is you can stop embarrassing yourself when you make presentations with very little effort, and you’ll thank yourself every time you need to present. I will walk you through my setup for giving presentations without embarrassing technological gaffs. It’ll take you $0 and about 20 minutes to have yourself set up the same. The added bonus is that you’ll never have to fear for your security if you’re sharing your computer at conferences, too. In this post I guide you through the process of setting up a computer user account dedicated to giving presentations.

Create a new user account

We want to make a little presentation “silo”, a secure enclave sterilized of your personal information. We don’t want cutesy desktop wallpapers, sensitive email notifications, and personal information in this silo; it needs to be as generic as possible. This allows us to hand off our computer to fellow presenters knowing that they won’t be rooting around our personal files. It also means we can set up the account to try and prevent technical issues. The best way to do this is to create a new user account without administrative privileges. This is fairly straightforward in Mac OS X. This is a good time to make sure you have a password enabled for your own user account, and that your computer is not set to auto log-in. Make sure the password for your personal user account is strong too, because that’s just common sense. It is critically important that you have your personal user account well-protected. Your personal account is likely an administrative account, so you want to make sure that only you know the password to allow administration-level changes to your computer. This prevents anyone using the Presentation account from accessing your personal files and making changes to the software. You’ll want to password protect your dedicated presentation account so I do recommend a password, but make it easy. If you are sharing your computer with other presenters you want them to be able to troubleshoot their own problems, and allowing them to restart the machine and log back into the presentation account without bother you is important. An easy to communicate and remember password is helpful here.

Configure your new user account

Now you have a generic user account that cannot access any of your personal files or make changes to your system. Now we need to configure this account. It will be tailor-made for giving presentations and to make the process as smooth as possible for you or your guest presenter. Make external drives easy to find

Make all the small tweaks

Since this is a vanilla user account, we’ll need to go in and tweak all the little OS X settings to our liking. I want to see my disk drives on the desktop, I want the sidebar text to be set to “small”, I want tap-to-click on my trackpad as well as two-finger-right-clicking. Take a moment and set things up to be comfortable. Most importantly: Make sure Finder is configured to show external drives on the desktop. If your guest presenter is loading a file from a thumb drive you want that drive to be dead-easy to find.

Don’t log into anything

This is key. No iCloud, no email, no iMessages, no Google, no anything. Don’t do it. Do not sync your contacts, calendars, bookmarks, nothing. You don’t need any of that in this account and you don’t want a co-presenter to be wading through that crap either. The one exception is Dropbox, and I’ll explain why below.

Clear the dock

Regardless of how you like it with your personal account, make the dock visible, and perhaps a little larger than you’d normally like it. Now remove everything from the dock except the essential presentation-giving items. My presentation dock looks like this:

Minimal presentation dock.

You want to have only the essential tools at hand. You aren’t going to be checking your email on this user account, so why have Mail in the dock, right? You’ll notice that I’ve included System Preferences. I don’t normally have this in my dock on my main account, but here, it’s nice to have it immediately at hand should something go awry and you need to change a setting on the fly. ### Set your defaults {#set-your-defaults} I don’t have Flash installed on my computer and I use Safari as my default browser. Since Google Chrome has Flash built into the browser I keep it around just in case I encounter a site that, god help me, requires Flash. If I encounter a site in Safari, I just quickly switch to Chrome for that short while. Having Chrome as the default here means that if I click any links, I know they’ll open in a Flash-Friendly browser. But remember, you aren’t the only one using this Presentation account, and your guest presenters may not be as tech savvy as you. You also can’t anticipate what kind of content your guest presenters might be displaying. Having Chrome as the default ensures that if you or your guest presenter needs flash, you aren’t doing the browser-juggle just to get things right.

A little amphetamine goes a long way

Avoid having your display fall asleep in the middle of a presentation by installing a small and free utility called Amphetamine (Mac App Store link). This menu bar utility prevents your computer’s display from falling asleep regardless of what your system preferences settings are. In my presentation account I have Amphetamine set up to launch at log-in and to be enabled by default (I also use Amphetamine on my main user account but not in this way). This means you never have to think about your display settings when giving a presentation. As soon as you or your co-presenter logs into the presentation account, Amphetamine is enabled.

Default Amphetamine Settings in Presentation Account

You can, of course, simply adjust the “Energy Saver” settings for this user account to set the display to “never sleep”, but I appreciate that Amphetamine offers a visual indicator of it’s current status. Another advantage is that, should I need to, I can make an adjustment a bit more easily compared to the Energy Saver settings. Also, since I run Amphetamine on my main user account (though in a much different way), I have it installed anyway, so why not use it?

Share only the right files, only the right way.

You won’t be doing any actual presentation-building in the presentation account, in fact you’ll spend almost no time in this account aside from actually delivering the presentation! That means you’ll need a way of getting your presentations from your main user account to your presentation account. I have several mechanisms in place to facilitate this: Dropbox Selective Sync and /Users/Shared folder. They serve different purposes.

A dedicated sharing folder

In the /Users/Shared folder, I created a folder called “Presentations”. This /Shared folder is accessible to all user accounts on the computer, regardless of their administrative status. This means anything you put in where while logged into your main account is accessible to your Presentation account. In my presentation account I created a desktop shortcut to this folder too, again, to make things as obvious and accessible as possible for myself or anyone else who might be presenting from my computer. This system works very well in situations where I am emailed a presentation in advance from a co-presenter, or for when I do one-off presentations such as at conferences. Once the slides are finalized or received by email, while logged into my main user account I place a copy of the presentation in /Users/Shared/Presentations and I know it will be accessible from the Presentation user account. This folder is also only modifiable by an administrative user, which means that in order to delete or add a file when logged into the presentation account you’ll have to enter the admin user name and password. This protects against any guest presenters doing unwanted modifications to contents of this folder. Of course, the cloud is nearly ubiquitous these days, but we are setting things up to use a minimum number of logged-in accounts, so minimizing the number of services in use is ideal. Also, as we’ve all experienced, some venues can have little or no wireless internet access. We don’t want our system to be brought to its knees because it relied on an internet connection.


Dropbox is the only exception to the “Log Into Nothing” rule. Most of my work is stored in Dropbox, but only a small amount of that work is actual presentation files, so I don’t want all of it to be accessible to the presentation account, nor do I want it all duplicated on my hard drive. Since I give presentations in my course lectures every week, I don’t want to manually move files into and out of /Users/Shared/Presentations; doing so on a regular basis is error-prone and it can be a bit frustrating if last-minute course announcements need to be added to lecture slides. It is therefore ideal to be able to have lecture material live in only one place. To do this I set up Dropbox on the Presentation account to sync only the folder that contains those presentations, and nothing else. This prevents all that other Dropbox data from being accessible from your Presentation account and occupying space on your computer. This strategy is best for content that you will be accessing on a very regular basis and for long stretches of time. Courses are 4 months long and occur every week, so this is the ideal situation to set up selective sync for that content rather than moving one or more lecture presentations into and out of /Users/Shared/Presentation multiple times a week.

Thumb Drives

This is, of course, the easiest. On presentation day, your co-presenters can just plug a thumb drive in and be ready to rock and roll. You’ve already indicated in the Finder’s preferences that external drives should show up on the desktop so there should be no difficulty in locating the file! ### Open everything for the first time In order to ensure a nice smooth presentation, you’ll want to take a moment right now to open every application that you expect might be used: your web browsers, your presentation software, insert a thumb drive, and so on. Just take each program for a spin. If you will be on an institutional wireless network such as the one at your university, be prepared to re-login to that with this new user account (remember, no iCloud Keychain to pass along your credentials!). By going through this process now instead of on presentation day, you’ll deal with all those one-time-only first-launch dialogue boxes that all applications inevitably display. You may also find you need to re-authorize your Office 365 credentials if you are using any Microsoft software. Better to do that now, rather than scrambling moments before you or a guest presents! ### Take advantage of Fast User Switching

Fast User Switching in OS X

OS X offers the ability to have multiple users logged into the computer at one time. This means you can easily switch between your main user account and your presentation account without needing to close applications or log out (Though you might want to remember to close any file you plan to open on the other account!). ### A word about Windows {#a-word-about-windows} If you’re reading thing and work on a Windows machine, all of these principles are transferable, the steps may just be a bit different.

You’re now a presentation ninja

This seems like a rather daunting list of steps, but in reality you should be up and running in 20-30 minutes and you’ll never have to do it again. You can now enjoy your secure little presentation silo, free from embarrassing notifications and narcoleptic computer displays.

In an earlier piece I challenged the notion that the defect-to-donation model is a way of solving food waste and food security issues. Essentially I argued that stocking food bank shelves should never be considered a move towards resolving food security. It is not. The very existed of food banks, and their shelves, points to the pervasiveness and persistence of food insecurity. Moreover, the growing trend towards diverting food from landfill to food banks for quality or safety defects isn’t a solution to food waste, it’s a clear indicator of excess and the inflation of standards to match. It’s hubris. It is dehumanizing. It is opportunistic.

We do not want our food banks to exist. We look forward to a time when they disappear. We do not want to get too comfortable. We must resist the temptation to expand. I do not think having a food bank on every street corner is a way for our society to go. Foodbanks must do their best to remain ‘unusual’.

Nigel Webster, food bank manager, quoted in The Guardian UK

A recent article in the Guardian UK reasserts the well-known trend that indicates food bank use has become routine for a growing number of people. What’s troubling for the various people interviewed is the absence of any mechanism to lift people out of food bank-reliance. Indeed, the absence of an “exit strategy” is further evidence of the extent to which the state (of the UK, of Canada, or the US; the situation isn’t terribly different) is already failing to address the root causes of food insecurity. Initiatives such as those developed between the USDA and industry to divert food from landfill to charities, detailed in my previous post, furthers the tendency towards state-non-involvement and reaffirms the sloughing off of responsibility for social welfare to industry and civil society. Though none of this comes as a surprise, it aligns well with the political trends of the last 30 years, it is nevertheless disappointing.

This could have disastrous consequences.

Transport Canada

On this, the day Doc and Marty arrive in the future, the Canadian federal government has a sense of humour. Don’t worry though, Doc Brown’s got a fix. 

The Swiss Network for International Studies has been doing work on food consumption in various regions around the world under the Food Consumption project. They’ve recently released two short films about Eating In and Food Waste in Bangalore and Eating Out and Food Waste in Metro Manila

While the videos are quite short, and offer only quick glimpses into people’s food prep and consumption tendencies, I thoroughly enjoyed these videos for a number of reasons. The broader cultural differences in shopping, preparation, and domestic roles is rather compelling, and is important to remember when we think about our own tendencies. 

I was also interested in some of the recent shifts that have taken place to change food dynamics, such as the increased tendency for both parents to work outside of the house, the availability of domestic help, and the growing prevalence of supermarkets. 

Finally, I appreciated the little glimpses of household cooking areas. I’m always fascinated by people’s kitchens, the differences and similarities between them, and what they can accomplish in those spaces. 

While these are just bitesized little videos, I encourage you to take a peek. 

The United States government wants to reduce their food waste by half by 2030:

the U.S. federal government will be forming a new partnership with a group of charitable and faith-based organizations, private sector organizations, and local, state and tribal governments. It’s expected that the efforts stemming from this partnership will greatly improve overall food security and help conserve the U.S.’s natural resources.

Food In Canada

These government-industry partnerships have existed before in less formal contexts, such as that between General Mills and the USDA in 2013.

On the face of it, this seems like a doubly-benevolent strategy that simultaneously reduces food waste—a serious problem in the global food system—and food insecurity, an equally nefarious issue of social justice. There are two major issues with these schemes, as I see it. The first is that it reifies social inequalities. The second is that it justifies inaction in actually addressing the causes of food insecurity. 

As I have argued in the past, the implication of these types of initiatives is that there is class of food-secure people for whom this food is not suitable, but another class for whom it is. This type of class-making behaviour is harmful and dehumanizing to those whom it marginalizes. The act of donating product overruns (arbitrarily defined by marketing), out-of-spec, or near-expiry food to those who are food-insecure reinforces an understanding of those experiencing food insecurity as an underclass who can be treated as a depository for our detritus. This food is waste according to we who are not food-insecure as we expect a standard that doesn’t apply to the underclass who are food-insecure. 

In reality, if the food is good enough for those who experience food-insecurity, then there is absolutely no reason it shouldn’t be good enough for us. Put another way: arbitrary distinctions in quality should not decide what and when we donate food. We—or more importantly, processors and retailers— should re-think what is perceived as acceptable, and moreover, if we assume that donating food is a meaningful solution to food insecurity, we should be donating food that comes from this now-broadened category of what is acceptable for consumption by all people regardless of their social standing. Food-insecure people should never be the depositories for our rejecta. We need to question every instance where something is deemed unacceptable for the market, but acceptable for some other class of citizenry. 

We should ensure that our “donations” are not just a form of disposal. Donations should take place in response to need and demand, and not when there is a glut of out-of-spec cereal or mis-labeled cheese

The scheduling of donations around defects and excess leads to my second point: schemes such as this justify political inaction in dealing with hunger. These schemes do not “greatly improve overall food security”, as the proponents claim. There is growing demand for food banks in most parts of the world, including here in Canada, according to the FAO. Filling the supply/demand gap for products at food banks by donating more does not resolve food-insecurity. Reducing the need for food banks, reducing the number of visits to food banks, and reducing the inequalities that reproduce this need does reduce food insecurity.

These schemes perpetuate and reproduce the structural issues that result in food-insecurity. Recalling Reagan-era voluntarism, and emblematic of broader neoliberal politics that pervades most developed countries, food banks and other such schemes offload responsibility for food insecurity to civic groups, industry, and the food insecure themselves. The fact that the scheme discussed in the quoted article is a government-industry partnership to support non-profit/civic groups makes plain the neoliberal politics behind the scheme. Offloading responsibility to industry and civic groups ultimately absolves government from taking direct action in addressing food insecurity and inequality in general. 

More donations, more industry participation, more food banks are neither the solution to the waste problem, nor the food security issue. We need to re-think how food is produced in the globalized food system and hospitality sectors such that so much waste is produced. We need to question the arbitrary quality standards throughout production, retail, and consumption that produce food fit only for a second-class. We need to rethink marketing strategies that mean overruns of seasonal products constitute a waste that needs avoiding in the first place. We need to target inequality directly and not use a donation bandaid to fulfill corporate social responsibility obligations and support government claims to mitigating food insecurity. 

Last post we left off with how Evernote and DEVONthink handle data a bit differently. This week we begin with a very useful feature in both applications, but with slight differences in their implementation, which lead to very different possibilities.

Evernote allows you to create links to notes

“Note Links” are great for a few reasons. Note links are hyperlinks (like you see on any website), but they take you to specific Evernote notes. You can use links within Evernote to connect one Evernote note to another, or even use a link outside of Evernote to bring you to that specific note.

Here’s an example of using note links within Evernote. You might, for example, collect some travel documents for an upcoming trip: Hotel Confirmation email, flight itinerary, your airport shuttle ticket, and some interesting sights near your hotel. They live in your Travel notebook and perhaps you tag them “italy1014” (my tagging scheme involves the place name, followed by a MMYY suffix so, Italy October 2014 in the case of this example). You might also make a “Table of Contents” note by selecting all of these notes and choosing “Create Table of Contents”. You then end up with a nice single note that has links to all the itinerary items like this one:

An example of a travel itinerary Table of Contents in Evernote

An example of a travel itinerary Table of Contents in Evernote is pictured above. Now you can put this table of contents note in your Evernote shortcuts for easy access to ALL of your tip documents, instead of putting every travel document in your shortcuts which would cluttering things up!

An event with an Evernote link in a shared calendar

An example of using note links outside of Evernote: My partner and I have a collection of recipes in a shared notebook that we add to regularly. We also share a household calendar. We plan our dinners out for each week (well, most of the time we at least try to do that) and create calendar events for each dinner. In the URL section for each event, if the recipe is stored in Evernote, we’ll put a note link to that recipe. This way, no matter who happens to be home that day to cook, she and I both have access to the recipe easily from our Mac or iOS device (Yes, the links even work for Calendar and Evernote in iOS even if you set up the link on the Mac!). The same goes for task managers. I use OmniFocus and regularly use note links to surface important documents associated with an action in Omnifocus.

DEVONthink allows you to create links to any document or file

You can make links to any file in DEVONthink, just as you can in Evernote, and you can also make Table of Contents notes. The major difference with DEVONthink is that you can link directly to any file imported to, or indexed by, DEVONthink, not just a note containing an attachment. This is a bit more elegant in some respects.

With PDFs you can go one step further and make links to specific PDF pages. One of the major benefits of this is discussed in my previous post Summarizing Academic Literature with OmniOutliner and DEVONthink. As with Evernote, I also use links to DEVONthink documents in Calendar and OmniFocus to surface important files related to events or actions. DEVONthink can even (automatically) make wiki-like links between files in your DEVONthink database, which is pretty special, but perhaps deserving of its own post.

Evernote has a web clipper

It is dead simple and works well almost all of the time.

DEVONthink has a web clipper

It is more complicated but a great deal more flexible, and works well once you figure out which combination of settings works for your needs.

Evernote shows me three notes (and external content) related to my current note

Evernote has a feature called “Context” (formerly “Related Notes”). This feature shows a few related notes, LinkedIn contacts, or articles from select news publications related to the content of the note you are viewing. I have never found this immensely useful for surfacing things I desperately need, but it is an interesting feature (which can be disabled). The idea is to connect you to related things to what you are reading. I’ve never found it immensely successful.

DEVONthink shows me where to put my files, and suggests dozens of related files as well

DEVONthink has what they refer to as an “Artificial Intelligence” engine that, among other things, serves two functions. One, “Classify”: It analyzes the contents of the currently open database and suggests which folders the selected file belongs in. For me, this is especially helpful when I have just added a whole pile of new journal articles to my database of academic literature. Instead of dwelling on where to put each one, the AI makes some suggestions that, in general are solid fits. One stroke of the keyboard shortcut and that article is filed away in the appropriate folder in DEVONthink.

The right hand drawer shows suggestions for where this article should be sorted. The lower half of the drawer suggests related content

Second, “See Also”: DEVONthink suggests other files that might be related to the one you currently have selected, as shown in the above image. When you have a large library of PDFs like I do, it can be very nice to have DEVONthink suggest a slew of related articles, allowing you to easily go down a bit of a literature-reviewing rabbit hole. More about how this set of features works can be found on DEVONtechnologies’ write up.


  • Both applications can be controlled with automator/applescripts, but DEVONthink is a bit more capable waaaaayyy more capable in this regard.

  • DEVONthink (Pro Office, the top tier version) allows you to use a plugin to add mail messages or mailboxes to DEVONthink. Evernote requires you to forward messages to an special email address (and sometimes the results aren’t perfect).
  • DEVONthink (Pro Office, the top tier version) allows you to turn scans of text into selectable, searchable text with extremely good accuracy (Using ABBYY’s OCR package). Evernote has no such function, but Evernote will make images of text, including handwriting searchable (but NOT selectable), with a surprisingly high level of accuracy.
  • Evernote imposes “upload” limits on some subscription levels, and also various other seemingly arbitrary usage limits. DEVONthink has no limits except for your computer’s resources.
  • DEVONthink’s documentation is detailed, accurate, and up-to-date. Evernote’s documentation lacks detail, is frequently out of date, and is not centralized (this is, in part, a reflection of the level of complexity of the two applications. DEVONthink needs detailed documentation even to get a handle on the basic, Evernote is slightly more straightforward, at least at a basic level).
  • Both applications offer robust search capabilities. Evernote’s search is syntax driven, which makes it easy to generate good search terms if you remember the syntax. DEVONthink’s searching is perhaps more powerful on the whole, but it is not fully syntax-driven and thus, generating a search term can be a bit more of a chore.


    As you can see the two programs serve very different sets of needs, and this only scratches the surface of what both applications are capable of. I hope that this set of contrasts helps you to understand that it is not a matter of deciding between DEVONthink and Evernote, but rather it is about how each one may or may not suit your needs in various contexts. This post is intended to be a set of broad strokes to showcase some of the similarities and differences between the applications. It was not intended to be instructional or a comprehensive guide to features. I’ll be making more posts dedicated to specific features and workflows in the future. If you haven’t already, do check out my workflow for summarizing documents in DEVONthink and OmniOutliner. If you are curious about any specific details contact me on twitter or comment below and if its something I am knowledgable about, I’ll reply or perhaps even dedicate a post to answering the question.

    I’d also strongly encourage you to check out Christopher Mayo’s great post about Getting Started with DEVONthink, and explore his other DEVONthink posts.

Comedian and late-night host John Oliver devotes a segment to food waste. The whole thing is just damned funny and damned…. damning. I particularly enjoyed (in my own cynical way) the footage of food in landfills:

However, agreeing on the existence of a problem never automatically led to solutions, which has become painfully evident in this case. Despite the issue’s uncontroversial character and seemingly lack of political sensitiveness, food waste has long been a political non-issue. Everyone seems concerned but no one seems to take any action to deal with the problem.

It turns out that learning about and targeting food waste leads to a deeper understanding of what is really wrong with our food system, an insight which severely weakens assumptions about increased agricultural yields as the solution to future food security challenges. I will come back to this point in a later post about the “Human right to cheap food”.

– Helena Robling at Food Policy for Thought

This is a very interesting insight from Helena Robling at the Food Policy for Thought blog. I think she is definitely correct that, in many respects, waste in the food system is a political non-issue. There are a large number of possible explanations, but one potential factor is that, to an extent it is the very politics of food production (such as subsidies for certain crops) that contribute to wasting (For some more on this precise issue see for example: Gille, Z. 2012. From risk to waste: global food waste regimes. The Sociological Review, 60, 27–46).

In my own research on food recalls, there are also issues of brand reputation and protecting profitability that can sometimes already be marginal under the best of circumstances. Destruction is often the path of least cost and resistance. Moreover, in most cases companies are reluctant to disclose just how much product was recalled and subsequently destroyed. 

I suspect a quick Google search will show a few thousand results comparing Evernote and DEVONthink intended to help you decide which one to use. However, I think it is important to explore the differences between these applications not for the purposes of choosing one over the other, but for understanding the different needs that each application offers. It is not an either/or situation. I chose these two applications because they are very frequently referred together or suggested as alternatives to one another. However, they are not alternatives, they are not replacements, they are different products with different purposes and uses. And while I’ve chosen to compare these two, there are plenty of other options, Microsoft’s OneNote and Google’s Keep are two prime examples of options that are also along the lines of Evernote (and less like DEVONthink), as you shall quickly see.

I originally set out to write an elaborate post that described how I use both applications, with the hopes that such an explanation would reveal the differences and similarities between the two applications. That quickly proved cumbersome. Instead, I have produced a pair of short DEVONthink/Evernote posts instead. The two posts highlight some salient differences between DEVONthink and Evernote. The posts are formatted as pairs of contrasting sentences with elaborations below, focusing on a short list of key areas chosen off the top of my head (so not at all systematic or exhaustive). These posts are not instructive, I’m assuming you either have existing knowledge or are willing to look up how to do these things in the documentation.

Part I focuses on some critical functional differences with some important implications. Part II focuses on features that are largely shared between the two applications but which are implemented in different ways.

Evernote allows you to create one type of document

basic formatting in evernote

Evernote allows you to create “Notes”. Notes are documents that contain formatted text, tables, images, and links. On the surface they look similar to a rich text file (under the hood, they are written in ENML which is largely HTML). You can also attach files of any type (except for a few gotchas, like .pages files) that can be opened in a suitable external application. Evernote notes and the (not entirely) basic formatting they offer are great, low-fuss ways to get ideas down quickly. You can actually generate some fairly nice looking documents very quickly in Evernote using their native Note format.

I rarely actually create Evernote notes with the intention of adding text. In most cases I am attaching files for storage and retrieval. Most notes I do make are quick jottings, such as the weight of each of my cats. Heavy-duty writing is done in Microsoft Word (yes, yes, I know), and depending on the project, is indexed by DEVONthink (more on that below).

DEVONthink allows you to create multiple document types

Standard document types in DEVONthink

DEVONthink can natively create a variety of documents. These include plain and rich text, markdown, basic spreadsheets, and even HTML documents that it can display as the source code or render as a web page. These can all be viewed and edited right in DEVONthink. There are also a number of advanced “templates” that come with DEVONthink, and you can make your own. For example, some default templates include a Cornell note document, a contact card with a link to that card in your Address book, or a blank task list you can add to. The “Project” template shows off the power of templates in DEVONthink the best. As you can see from the screenshot, it creates a master “About this project” file and automatically generates sub-directories for various project elements that you can populate with your own project files as you being your planning.

A more advanced template in DEVONthink. This is the pre-installed Project template. You can see the pre-generated file structure to the right, ready to be filled in!

Above is a more advanced “template” in DEVONthink. This is the pre-installed “Project” template. You can see the pre-generated file structure to the right, ready to be filled in. DEVONthink is not so much about easily creating pretty looking notes natively, though between HTML, Markdown, and Rich Text, you can do a fair bit natively. What lacks in its native ability to create pretty looking documents, it makes up for in its ability to handle almost any type of file you could possible need access to.

Evernote handles files as “attachments” to notes

If you want to store an arbitrary file in Evernote, such as an image, PDF, Word document, and so on, you have to first create a Note, then attach the desired file. Attachments can only be accessed via Evernote and cannot be stored or easily accessed from the Finder or opened via the suitable app. If you attach a word document to a note, for example, you cannot open that document from the Finder or Word, you must open it from Evernote. This can cause some grief if you have an attachment open, close Evernote, and make further edits to the attachment. Because Evernote is no longer running it will not sync the changes to the server, and it is possible though rare, that if you make a mis-step here to lose data. A very crude analogy would be to think of Evernote notes as email messages with attachments.

DEVONthink can handle any files type on its own

You can add any file you like to DEVONthink. It will display a wide variety of files natively, allow viewing of an even wider variety of files beyond what can be edited in DEVONthink itself. Any file that cannot be edited or viewed in DEVONthink will open in the appropriate external application. A contrasting crude analogy would be to think of DEVONthink as a file system, where files stand on their own, rather than email messages with attachments.

Evernote defaults to synchronizing your content

Evernote is, in some respects, a cloud service with a robust client (i.e. the application you have running on your Mac), rather than a product. Much of what makes Evernote great is done server side (making images of text searchable, for example). As a result of this, Evernote works best if you synchronize your stuff, which is the default state for everything in Evernote.

You can create “local notebooks” which, as the name implies are only stored locally. This can be good for some sensitive information but I don’t trust this system. It seems all too easy to uninstall your Evernote client (say, when troubleshooting or setting up a new machine) and lose local data, because you failed to export it prior to uninstalling. It is also possible to accidentally place sensitive information into a synchronized notebook or to have your local notebook actually accidentally uploaded to servers (and there have been reports to corroborate my suspicion of both of these happening). In either case you’ve either lost important data, or uploaded sensitive data to places you shouldn’t upload to. Neither of these are risks I’m interested in taking.

The synchronization in Evernote is great. It is so straightforward and works so well (most of the time). One major perk is it makes sharing simple. My partner and I share a few notebooks. For example, we have a “household” notebook containing all the documents related to our household affairs, such as receipts for joint purchases, financial planning, vacation planning, and things related to our cats (we recently kept a photo journal of a minor ailment afflicting one of our cats. Being able to both contribute to that journal daily without fuss was truly amazing). We also share a notebook with recipes for cooking. It is easy to scan printed recipes or clip them using the web clipper and have them immediately accessible on our iOS devices in the kitchen or do quick searches for “rhubarb” or “Cookie” (we use tags to assist with this too) if we need inspiration or ideas. All of this is so easy and is fueled by Evernote’s synching.

Synchronization is less great when in comes to very sensitive information. Because of this, there is a lot of information I do not, or cannot store, in Evernote (and I do not like the opacity and unreliability of Local Notebooks).

DEVONthink does not synchronize content to any cloud by default (or at all)

DEVONthink’s synchronization capabilities are more diverse and flexible than Evernote’s but they are a bit less straightforward. DEVONthink doesn’t, as yet, offer any seamless synchronization, and does not offer its own cloud service a la Evernote. The major disadvantage is that it makes sharing or collaborating as I described doing with Evernote impossible, or at least nearly so nearly so. DEVONthink does provide a system for synchronizing databases directly between two macs, and this can be facilitated with a service like Dropbox, directly over your LAN, or via your own webDAV server. It is great if you have a home and work machine, or a desktop and laptop. It does not aid in collaboration. Collaborating with DEVONthink’s sync options can be done, and the folks at DEVONtech outline one way of collaborating with DEVONthink and Dropbox on the Devonian Times blog.

The major advantage to having files stored locally is that I always know where they are all the time. There are no sync conflicts. There are no errors. Most importantly for me, I have full control over my data. My research data has personal information about third-parties. My university prohibits me from storing that in cloud services (with a few small exceptions, and Evernote is not one of them). The province of Ontario also has legal limitations on this. It is therefore important for me to have large portions of my research data explicitly NOT in the cloud. Thankfully all of the amazing features DEVONthink offers take place locally, so this is not an issue for me.

Evernote maintains its own, cryptic database to store your content

Evernote stores your data in you computer’s ~/Library/Containers directory, and it is in a database format that is pretty human-hostile. You can get into it, you can view files, but it is organized in a way that makes zero sense to a human. It was not built for you to wade into. Besides, if you mess with the database in the Finder, you risk corrupting it, potentially losing data, and so on. This means you have to always do everything via Evernote’s interface. This is not itself an issue. Evernote has its little data silo and you modify the contents of that silo through the Evernote interface. Everything only ever lives in that silo.

A major consequence of this is you cannot “reference” files. That is, files only ever live in Evernote’s database. Evernote cannot see things outside of this database, and you can only view the contents of the database through Evernote. You cannot, for example, have an Word document that is stored in your ~/Dropbox folder attached to an Evernote note.

Another consequence is that editing attachments after Evernote has closed can be problematic. As mentioned above, modifying an attachment after Evernote has been closed can potentially result in data loss since Evernote loses track of what is current or what has changed.

DEVONthink can store content in a database or reference files in your file system where they lay, or both

DEVONthink has its own databases, not unlike Evernote, however there are some important differences. The first is that files you organize using DEVONthink don’t actually have to be stored in these proprietary databases. You can “import” files, or “index” files, or both. Files you “import” into DEVONthink live in these silos along with all of the extra metadata that DEVONthink generates about these files to fuel its “artificial intelligence” engine that helps your organize and find files. If you “index” files or directories, the files remain where they lay in your file system (so, if you index a folder in Dropbox, the files live in that dropbox folder), while all the additional metadata that DEVONthink needs live in its own database. Changes made to files in that directory inside or outside of DEVONthink are automatically reflected both inside and outside of DEVONthink.

These PDFs live in a folder in Dropbox, but are indexed by DEVONthink, and thus, available through the sophisticated search features and for processing by DEVONthinks AI

For example, in the image above you see a list of PDF files. These PDFs live in a folder in Dropbox, but are indexed by DEVONthink, and thus, available through the sophisticated search features and for processing by DEVONthink’s “AI”. These files have little arrows next to them indicating that they are “indexed”. These files don’t live in DEVONthink, they actually live in a folder in Dropbox. I can use DEVONthink to read and annotate these files and they remain in Dropbox, and all the changes are immediately reflected in Finder and Dropbox. This is exactly the same as if I had just opened the PDF in and made changes there. Likewise, if I read and annotate one of these PDFs on my iPad, the changes are synced via Dropbox and immediately reflected in DEVONthink. This allows me to take advantage of all of the searching and organizational features in DEVONthink, without rendering my PDFs inaccessible from other devices. Imported files live in DEVONthink’s databases and need to be accessed via DEVONthink, though they can be opened, viewed, and edited, in any external application you like, even if DEVONthink is closed while you have a file open in an external application. Unlike Evernote, there’s no harm in modifying files that are imported into or indexed by DEVONthink after DEVONthink has closed since there is no threat of a sync conflict.

Evernote Maintains a single database, stored in a hidden location

The major downside here is that this is also where your local notebooks live, which makes them very difficult to move around between machines if you are setting up a new Mac for example. You have to go through a slightly onerous export-import routine… and that assumes you remember to export and backup your local notebooks before you nuke your previous installation! You can also only have one Evernote database. This means that you cannot have, say, a “Work” and a “Home” database. While you can use Notebooks and Stacks to differentiate these things, it is not always ideal and can clutter searches. If you want full separation, you need separate Evernote accounts. This can mean that, once you accumulate a lot of stuff, it’s an all-or-nothing deal and extremely large Evernote databases can sometimes be slow. And while Evernote’s searching functionality is robust, it can be hard to add all of the exclusions needed to ensure you don’t have a lot of work cruft when searching for a recipe for dinner.

DEVONthink allows you to create any number of databases, stored where you see fit, and which are portable

With DEVONthink, I can create any number of databases. This can help mitigate slow-downs due to large databases (you can split databases at logical points), and isolates contexts making sure searches are focused and that the AI that helps categorize or surface related content is bringing up meaningfully related items.

I don’t need my receipt for DEVONthink to come up as a search result or as a “See Also” suggestion when I’m looking for academic literature. Having my personal files in a separate database means that I don’t have to string together a slew of exclusions in my search terms, nor do I have to sift through false positives.

EVONthink Database files in a location chosen by me, and ready to be moved around at any moment!

These databases also live in any location. I store them in ~/Documents/DTPO. I can move them to a new location if I want with zero consequence. It’s also trivial to move items between databases should the need arise, such as if you want to split a database that is getting too large or if something suddenly shifts contexts. Another advantage: I don’t need my multi-gigabyte academic literature or government document databases open when I just need to quickly consult my comparatively small personal database. This means the application loads quickly and requires fewer computer resources when all I have is a small job.

One advantage of this is that, while you cannot restore parts of databases easily (as was also the case with Evernote), restoring entire databases, or multiple versions of entire databases from backups is very easy. This means, and unlike with Evernote, you can restore one or more versions of a database from a backup. You can also have these restored versions open simultaneously. This means if you are trying to find a past version of a single file, you can have your current database open, along with a past version, and transfer only that file from the backup to the live database. Put another way, backups are much easier with DEVONthink’s system, and so is restoring.

That’s it for Part I. Part II will be posted in a few days. Stay tuned, and try not to let the suspense get to you in the meantime.