Reflections on Life without Newton
[Ron, a resident physician, uses a Newton to stay on top of the innumerable details that swarm through his life. We asked him to relate how he uses his PDA in the real world, and to share specifics on how he’s customized his Newton MessagePad. Although Ron wrote this piece before the most recent rumors of the Newton’s demise (see "Newton Rumored Dead and Gone" in TidBITS-417), it nonetheless illustrates how powerful and unique the MessagePad can be. For a review of the MessagePad 2000, see TidBITS-379.]
It seemed like a good idea – start 1998 by upgrading my Newton MessagePad 2000 with the features of the recently released MP 2100. I made several backups of the data in my Newton, including copies of the names, addresses, appointments, reminders, pearls of clinical wisdom, and other notes I’d scribbled into my Newton over the past four years that I could print if worst came to worst. I packed the machine in the Apple-provided box, dropped it off at our shipping department, and re-entered a paper-based world.
I was shockingly unprepared for life without my Newton. I found that I was devoting significant amounts of energy toward organizing my day, accessing information, preparing myself for the unexpected, tracking stray bits of information, and documenting my activities. Why was all this extra effort required? Wasn’t the Newton, after all, only an unusually sophisticated daily planner? Didn’t I still have my PowerBook for computing tasks, and ample paper and pens? I began to ponder the ways in which the Newton had enabled me to go beyond what could be accomplished with older technology.
A Wealth of Information — The most obvious way in which the Newton beats paper-based solutions is in the sheer quantity of information it can store. I am a resident physician pursuing board certification in two specialties. One, family practice, is extremely broad-based and demands fingertip access to a vast store of knowledge which must be updated frequently. My other specialty, psychiatry, is a rapidly evolving field where new pharmaceuticals and treatment strategies emerge almost daily. My MessagePad (souped up with 16 MB of flash storage, in addition to 4 MB internal) contains the LexiComp Drug Handbook, Griffith’s Five Minute Clinical Consult, the complete DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association), other textbook-sized references (many of which are available from K2 Consultants), plus progress notes and links to each patient’s complete history and physical. My Web site lists many of the important medical references and tools available for the Newton, as well as detailing how the Newton integrates with my day-to-day practice.
Carrying all the references I use in paper format would require a small wheelbarrow. Sure, they’d fit on a laptop machine, but to use a laptop effectively I’d need a place to set it down (remarkably difficult to find in a busy tertiary care facility), then I’d have to start it up (too time-consuming in a managed-care, seven-minute-per-patient-visit world), then put it away when I was done (mean time between thefts is short in some places where I work).
Health care may represent an extreme situation, but many modern jobs require more information than can comfortably fit in a single brain. (When I was a telecommunications engineer I would have killed to keep a few textbook-sized semiconductor data books in my pocket.) The Newton lets me keep a fair-sized library of reference materials at my fingertips and reach the resources of the Internet if I need more – I don’t have to locate a library or an available computer terminal to find the information I need. Putting the materials into the MessagePad is as easy as transferring them from a desktop computer to the Newton, or directly from the Internet to the Newton.
The Opportunity to Forget — In my work, I am barraged with pager messages; voice mail; data and instructions from nurses, patients, and coworkers; plus random thoughts that pop into my head and demand attention. The usual approach to dealing with these interruptions is to keep a paper to-do list (known in the medical trade as a "scut list"). That’s helpful, but can quickly grow cumbersome. On a typical day, I can have fifty or more pending tasks on my scut list. Unless you add only the most vital items to your list, critical items become lost in a sea of less immediately relevant tasks. If you don’t write down "unimportant" items, however, they might not get attention until they become important, and then you live in crisis management mode.
Out of the box, the Newton gives you a better way to manage tasks. You can keep a list of to-do items which can be prioritized (from one to four) and sorted within priorities. Adding some inexpensive third-party software can take you even further. I use DateMan from Stand Alone, Inc. A competing product, MoreInfo by SilverWARE, also gets rave reviews from users. Both products have time-limited demo versions available online.
DateMan lets me assign 15 levels of priorities to my tasks. In addition, I can file each task in a folder, and then create filters to display pending tasks from any combination of folders. Though my scut list might be huge, it always appears more manageable because I only see relevant items. For example, at home I can exclude all items that can only be taken care of at work. If I’m in a given department at work (say, Radiology), I can focus my list on items I need to accomplish while there, then broaden it to include all work-related items so I can decide which floor or department to visit next. DateMan hides items that have been completed, allows me to re-prioritize items on the fly, add scut items quickly (even when I’m in the middle of something else), assign alarms to items, add items that will show up at a future date, and even create items that will reappear at pre-set intervals.
This frees me to forget about things until they need attention. If I’m in the middle of interviewing a patient and a piece of information comes flying at me from another direction ("Doctor, the lab just called and said Mr. X’s sodium is 129…"), I don’t have to drop what I’m doing or worry I might forget that important fact later. I just grab my Newton (always in my fanny pack), add the item to my scut list with an appropriate priority and category, and move on. The Newton’s accessibility and reliability (I haven’t lost a single bit of information in four years of heavy Newton use!) reduce my stress level and allow me to focus fully on the task at hand.
Keeping on Schedule — Along with a scut list, DateMan also maintains a phenomenal calendar. I can schedule meetings and appointments with ease, and keep track of a schedule that involves two departments, three hospitals, three clinics, and the occasional social event. DateMan has a dazzling array of display options which I found frivolous at first. With use, though, I have come to love the capability to customize DateMan to suit my particular needs (which can vary considerably as I rotate through various jobs).
Scraps — I have already talked about storing textbook-sized references, but Newton is even more impressive at the other end of the scale. Life is full of small tidbits of information.
The Newton offers an alternative to keeping track of innumerable cards, memos, notes, and scraps of paper. When I sort a huge stack of paper from my clinic mailbox, I look at each item once. Some I dispose of immediately. Some have small bits of information: meeting dates or policy changes. Those I enter into my Newton on the spot, and recycle the memos then and there. Some longer but still useful pieces – such as lists of departmental personnel and phone numbers, microbe sensitivity data, and reporting procedures – go home to be scanned and converted to text. Then I can use David Fedor’s PaperBack or Apple’s Newton Press to create a Newton book containing the information.
Equally important are the scraps of information that stream past during a typical day: mentioned by friends, discussed at a meeting, heard on the radio, printed in the newspaper, or encountered on the Web. Other important items – such as serial numbers, credit card numbers, birthday reminders, passwords, and shopping lists – fly by all day long. If you meticulously keep a paper notebook, you might capture much of this information. It would be sorted chronologically, however, with no simple way to categorize it or search it for a specific item. It would become bulkier and heavier with continued use, encouraging purging the old material and selectivity when saving the new. The Newton grows neither heavier nor larger with continuing scrap-gathering.
With the built-in Notepad, you can save your scraps (as notes, outlines, checklists, or audio recordings) in one of up to 12 folders. Add Super NotePad and More Folders (both Stand Alone Software products) and you can have an unlimited number of hierarchical folders. You can file the same note in multiple folders, and you can assign an unlimited number of tags to each note. You can then define filters that show only the notes filed in specific folders with (or without) specific tags.
There is also information you might be reluctant to keep in a notebook. Imagine the horror of having an intimate diary stolen. First, the information lost might be difficult or impossible to replace. Second, potentially sensitive information would be in the hands of strangers (or worse). Fortunately, the Newton can back up to any Windows or Macintosh computer. It also provides a level of security by requiring that a password be entered at user-specified intervals to keep it operating. Super NotePad expands this security by allowing individual notes to be encrypted and entire folders to be locked. No security is unbeatable and I wouldn’t trust my Newton with state secrets, but it is far more secure than existing paper-based systems for storing credit card numbers, patient records, and my plans for world domination.
Of course, no matter how sophisticated your filing system is, some information will slip through the cracks. Even so, by lowering the trouble threshold for saving information and increasing the chances you’ll be able to find it later, the Newton goes a long way toward bringing order to a chaotic world.
Link It All Together — Another of the powerful features of DateMan (and MoreInfo) is the capability to link disparate kinds of information together. I keep the names of my clinic patients in the Newton Names application. DateMan then lets me link a name to a clinic note each time a patient visits, appointment entries for future visits, scut list items, and lists of current prescriptions in case the pharmacy calls for a renewal authorization.
Such links can be valuable in other ways. Say I’m shopping and spot a gadget that would be a perfect gift for my father’s next birthday. Alas, it’s January, and Dad’s birthday is in late October. If I buy it now, it might become lost or obsolete, or he might buy one for himself before I can give it to him. Instead, I create a note where I describe the item, perhaps including the price and features. I link that to Dad’s name card and to the store’s. I can create a scut list item that won’t appear until late September reminding me to buy the item and link that reminder to the item’s description as well as the store’s address card.
It’s remarkably easy to create all these links. On the other hand, I am remarkably lazy. Fortunately, a Newton program called GestureLaunch allows you to create scripts (in the Newton’s programming language, NewtonScript) that automate many of these tasks. It’s part of the NewtCase package from Innovative Computer Systems. Even if you don’t like to program, you can select from a pool of scripts at the GestureLaunch Depot site or download scripts I’ve written directly from my site.
Connect with the Real World — Newtons can beam information from MessagePad to MessagePad using built-in infrared capability. New Newtons come with a built-in Web browser and email client, and can connect to the Internet via a serial link, PC Card modem, or PC Card Ethernet adapter. Third-party solutions include browsers with more features, a Telnet client/VT-100 emulator, and an off-line Usenet news client. There are even wireless modems available, though wireless Net surfing remains financially out of reach for those of us on a resident’s salary.
All MessagePads also come with the capability to send and receive faxes through PC Card or serial modems. This capability is not only an excellent way to communicate with the non-Newton enabled, it can often serve as a makeshift substitute for a printer or scanner.
A trend which fills me with joy is the proliferation of Hewlett-Packard IrDA (infrared) compatible printers in some institutions where I work. The other day, a colleague asked if I knew where a local restaurant was. I popped the restaurant’s card up from Newton’s Names file. While he was looking for a piece of paper to write the address on, I spotted an HP LaserJet 5MP in the corner. I pointed my Newton at it, tapped Print, and by the time my friend found a sheet of paper, I had a printed address to hand him.
Even with these options, sometimes you want to be self-sufficient. I already owned an HP DeskJet 340 portable printer to use with my PowerBook, so I bought the IrDA adapter for it. I wrote GestureLaunch scripts to set margins to correspond with the forms and note paper used where I work. If I know I’m going to need to generate a lot of paper, I just toss the 340 in my bag. It supports IrDA and can print a hundred or so pages on a charge, so I don’t need cables or power adapters.
Never Be Without — As Newton has integrated itself more and more into my life, I have found it increasingly valuable for dealing with the unexpected. Instead of wondering what reference books I might need at work, I take the Newton. If I unexpectedly have time to stop at a grocery store on my way home from work, I have my shopping list with me. If I get an emergency call from a patient while I’m out of town, I not only have the patient’s records, but I can consult medical reference books and fax a prescription to the pharmacy. I have a diagram of my house with dimensions so if I find myself in a home-improvement store and get a crazy idea, I can check if a radial arm saw really will fit in the bedroom. If I unexpectedly make a tax-deductible purchase with cash, the information won’t get lost. If I get paged and am not sure how important it might be to answer, I can look up the number and find out who might be calling. If I find myself waiting in line or suffering through a boring meeting, I can work on some writing or read a book from Project Newtonberg, or some contemporary short fiction from InterText. Am I diligently taking notes or playing solitaire? Only Newton knows for sure.
My upgraded MessagePad came back a few days ago. With relief, I emptied my bag of collected medical reference books, scraps of paper, makeshift daybook, paperback novel, calculator, and other odds and ends that only scratch the surface of what I could do with the Newton. Many folks (myself included) first react to the Newton by saying it’s too big. Having just experienced life without it, the Newton now seems plenty small.