Review of LexiCan

This note taking program is file based, that is it stores its data in files.  There was a significant reduction in response times when the file grew to just a few hundred notes or a couple of hundred kilobytes, this is very poor in my opinion.

When you open this program it takes a very long time before even the splash screen appears, this is annoying.

LexiCan has some serious issues which hamper its use, most of the other programs can have multiple databases or files open at once.  LexiCan can only have one file open at once and when you open another file it automatically closes the file you had open.

This program is produced by a German company, it has been translated into English.  However some of the more obscure menus and dialog boxes are still in German and if you get an error which happens frequently the error message which comes up is always in German.

This program does support transclusion which is a feature that few of the other programs support.  Transclusion is the feature whereby one note can appear in several places, not as a copy but separate instances of the same note.  If you edit one of them then it changes all of them.

This program is available from http://www.lexican.net/ , there is a free version available which is fully functional but only allows 30 notes.  The program costs 39.90 Euros (at 28th April 2013).

Overall score = 33 out of 60

Verdict               Almost worth buying, but not quite.

1. Connectivity            =    6

This program cannot generate a universal link, it is not possible to link into a specific article in this program, the only thing you can do is start the program.

If you paste a universal link into LexiCan the link will appear in the text but if you click the links nothing happens, to open the link you have to use a context menu which appears when you right click on the link, then it takes a very long time to open the link.

The program keeps a list of all the files you have linked to so it is easier to link to a file if it is already on the list.  If you view the list you will see that any files which have been deleted, renamed or moved have a red icon next to them.  Apparently it checks for the existance of each file when start the program, this could be one reason why the program takes so long to start up.

You can create links to files, to web pages, to other notes (articles) in the same file, to a folder or to a reference.  A reference is biblographical reference, a place to put all the details of a book or article, but there is no link to the book or article if you have it as a file on your computer.

2. Classification            =    6

There is a tagging scheme which is just a flat list, but the problem is the search facilities.

Tagging is only half the story, the whole point of tagging things is to be able to find them again.  The designer of this program forgot that.  The search facilities are inadequate and that is what lets this program down.  You can search for words in the notes (articles) or in the titles or within a single article or in the tags, what you cannot do is search using a combination of these methods.

3. Text layout and formatting    =    8

The editing functions are good.  They are as good as some word processors.  Table handling is excellent.  Pictures and graphics can be inserted into the text.

4. A sense of time            =    0

This program has no calendar or any sense of time.

5. Ease of use            =    6

This program is quite easy to use, if you ignore the clutter of the screen and if you can remember which ribbon contained the icon for the function you wanted to use.

The frequent errors were a problem and the fact that the dialog box which is displayed in response to an error is always in german so you have no idea what the error was or what to do about it unless you can speak German.

6. Visual Appeal            =    7

This program uses the styling of a modern word processor, everything looks the part.  It has a ribbon instead of conventional toolbars and so there is a lot of wasted space on the screen and this restricts the size of the editing area.  You cannot turn the ribbon off completely and go back to conventional toolbars, most of the time the ribbon is sparsely populated but it takes up a strip the height of the ribbon across the entire screen with about half of it empty.  The note (article) is in a window in the middle of the screen with many panels displaying various other information around it, on a small screen the amount of space left for the article window can get very small indeed, I ended up switching various things off and having the ribbon automatically disappear when the mouse wasn’t over it, this is all very well but it does increase the hassle of using this program

LexiCan screen shot

LexiCan screen shot

Review of Debrief Notes

This note taking program is file based, that is it stores its data in files.  There was a significant slowing of the response times when using a file with over one thousand notes.  You can only have one file open at once.

This program looks like it was put together by a committee, it has lots of features but it looks like there was little consideration for how those features might be used together to produce a good workflow.  Also there seems to be an assumption that you will only use Debrief Notes and have all your notes and information within one file without linking it to any other program or any external file.

On the positive side the developers have done their best to make this program have all the facilities you might need and have come up with ingenious ways of getting around the lack of links.  One note may appear in many contexts, but this is not true transclusion.

The first organisational structure is folders which contain notes.  A note may not have notes as decendants, only a folder may contain notes.  But there are many ways to arrange these notes.  The notes get a calendar date which defaults to the date of creation but can be set to any date.

There are also ‘Action Items’ which are basically a to do list, you can give them priorities and deadlines and associate them with notes.

There are also ‘Cases’ which are a group of associated notes, Action Items, Contacts and any other items you want to associate.  There are also ‘Outlines’ which are lists of notes arranged in a particular order with the sort of numbering scheme you would expect in an outline.  There are also ‘Note Decks’ which are just a group of notes arranged in an arbitrary order.

One note may appear in many different Cases, Outlines and Note Decks.

There is also a contacts list with all the fields you might expect.  There is a To Do list which allows you to assign tasks to other people.  If a task is assigned to another person then it appears on a separate list.  You can assign deadlines and expiry dates to To Do list items and associate other notes with them.

The program also generates a daily note automatically if no note has been generated for that day, this is the Daily Notepad and is meant for collecting random jottings for that day.  If you don’t put anything in it then it remains as an empty note for that day.

If all of the above seems complicated then there is a good reason for that,   it is complicated!  This is not an easy program to use, the various features and ways of doing things don’t fit together to create an easy workflow.  It could be that if I used this program for a long time things might get easier, but I don’t think I will bother.

This program was written some time ago and that is visible in the user interface.  Debrief Notes seems like a dead project with no active development, the last update (version 2.4) was released in 2005.  If you try to get in touch with the developers there is no reply, apparently this program has been sold to another company who are still selling it but not developing it.

The program is available from http://debriefnotes.com/ for $39.95 (on 28th April 2013) with a cut down version for $29.95.  There is also a free version which has most of its functionality disabled.  If you are thinking of going for the free version then you would be much better off getting Keynote which is free and Open Source and is available from http://code.google.com/p/keynote-nf/ .  Another alternative is the free version of Memo Master which is just as capable and far easier to use.

Overall score = 20 out of 60.

Verdict               Total waste of money.

1. Connectivity            =    1

There is almost no connectivity in this program.  You cannot insert links to anything within the text, if you do then they appear as plain text and clicking on them has no effect.  There is no way to refer to another note from within a note, rather you create groups of notes, there is no way to refer to a note in another file.

There is a ‘Library’ into which you can put references to books, publications or websites.  You might think that the ‘Reading List’ associated with this library might allow a link to the file if it is a file on your computer but it doesn’t.  There is a field for the file location but this is just a text field.  The only link which can exist within this program is if the ‘Library’ reference is a website then a small green arrow appears next to the field for the location, if you click this arrow then it opens the website in a browser.  Why could they not have done this for files as well?

That’s it!

2. Classification            =    2

Surprisingly there is a tagging scheme in this program and it is hierarchical.  You may tag a note with as many tags as necessary.  Where it all falls down is the use of these tags to select notes, you may select one tag at a time and the notes associated with that tag come up in a list.  This is not terribly useful.

3. Text layout and formatting    =    4

Debrief Notes has very basic text formatting of font, size and colour as well as Bold, underline and italic.  It does not support tables or graphics of any kind.

4. A sense of time            =    5

This program have very good sense of time, notes may be associated with dates.  There is also a To Do list called ‘Action Items’, presumably items which need action.  The program will notify you of any action items which are due or overdue when you start it up.  The method of linking notes to To Do’s seems to be overly complex and not as useful as it could be.  For instance I cannot see any way to set a repeating To Do, which probably means you have to set each one individually.

5. Ease of use            =    4

This program is not easy to use and has many quirks and inconsistencies in the interface.  There is a good documentation file but it is quite large and might take a while to read.

6. Visual Appeal            =    4

This program is not visually attractive and the user interface is quite abstruse.

Debrief Notes screen shot

Debrief Notes screen shot

Review of Memo Master

This note taking program stores data in a database, there is no save file option, all changes are saved immediately.  There was no significant slowing of the response times when using a file with over one thousand notes.  Memo Master can have several databases open simultaneously.

The program is produced by a German company and the documentation (freely downloadable from their website) is in English but is obviously translated German, a smattering of words remain untranslated.

There is a tree structure to hold the notes (in the documentation Memo Master calls it’s notes memos).  In most of the other programs each note can have descendant notes, in Memo Master this is not the case, you can have ‘memos’ or ‘folders’ rather like a directory structure on a disk drive.  Memos cannot have descendants, folders can hold as many memos or folders as you want to put in them but cannot display any text.  This is unusual amongst note taking programs.

There is a free version available from http://www.jbsoftware.org/memomaster/index.htm , you have to submit all your details to them before they will send you a download link.  The free version starts out as a full version for 30 days then reverts to the free version and a significant portion of the functionality stops working.  The free version is actually quite a capable note taking program in its own right, this would be a good option if you want to find out more about note taking programs but don’t want to spend any money.  The free version certainly beats Keynote.

The one I am using is the Small Business Edition which is £39 or $59 (on 21st April 2013).  To see the difference between the full version and the free version look http://www.jbsoftware.org/memomaster/details.htm .  There is a more expensive version which allows multiple concurrent users and a centralised database.

Overall score = 43 out of 60

Verdict               Worth Buying.

1. Connectivity            =    8 out of 10

As with most of the other programs reviewed here Memo Master can create links in the text to external files, to a folder and to websites.  It can also create links from one note to another, even if the note is in another database.  The program can use universal links generated by other programs to link to notes in those programs but it cannot generate incoming universal links.  Paradoxically it can create a desktop link file which can call up one specific Memo Master note (memo).  I suppose one could set up a folder for these link files and create links to the link files from other programs, but this is not as straightforward as using universal links.  Files can be attached to a memo, the attached files appear in a list at the bottom of the memo.

2. Classification            =    8 out of 10

There is of course a hierarchical tree of notes (memos)

Memo Master has an excellent tagging scheme but they call it a Keyword Index, they also have what they call a tagging scheme which is a coarse classification scheme with about thirty categories before it starts to get cumbersome and difficult to use.

You can assign keywords (tags) to any memo using the keyword index, this is a flat list of keywords.  Once you have assigned keywords you can search for them using quite a sophisticated search engine.  As well as having a full index of all words used in the body text of the memos you can search just within the keywords and you can build up specific queries using AND, OR, NOT and brackets.  The memos also have a ‘description’ field and a ‘comments’ field, you are also allowed to search in these fields so you could use these fields for further classification of your memos.

The search dialog box looks a bit complex at first, more complex than it needs to be but perhaps some better documentation would help.  The search dialog box does allow you to search in the keywords only, I think the search facilities are almost as good as those in ‘Personal Knowbase’, if it allowed you to save named queries rather than creating them fresh each time then it would be equal to ‘Personal Knowbase’.

3. Text layout and formatting    =    10 out of 10

The editor is as good as a good word processor.  It has all the normal text formatting options of a word processor.  It handles tables very well once you have created a table you can drag the cell boundaries about with the mouse, this is the way it should work.  You can set headers and footers for when the document is printed out.

A note can contain a spreadsheet with working calculations, this is not just a gimmick this is a real quite sophisticated spreadsheet program.

You select the type of note when you create it, as well as a text memo and a spreadsheet there is a code memo, this is a programmers editor, plain monospaced text with line numbers and syntax highlighting for a number of different programming languages.

4. A sense of time            =    0 out of 10

Memo Master does not have a sense of time.  There is no calendar.  But bizarrely you can set an expiration date on a note so it gets automatically deleted after a specific date.

5. Ease of use            =    9 out of 10

I find this program very easy to use.  The note editor looks and feels like a high end word processor.  There is no switch between an edit mode and a viewing mode, you can edit at any time and the links appear as links, to edit a link you right click on it and select ‘hyperlink’ from the context menu, a dialog box appears with the link destination and the link text in different fields.

Memo Master has working spreadsheets built in.  It is incredibly useful to be able to have a spreadsheet in a note, this is the ultimate table and list making tool (with the benefit of formulas and calculations).

There are also code memos, these are for writing program code, they have syntax highlighting for many different programming languages.  There is no text formatting in a code memo and the typeface is monospaced (but the font can be set in the options).

There is a slight learning curve but that is true of all complex programs.

6. Visual Appeal            =    8 out of 10

The program has two fixed toolbars arranged one above the other, there is enough width on the small screen of my laptop to have these side by side but they are fixed in place thereby taking up double the height of a single toolbar across the whole screen.  This is a waste of space.

However having said that it is a very good looking program.

Memo Master screen shot

Memo Master screen shot

Apart from this one glaring error the user interface is quite slick and obvious.  This program looks good there are a number of different colour schemes you can select, it is perhaps not as configurable as some of the other programs reviewed here but the choices the designers have made are well thought out and sensible.

Review of WhizFolders

WhizFolders is file based, that is it stores its data in files so you have to explicitly save the file before quitting.  There was no significant slowing of the response times when using a file with over one thousand notes.  I don’t like the name of this program but the program itself is OK.  WhizFolders can have multiple files open at once.

There is a hierarchical tree of notes and a tagging system, although the tagging system is not separate from the notes as far as searches go.  It does not have a calendar or a sense of time, so it cannot be used to set reminders.

There are two editors and they are quite interactive, you do not need to manually switch between edit mode and view mode, it will automatically switch to the quick editor mode if you just start typing.  When it does switch to edit mode the note pane lurches down by a couple of lines as the toolbars suddenly appear at the top and all the links expand into an ugly mess.

The other editor is the advanced editor which opens in a new window, as its name suggests it has more options than the quick editor.

The only real problem with both editors is that in edit mode the links suddenly expand to show their contents.  This is unnecessary as you are unlikely to want to manually edit them once they have been inserted.  Many other notetaking programs have a dialog box which opens when you request to edit a hyperlink allowing you to change the destination and the displayed text.

WhizFolders is a commercial program and is available at www.whizfolders.com/ , it costs $49.95 (at 20th April 2013).  There is a free 30 day trial version.

Overall score 41 out of 60

Verdict               Worth Buying.

1. Connectivity            =    10

Any note can contain a link to any other note, to a disk file, to a group of files or a folder or to a web page.  WhizFolders also supports universal links so that you may link to a specific note from any external program that supports universal links, there is a context menu item which says ‘Copy Universal link to this Topic to the Clipboard’.  When you paste this into another program you have a link back to that specific note from the other program.  You can also call up notes or e-mails or any other item in another program from WhizFolders using universal links.

So notes can be linked to everything which they might need to be linked to in a nice simple way.

2. Classification            =    7

Notes can be tagged with keywords but the keywords are in a flat list (no hierarchy).  Once keywords have been assigned they can be used in searches.  The keywords cannot be searched for in isolation.  If you search your notes for a keyword then any occurrences of that keyword within the body text of the note will also be found.  The occurrences found in the keywords will be listed separately however.  You can use AND & OR in the searches to refine the search.

There is an option to search only within the keywords, this has been introduced in the latest version (version 6.64).

3. Text layout and formatting    =    7

The editors are not up to the standard of a good word processor but all the normal formatting which you might expect from a word processor is available.  Font, font size, colour of letters, bold, italic, superscript, subscript, alignment, indenting and bulleted and numbered lists.

WhizFolders can insert pictures and tables into notes but the table handling is not very good.  Once the table has been inserted you can edit the contents but you cannot move the cell boundaries as you can in a word processor.  This is a common fault with note taking programs and is caused by the limitations of the RTF editor tools available in Microsoft C++ and C# compilers.

4. A sense of time            =    0

WhizFolders has no sense of time.

5. Ease of use            =    9

WhizFolders is very easy to use.  The toolbars are a little cluttered but that is understandable for a program which can do this much.  You can re-configure the toolbars if you want.  You can also assign keyboard shortcuts to suit your own preferences.

6. Visual Appeal            =    8

WhizFolders with a small icon toolbar

WhizFolders with a small icon toolbar

This program is very configurable, if you want a ribbon with big icons then you can have it.  The way I have it configured the look and feel of WhizFolders may not be the most modern but is very nice with little wasted space.

Review of ConnectedText

This note taking program stores its notes in a database, therefore there is no need to save the file, changes are saved in the database automatically when you exit the edit mode.  A separate database is set up for each collection of notes (called a project).  There was no significant slowing of the response times when using a project with over one thousand notes.  This program can open multiple databases simultaneously.

There is a big difference between Connected Text and any of the other programs reviewed here, Connected Text is a wiki program.  To edit a wiki page you have to put the program into ‘edit mode’.  The text you type is in a markup language, when you put the program back into view mode the markup language is interpreted and the results displayed.

This is rather awkward and takes a bit of getting used to but it is much more powerful than any of the other programs reviewed here.  There are many ‘plug ins’ which either come with it or can be freely downloaded including ‘Graph viz’ for drawing directed acyclic graphs and the Python scripting language.  So you can write programs using Python which interact with the data in your wiki and display the results to the page you are viewing, the program is run each time the page is displayed in view mode, in edit mode you get to see and edit the source code for that page.

It is definitely not a WYSIWYG editor.  Edit mode is ugly, and often you have to switch back and forth between view mode and edit mode many times when what you have typed is not rendered as you had intended and you have to go back and correct it.  I suppose it may get better as I gain more experience but for now editing is an iterative process.

This program has so many facilities and different ways of organising your data that it would be difficult to cover them all in a review like this without it getting extremely long, if you are interested then check out the website at www.connectedtext.com/ or download the documentation.

The fact that each page could contain a Python program to render its contents means that its capabilities are unbounded.  For instance there is a python script which I copied from the Connected Text website which analyses the connections within your wiki and then uses the Graph viz plug in to produce a directed graph map of your wiki, this hints at the awesome power of this program.  I have also copied an implementation of much of the functionality of ‘Lotus Agenda‘ (an organiser which I once used back in the days of DOS) written in the ‘ConnectedText’ markup language.

This is a commercial program, available from www.connectedtext.com/ it is currently priced at $39.95 (at 16th April 2013).  There is a free 30 day trial version but in my opinion 30 days is not enough time to be able to come to terms with this very complicated program.  Is it worth the money?  Well it is certainly very powerful and I’m sure it is capable of a lot more than I am currently using it for.  I am not a fan of the Edit mode/View mode split but maybe I will get used to it with time.

The overall score is 40 out of 60.

Verdict               Worth Buying.

1. Connectivity            =    10 out of 10

Basically you can connect anything to anything else.  All the links are embedded in the text of a page just like editing a web page.  The link can be to another note in the wiki or to a note in another wiki or to an external file or to a URL on the internet.  The fact that the links are embedded in the text makes them both visible and editable, nothing is hidden.  In view mode if you click a link to a file then the program will run that file just the same as if you had double clicked on it in file manager.

Creating a link to a page in the same wiki is easy, you just put the name of the target page within square braces like  [[Target Page]], if the target page exists it is linked to, if it does not then the link appears in red when you go back to viewing mode.  But if it does not exist then when you click on that link a new empty page with that name is created and opened in edit mode for you to start writing.  This method of creating links on the fly does not interrupt the process of writing when you want to refer to a page which does not yet exist.

The program has a menu item entitled ‘Copy as link’ which copies a universal link onto the clipboard which can be pasted into another Connected Text wiki or into any other program which supports universal links.  When activated this link will open Connected Text if it is not already running and direct it to open the page which is the target of the link.  So you can link to specific pages within other Connected Text wikis.

Connected text also supports universal links to and from other programs, so I can link to a specific E-mail or contact in my E-mail program from within Connected Text.  Or I can link to a specific page in a Connected Text wiki from within a note in WhizFolders (another note taking program I will be reviewing).

There is also a set of ‘Bookmarks’ just like a web browser, you can bookmark favourite pages within your wiki and jump to them.

2. Classification            =    10 out of 10

Connected Text has very powerful facilities for classifying things.  Pages can have category, attribute and property commands embedded in the markup language.  A page which contains a category command assigns the page to that particular category when the markup language is interpreted (when exiting edit mode).  Properties and attributes are similar to each other and both assign an explicit value to a variable which is associated with that page.  The only difference is that attributes are displayed as part of the page whilst properties are invisible in the text in viewing mode.

Assigning categories, properties and attributes is only half the story.  Once you have a set of pages classified like this you can write queries to select the pages you want to see.  Each category has an automatically generated virtual page which contains links to all the pages in that category.  The categories are hierarchical so a category can be a subcategory of another category.

A page can contain a query which selects pages with certain categories properties or attributes, when this query is run it will generate a list of links to pages which fulfill the selection criteria.  If selecting on a property or attribute any page which assigns anything to that property or attribute is considered to ‘have’ that property or attribute.  However queries can also select pages which have a property or attribute equal to (or less than, greater than or not equal to) a specific value.  Also the result can be sorted according to the values in a property or attribute.

For instance you might have a set of pages with the category ‘Task’ with an attribute ‘Priority’ and a date associated with each page.  You could then have a page containing a query to display tasks which would display a list of all pages in the category ‘Task’, this list could be sorted by priority or date.  The page would be automatically updated each time the page is rendered.

3. Text layout and formatting    =    5 out of 10

The appearance of the page will be very different in viewing and edit modes.  The overall formatting of the page can be altered by using cascading style sheets (.CSS files) just like a web page but the CSS formatting can be overridden in the markup language.

Formatting a page in Connected Text is similar to formatting a web page in HTML.  Simple formatting is not difficult but looks very plain.  You can get the results as good as you want but getting it to look just the way you want can take much more work than with an interactive editor.

Connected Text does do tables and the results can be very good but they are not interactive.  In many ways the tables created are more powerful than in other programs but they are not intuitive.  A table is built using the markup language to specify where the cell boundaries are, the width of the columns, how the table will appear.  Everything which is not a command is treated as the table contents.  This sort of layout lends itself to being automatically generated by a Python program.

Pictures and graphics can be displayed on a page and there is a great deal of flexibility as to how it is displayed.  In edit mode all you see is a link to a file in the markup language and various parameters which control where and how it is displayed, but when you go back to view mode the picture appears.

4. A sense of time            =    6 out of 10

You can add a date and a time to a page title in a specific format, that page will then appear in the calendar.  The calendar can be used to select pages associated with a specific date.  There are no reminders unless you write a query to get a list of pages associated with the date you are interested in.

It is possible to do an agenda or a to do list or a diary within Connected Text but the facilities are not built in, you have to make them yourself, this is not as difficult as it might seem and there is an adequate amount of documentation on the Connected Text website and in other articles and blogs around the internet to enable you to do this.

5. Ease of use            =    4 out of 10

This program is not as easy to use as many of the other note taking programs reviewed here, edit mode is just like editing a web page, what you see is not what you get.  This may be acceptable for editing a web page but for a note taking program it definitely detracts from the interactiveness and immediacy it would be nice to see in a program like this.

On the other hand this program is far more powerful than any of the other programs reviewed here, but with that power comes a steep learning curve.

6. Visual Appeal            =    5 out of 10

Editing mode is very ugly and it is not always obvious what the page will look like until you go back to viewing mode.  Viewing mode results can be very good but this usually takes more work to achieve, just like editing a web page.

ConnectedText view mode

ConnectedText view mode

The display is uncluttered by unnecessary buttons and toolbars.  There are many different windows which can be called upon to display various aspects of the information in your wiki, these windows can be uncoupled and moved around the screen or onto a second screen if you have one.

What is note taking software and how do I review it?

I would firstly like to point out that I have no connection whatsoever with any software company.

Many people keep bits of information that they think they might need in the future.  They usually use several different applications for storing this information.  This can become a mess if it is not well managed, it is easy for information to become misplaced (not lost, merely not easy to find).  Another problem with this approach is that because they use a variety of different programs to store their information they are constantly switching between applications in order to find what they want.  This is not the most efficient way of doing things.

They might use text editors or word processors to keep random thoughts or useful bits of information they might have cut and pasted from the internet.

If the information naturally has more structure like a plan for a piece of writing or planning some sort of event then they may well use an outliner or the outline function built into a word processor or even a mind mapping program.

They might keep references to scientific papers or other publications in a reference manager like Mendeley or EndNote.

It would be better to just use one program to consolidate all this information into one repository.  Something like a note taking program, but wait a minute … note taking programs already exist.  I always find it inexplicable that note taking programs have not become more mainstream than they are.  They seem to be a small niche market.

Note taking software is quite difficult to review, because there are so many different pieces of software with differing capabilities and different ways of doing the same things, but also there is a lot of variation in what people expect from this kind of software.

People have come up with various names for this type of software, but with each of these names comes a different set of expectations about what it will be able to do.  There are PIM’s (Personal Information Managers), Outliners, Wiki’s, Information databases and my favourite the Personal Knowledge Base.

Writing a book or a thesis?  A note taking program is just what you need, the meta data associated with each note makes it much easier to organise and find things in your creative writing.

Contact management?  CRM?  Nothing beats a blank page.

None of these programs reviewed here are perfect, each one is a compromise but some come closer than others.  Undoubtedly the most powerful program is ‘ConnectedText’, but it is not the easiest to use.  Probably the best all-rounder is ‘WhizFolders’.  The only program with a hierarchical keyword tree is ‘MyBase’ but it comes with other problems which detract from its usefulness.  The latest contestant is ‘Memo Master’ which looks quite promising.  Most of the programs reviewed here do something better than all the other programs but there isn’t one program which does it all.

I would suggest that most of the current note taking programs which classify notes in a tree structure have got it wrong!

There needs to be a hierarchical tree but it needs to be in the keywords.

If you have notes placed in a tree then a note can only appear in one place in that tree.  This works fine for small numbers of notes but starts to fall apart when the number of notes becomes larger than a few hundred.  The problem is that to find a place for your note in the tree you have to select the most significant single characteristic and this may exclude other equally valid characteristics.

Tagging of notes with keywords is the better solution.  You can tag a note with as many keywords as you like and so the note can be classified with as many characteristics as you think are useful.

But there is another problem.

When faced with a list of thousands of keywords it can be difficult to get to the one you want.  Therefore it would seem useful to put the keywords into a hierarchical tree structure.

On the face of it this would seem to be similar to placing the notes themselves in a tree but there is a significant difference.  The note can now be associated with keywords representing all of its significant characteristics.  In effect it appears wherever it is appropriate for it appear in the tree.

A scientific article may appear under the author’s name (or multiple authors names) but it should also appear under the subject of the research and under .DOC , .PDF or .PS and under the institution responsible for the research.

One refinement I would suggest is that of inheritance. For instance if you were to define the keyword ‘Animal’ with descendant keywords ‘Dog’ and ‘Cat’ then I would suggest that any note tagged with ‘Dog’ or ‘Cat’ should automatically be tagged with ‘Animal’ and if ‘Animal’ is itself a descendant of another keyword then the note should be tagged with that keyword as well, recursively right back to the ‘root’ keyword.

One further refinement I would suggest is that any notes without keywords should appear in the ‘root directory’ of the tree just to make them obvious.

The criteria by which the programs will be judged

When reviewing each program these are the questions I will be asking myself.

1. Connectivity is the main thing which separates a note taking program from a word processor.

How easy is it to connect things?  Does the program allow links to external files and websites?  Does it allow other programs to link in to the program and into one specific note in the data?  This is called a universal link.  How easy is it to link notes to other notes?  Can links be placed into the text?  Does the program allow transclusion?  Transclusion is the capability for one note to appear in more than one location, not as a copy but as separate instances of the same note.

2. Classification

How easy is it to classify and catalog notes?  Is there a tagging system?  If so then how useful is it?  How easy is it to find a specific note if you have forgotten its location?

3. Text layout and formatting

Can you format the text with various fonts, colours and sizes?  Can you put pictures into the text?  Can you put tables into the text?  How easy is it to edit text?  Is there a spell checker?

4. A sense of time

Does the program have a calendar?  Can you attach a date to a note?  Can the program remind you when that date comes around?

5. Ease of use

Is the program easy to use and intuitive?  Is the user interface obvious or confusing?

6. Visual Appeal

Is the program pretty to look at?  How much screen space is taken up by menu bars, tool bars and other things which are not your notes?  Is there much wasted space on the screen or is it all necessary?

Back door privatisation of the NHS

Margaret Thatcher died recently.   She was exceptional in many ways, I for one took exception to her.   But whatever your opinions of her were, at least you knew where you stood.   Her opinions were controversial at times but they were never hidden.   She said exactly what she meant.

Compare this with what is going on today.   We now have a Conservative prime minister who has stated that it is not their intention to privatise the health service.   He has stated that the Health Service is safe in Tory hands.   But the truth of the matter is very different from the spin.   The NHS is in the process of being dismantled quietly and insidiously.

The past few years has seen an unprecedented transfer of services towards the private sector.   It is happening in the name of the Tory dogma of ‘Opening services up to competition’, this seemingly innocuous phrase hides a lot of changes which are happening behind the scenes, with as little publicity as the government can manage.

Of course services which have been ‘Opened up to competition’ almost never go back to the NHS because once the service as it existed within the NHS has been dismantled the people and expertise have moved elsewhere, the equipment has been sold or recycled, the rooms have either been used for other services or have been rented out to the private company who are now providing the service.

It is very difficult once a service has been privatised to re-instate that service within the NHS and this almost never happens.

The current CON/DEM politicians are very patient, many small steps in their desired direction, each one so small as to be imperceptible to the general public can achieve their objective.   It works like a ratchet.   It is only necessary to ensure that there are no steps in the opposite direction.

It may take many years to achieve their goal, but the Conservatives will keep moving relentlessly towards it privatising the NHS bit by bit until a hospital is just a building within which private companies provide various services and the NHS will exist in name only.

That will be a sad day indeed.

Note Taking Software

I have been taking notes for a long time and I have used a great many note taking programs over the years (before the age of computers I used 5″ x 7″ cards).  I have amassed a large number of notes, some of them static (information), some of them are just stored as a record of past projects (the archive) but many of them constantly being updated.  There are two programs I currently use, one of them is called ‘ConnectedText’.  The other program I am using is called ‘WhizFolders’.  At some point in the future I will only be using one program for note taking but I have yet to decide which one, both of them have different strengths and weaknesses.

Some note taking programs use a hierarchical tree structure for the classification of notes and that approach is useful when the number of notes is relatively small.  If you have a hundred data items, it is reasonably easy to organise them into some sort of a branching tree structure, similar to files organized in folders on a hard disk.  However when you reach five hundred to one thousand notes, it becomes more difficult to find the item you are looking for as many records will belong to several categories.

You may be able to see all the entries belonging to one particular branch of the tree but you won’t easily be able to see a list of items related to a topic spanning many categories.  As the number of notes grows into the thousands (currently I have about five thousand notes) it becomes exponentially harder to isolate a set of notes related by some obscure characteristic.  It is also harder to place notes into the tree structure because you have to choose the most important category from among many possible categories.  Full-text search helps but it will often produce a set of results that is either much too big or too small.  It is particularly difficult to use a text search if you’re looking for a set of related items instead of just one item.

The best solution to this problem is to use ‘tagging’, notes are tagged with a set of keywords describing their salient characteristics.  With tagging you don’t have to decide which is the most significant characteristic of a note you can tag it with all of its characteristics and then it will appear wherever it is appropriate for it to appear.

I would like to say that there was a free and open source note taking program which was as good as any of the commercial programs but unfortunately there isn’t.  There are many free note taking programs but I have not yet found one which is anywhere near as good as some of the commercial offerings.

Over the next few weeks I intend to put up some reviews of the note taking programs I have tried and give my opinions as to the merits of each one so that people might avoid wasting money on programs which are not up to the task.