Long Term Usage Review of Note Taking Programs

I have looked at many programs which organise notes and build a personal knowledge base.  Many of them were not worth keeping installed on my computer for various reasons.

Of all the programs I have looked at three stand out as being better than the others in my opinion.  Of these three there doesn’t seem to be a ‘best’ program they are all good, but in different ways.  The three programs which remain installed on my system are ConnectedText, MyInfo and Ultra Recall.  I have been using ConnectedText for about two years, I have been using MyInfo for about a year and Ultra Recall for about ten months (as of December 2014).

Ultra Recall and MyInfo

Ultra Recall and MyInfo are very similar to each other and so it is easier to compare the two.  They are both note taking programs which put documents into a tree structure.  The layout of the user interface and the structure of the collection of documents is preset by the programmer and although there is some flexibility you cannot change the basic structure as you can with Connected Text.  Ultra Recall allows more flexibility in the layout of the user interface than MyInfo does.

There is no scripting in either program.

Ultra Recall is technically superior to MyInfo but MyInfo has a much better user interface, it is easier to use and so it is the one I find myself using for day to day note taking despite the fact that I feel I ought to be using the more powerful Ultra Recall.  This blog post is being composed on MyInfo the same as the rest of my blog posts.

I just find MyInfo nicer to use than Ultra Recall.

Cloned documents on Ultra Recall are true clones, if you add a sub document to one of the clones on Ultra Recall then the other clones also get that sub document added to them.  On MyInfo child documents of a clone have to be kept in sync manually which can be tiresome.

When using a 2 gigabyte database containing 20,000 documents they both perform well, searches are lightning fast but MyInfo takes a much longer time to initially open the file.  I don’t usually have this many documents in my database, I just use a few texts from Project Guttenberg to test how these programs will cope if I ever do get that many documents.

Ultra Recall handles embedded OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) objects better than MyInfo.  By OLE objects I mean Excel spreadsheets and Word documents.  OLE objects can be problematic for programs.  For an OLE link to work properly both the server side and the client side need to be implemented properly.  Ultra Recall have implemented the OLE client properly.

Microsoft products have both server and client working properly, this is unsurprising since they wrote the standard.  Other programs are less successful.  If you try to embed an Open Office Calc spreadsheet in Ultra Recall then it doesn’t work because Open Office have not implemented the server correctly.

So there are very few programs other than Microsoft Office applications which will work with OLE.  MyInfo is able to embed documents from Microsoft Office applications via OLE but there are many caveats and restrictions so it is not that useful in practice.

The tagging interface on MyInfo is much better than Ultra Recall.  MyInfo also handles tables better than Ultra Recall and it can display meta-data in columns next to the tree which is quite useful.

The meta-data in MyInfo is communal, that is every document in the file has the same meta-data, this encourages you to split up your data in separate files, but you can have many files open at once in tabs just below the toolbars.

With Ultra Recall each document can have different meta-data, this has the advantage that you can keep different types of data in the same file but has the disadvantage that the meta-data can become disorganised.

Ultra Recall also allows many files to be open at once.


Connected Text

ConnectedText is completely different to either Ultra Recall or MyInfo.  It is a Wiki engine, it contains plain text in it own markup language styled by a standard HTML CSS file.  The markup language contains many directives for classification and linkage and can also contain scripts using the Python programming language.  There are also queries which may be placed on a page, that page will then display the results of the query.

The interface consists of the main window displaying your page (or editing your page) plus a number of other windows which may be displayed or not depending on whether you want to see them or not.  They may be docked within the main window or floating.  You can even place them on another monitor if you have one.  The layout of the interface is very flexible.

MyInfo and Ultra Recall organise their documents into a hierarchical tree structure.  At first sight this is lacking in ConnectedText but that is not the case.  ConnectedText does ‘outlines’ which can be filled with links to ConnectedText pages in a hierarchical tree structure,  in fact you can have as many different trees as you want, each one giving you a different perspective on your data.

Connected Text is very very powerful, but not very intuitive or interactive.  It has a separate viewing and editing mode so what you see is not what you get.  The program takes a lot of learning to be able to use it fluently.

There is a trick which can be used to make ConnectedText a little more interactive, it allows a ‘floating window’ to be opened so you can view one topic whilst editing another.  But the topic in the ‘floating window’ can be the topic you are editing.  It won’t be updated continuously but every time you hit the save button on the toolbar the ‘floating window’ will be updated.  So you can see the effects of your edits in semi-real time.

The structure of the collection of documents is whatever the user wants it to be, although most times it does end up looking like web pages on a website.  This analogy is apt because working with a ConnectedText wiki feels very much like maintaining your own personal website, except that the facilities available are far more powerful than HTML.  The pages can often be more graphical than MyInfo or Ultra Recall which tend to be plain text.  But to achieve this takes more work than in Ultra Recall or MyInfo.

Tables have to be thought through beforehand and carefully programmed, this is usually an iterative process.

With too much data the performance of Connected Text falls considerably and searches on large data sets become very slow and the program sometimes runs out of memory (no matter how much memory you have in your computer Connected Text version 6.0 will only use 2Gb).  This test was with just 10,000 documents and the program was floundering, MyInfo and Ultra Recall were performing very fast searches and suffering no loss of speed of navigation with a database of twice that size.

ConnectedText also has a lot of plug-ins, there is GraphViz for drawing directed graphs which I use quite a lot and is very useful.  There is Ploticus which draws graphs, which I have used but not that much.  There is TeX for rendering mathematical formulas and a map plug in for getting Google Maps and displaying them in a page (you need an internet connection for this to work).

The most useful plug-in of all must be Python, you can write scripts in Python and they get run whenever the page is rendered.  Also the internals of the ConnectedText database are available for use in Python.

There is so much depth to this program, I have been using it on and off for about two years now and I am still learning what it is capable of.  Be warned if you get ConnectedText the learning curve is very steep.  But it gets easier with time.


The Conclusion

I think that at some point soon I will uninstall Ultra Recall.  Technically it is better than MyInfo but MyInfo is just so damn convenient and useful.  They both perform the same function so I can’t justify keeping them both, and keeping them both in sync is very tiresome and so the Ultra Recall database has fallen behind I now no longer bother to update it.

As to which one is the winner between MyInfo and ConnectedText …

I don’t know.

They are both extremely good.  But they are so very different.  Whilst the databases I had in Ultra Recall and MyInfo were just copies of each other the database in ConnectedText is quite different from the one in MyInfo.  The programs work differently and different things are possible in each.

I still haven’t decided.

Maybe I will keep both.


Some thoughts on NHS pay

These times of austerity have been austere indeed for people working in the NHS, unlike members of parliament who awarded themselves a 10 % pay increase NHS pay has been frozen for the past three years, this means that since 2010 pay has actually fallen by 10% once you take inflation into account. The NHS administrators wanted to continue the pay freeze but they have been overruled by the government. The government felt on the one hand it couldn’t afford to give staff a pay rise, while on the other realising it couldn’t afford not to.

So this year there has been a pay rise of a sort but it is only 1% and it is a ‘pay uplift’ rather than a pay rise. What’s the difference you ask? Well a pay uplift is not consolidated so at the end of twelve months the pay goes back to what it was before the pay uplift (conveniently just after the next election).

All NHS staff will get at least a 1% pay uplift. Just over half the staff receive incremental pay rises each year – determined by their length of service and performance. For those who are still receiving increments because they are not yet at the top of their pay band there will be no pay uplift at all they will only get their incremental increase, those whose incremental increase is less than 1% will have their pay rise made up to 1%.

The government has been quick to portray incremental pay increases as being ‘automatic pay increases’. They also point out that people in the private sector do not get ‘automatic pay increases’.

This is a deliberate and cynical misrepresentation of the facts.

Let me explain.

For any job there is a ‘going rate’ for that job, a rate one could reasonably expect to receive if one were employed doing that job.

Arrangements in the private sector vary a great deal but generally you could expect to be employed on that going rate at the start of your employment.

For NHS employees there is also a going rate for the job but an NHS employee does not get put onto that rate at the start of their employment, instead they would be employed on a much lower rate and then get annual increments determined by their performance each year until they reach the top of their pay band (which is the going rate for the job), at that point they receive no more increments. Incremental pay is meant to reward the growing competence and skills that come with experience.

This was originally done save money on the pay budget but now it has become convenient to the government to portray it as being ‘automatic pay rises’. This government is showing complete contempt for NHS staff.

The ‘pay uplift’ trick will be applied in 2015-16, when the ‘pay uplift’ will also be 1%. But these two 1% uplifts will not add up to 2% because when the 2014-15 uplift runs out our pay goes back to the level it was before, the new uplift just maintains it at this meagre level for another year.

The pay deal which has been imposed will cost the NHS over £1bn each year.

The bean counters in the NHS are warning that we can’t afford this. To help cope with rising demands, the NHS has been asked to save the equivalent of 4% a year (£4bn to £5bn in cash terms) and pay accounts for 40% of the overall budget.

This is not the only threat to the NHS, this pernicious conservative government are busy privatising the NHS behind the scenes and they have introduced a new trade agreement with the United States of America which will allow American private healthcare companies to bid for NHS contracts. It also allows American private healthcare companies to sue the NHS for anti-competitive practises (i.e. being subsidised by the government).

This Conservative government might say that the NHS is safe in their hands but their words ring very hollow when one examines the facts.

The smoke and mirrors recovery

The Conservatives have done a lot to talk up a recovery but as with anything, the way it appears depends on where you stand to look at it.  From where I stand it looks like the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  The Government is full of posh boys looking after the vested interests of big business and the opposition is just as bad, ‘New Labour’ should be pronounced ‘Conservative Lite’.  Social order breaks down when there is too much inequality, and inequality is on a sharp increase.  Wealth and plutocracy protect the few against the many and this undermines order.

But what about all those jobs that have been created?  I hear you ask.

A large percentage of the jobs which have been created are short term contracts, or part time or zero hour contracts and most of them are on the minimum wage.  The chancellor has just released his Autumn Statement in which he lamented the fact that income tax revenues have not increased as much as economic activity.  Surprise surprise … if you don’t pay people very much then they don’t pay much income tax, it doesn’t take a genius to work that one out.

But the bankers in the city are still receiving eye watering bonuses so from where the Conservatives are looking at things everything is right with the world.  Mr Cameron couldn’t be more out of touch with ‘ordinary people’ unless he was on a different planet.

Zero hours contracts are the most iniquitous development of recent times.  Zero hours contracts allow unscrupulous employers to circumvent employment laws which have taken many years to fight for.  Let’s face facts here, most big employers would quite happily dispense with ‘unwarranted burdens on their profitability’ if they could possibly get away with it.  Previous governments (mainly Labour governments) have imposed the employment legislation on them, very little of it is voluntary.  Wages and conditions have been fought for over a long period by the unions, and although it must be admitted that some union claims in the 1970’s got fairly outrageous, many of the benefits we now enjoy are the result of prolonged battles between unions and employers.  No employer wants to pay any more than the absolute minimum necessary, and every government or union demand is seen as a threat.

Zero hours contracts allow unscrupulous employers to take working conditions and job security back to the Victorian era.  Is this what David Cameron means by getting back to good old fashioned values?

It has been said that zero hours contracts offer greater flexibility, this is true but that flexibility is almost always flexibility for the employer and not for the employee.

Don’t like a particular employee?  If he’s on a zero hours contract you don’t have to sack him and risk an industrial tribuneral, just give him no more hours and forget him.

Want to make someone redundant but don’t want to pay redundancy money?  If she’s on a zero hours contract then it’s not a problem just give her no more hours and forget about her.

Want to insist that all your employees turn up to work every day just on the off chance that you have some work for them?  With zero hours contracts that is simple, if someone doesn’t turn up then they don’t get chosen to do the work.

Want to impose unreasonable conditions on your employees?  If they are on zero hours contracts then thats not a problem.  Anyone who objects is just dumped, forgotten about and replaced.

Zero hours contracts should be banned or at the very least be properly regulated, but this is unlikely to happen with the Conservatives in power, and it would take industrial action and if those who are taking the action are on zero hours contracts then they will just be dumped and replaced, how can you withdraw your labour if the employer will just employ someone else in your place?

If you are on zero hours then zero is all you can withdraw.