Note Taking Software, back to basics.

There are many note taking programs but there are none which are ideal in my opinion. Many of them do a lot more things that I don’t need and don’t do all the things which I do need. A couple of them do come tantalisingly close to my ideal.

So what do I actually need from a note taking program. Let’s build it up from basics.

I like things to be simple!

What is the simplest note taking system?

A pencil and paper!

But a pencil and paper is not connected, you can’t search a large paper document easily. Organising and re-organising paper documents is difficult even if you have scissors and glue.

It would be more useful if it were electronic and on a computer.

So what is the simplest note taking system on a computer ?

Plain text files!

This is true, but having lots of plain text files scattered about on a hard disk can also be frustrating.

“I’m sure I had that information in a text file somewhere, if only I could remember what it was called and what folder it was in, dammit!”

There are problems with organising and re-organising a body of information which is contained in plain text files. What is needed is a way of structuring them and indexing their contents so they can be searched as a whole.

Keeping all your notes together is a good idea. Being able to add structure to them so that they can be grouped by their salient features is a good idea. Being able to explicitly express the salient features of a note (tags & metadata) is a good idea. Having a mechanism whereby one note can refer to another note (or indeed something outside the program) is a good idea. That is why note taking programs are a good idea.

With a note taking program you can keep all your notes in one place, link them together and define a logical structure, add meta-data to express the significant features of the data, link to other files or websites and search for things which you want to find.

Everything over and above this is either the icing on the cake or superfluous and unnecessary depending on your point of view.

Of course there are programs which provide a myriad of extra facilities and functions but if they fail to provide these basic facilities then they still fall short.

All the extra functions do is obfuscate the basic functionality. I am not saying that programs should not offer extended functionality but if the basic functionality ends up hidden in a sub-menu of a sub menu or in a context menu somewhere obscure then that is a bad thing.

The basic and most often used functions should be in obvious places, the extra functionality can be hidden in obscure places. The developers task is to decide which functions are the most often used and which ones get used once in a blue moon by just a few people.

If a program tries to be all things to all people then what usually happens is the user interface becomes complicated in one way or another.

 

Organisation

Almost all note taking programs organise their notes in either a tree or a directed graph. Most of the other types of organisation are either trees or directed graphs if you look at their topology.

A wiki might be thought of as a free form structure but the notes are connected by links and thus it is actually a directed graph. A mind map might be thought of as different from an outline but they are both trees, they are just displayed differently.

Directed graphs are more useful than trees.

Trees have the problem that as they get bigger it becomes more difficult to place nodes within them, that is, it becomes more difficult to find a single place which is correct for that node. There are usually several places where it could plausibly fit. That is why directed graphs are more useful.

For example, if a node could fit in the tree under the project it is part of or under the person whose responsibility it is or under the problem which the project is supposed to address then with a tree you have to select which is the most important feature of the node. This leads to difficulty in finding the node later when you have forgotten what your original decision was. It also leads to inconsistency of placement.

With a directed graph you can put the node in all the appropriate places simultaneously. If a node in a tree can have more than one parent then that tree is a directed graph. If you can ‘clone’ a node so that it appears more than once in a tree then that tree is really a directed graph.

It should be noted that a clone is not a copy, it is the same node which appears in more than one place.

 

Tags

Tagging nodes to indicate properties of the node is a necessary feature of a note taking system in my opinion. Well thought out tags are very useful.

Hierarchical tagging systems are in my opinion most useful, but few note taking programs have hierarchical tagging systems. Ideally the use of a tag should also imply the node having the parent tag as well (inheritance) i.e. if the node is tagged as belonging to this electronics project then it should also be tagged with the parent tag of ‘electronics’ and if electronics is the descendant of another tag then it should inherit that one too, recursively right back to the root of the tree.

One caveat with this is that when selecting the tags to apply to a node the list should be just a flat list of all the tags in alphabetical order, i.e. the tree should be flattened out.

Tagging systems can become a mess if the user doesn’t think about what the significant features of their data are. If the collection of tags just develops ad-hoc then they will probably be inconsistent with each other and this can lead to confusion.

A tagging system is even more useful if on can refine a search by selecting from a list of tags held by the results of the current search. Similar to the system used by the website ‘Del.icio.us’ before it was discontinued to make way for Pinboard’s subscription service. One alternative to this is if you can build a query using tags combined with AND, OR, NOT and brackets.

Meta-data is just another form of tagging, the meta-data expresses something about the node and as such it should be able to be searched and nodes should be able to be grouped on properties expressed in the meta-data.

One unhelpful characteristic of many programs is that their meta-data is common to all nodes. For example, let us suppose I have a notebase in which I have some notes on a selection of vacuum cleaners in order to choose which one to buy. One of the pieces of meta-data I might define for those nodes is ‘price’ and give each vacuum cleaner a number which represents it’s price. In a well designed note taking program that ‘price’ meta-data would only exist for those items I had assigned it to. In a badly designed note taking program all nodes in the notebase would now have a ‘price’ even where it is inappropriate. This would make the list of meta-data extremely long for every node because every node has an entry for every piece of meta-data defined for any node in the entire notebase.

Tags are all that is really necessary, other meta-data can be placed in the text of the node in a minimalist system.

 

Links

Linking notes together makes them much more useful. The information in one node can refer to information in another node and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The basic link is like a hypertext link and occurs in the text of a node, it refers to another node. Clicking on the link takes you to the node which the link points to. This basic link is all that is necessary in a note taking system. Just with this type of basic link you can build a wiki.

There are usually other types of link in a system, especially if it is structured as a tree or graph. The structure of the tree implies parent/child links and this is used to arrange the nodes on the screen.

In my opinion there also needs to be links where the information in one node needs to cite or refer to the information in another node. There needs to be a mechanism whereby a node can list other nodes which provide supporting or related information. These are sometimes called ‘see also’ or ‘related items’ or ‘reference’.

 

Text

The function of a note taking system is to hold notes, i.e. information. This can be plain text but the necessity of including links to other nodes implies something more than just plain text. And a bit of formatting is quite nice too.

The inclusion of pictures and diagrams is really useful as well. There is an old saying that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, pictures can aid comprehension and understanding of the information. The inclusion of pictures in the text of a node although not strictly necessary is a good feature to have.

Tables are also quite useful.

 

Conclusions

So my ideal note taking program would not have a lot of extra features which I don’t use but would include the all the basic functionality described in this article.

What would such a program look like?

It would have a directed graph structure presented as either a tree (or many trees) or preferably as a network (map). Each node could appear many times in the network/tree as a clone of the same node.

If the structure is presented as a map then the map should centre on the node which has the focus and if the user moves to a new node then the map should be re-drawn with the new node as the centre of the map, this allows you to see the node of interest ‘centre stage’ whilst still being able to see it’s context.

If displayed as a tree then it would be able to ‘Hoist’ a node so that it becomes the centre of attention and would be able to expand/collapse branches of the directed graph/tree.

Each node would be associated with a pane of text which could contain pictures, diagrams, tables and links to other nodes. Links should be opened by a simple single click just like a web browser. In addition each node would be associated with a list of ‘related’ nodes and/or a list of files associated with that node each of which could be opened by clicking on the entry in the list. Ideally the text pane should be floating so that it can be placed on a second monitor.

There would be a hierarchical tagging system with inheritance which could be searched by clicking on the tag in the tag tree but in which the search could be refined by clicking on further tags narrowing down the selection each time, similar to the system used by the ‘Del.icio.us’ website.

The text of each node would be indexed so that full text searches can be carried out quickly. In addition complex searches would be possible by building search criteria in a ‘search table’ each row having columns defining what is being searched for, what is being searched (node text, tags, meta-data etc.), what the conditions are (greater than or equal to, less than, equal to, text contains, matches wildcard etc.) and what the relationship is to the other search criteria (AND, OR), maybe a tree structure would be more useful here instead of brackets. Furthermore these complex searches should be able to be saved for later re-use. This does not mean that a quick and simple search should not be available as well.

There are a few (very few) programs which come close but there isn’t yet a program which ticks all the boxes for me.

This is a bit more complicated than a simple pencil and paper but I think it would be a lot more useful.

 

Advertisements

Munson & Cadman

Since designing the Kelvinch font I have not been idle.  In my spare time I have been working on two more fonts.

Kelvinch was designed when I was just starting to learn about typography and so it is a little rough round the edges, it was my first font.  When I look back at Kelvinch I see many things which should have been done better, so I have started to design a replacement for Kelvinch.  The replacement has a provisional name but it will not be revealed until the font is released, just in case someone else decides to use it.

The two current fonts are Munson and Cadman.  The Munson font was released on 20th July 2017 and the Cadman font was released on 22nd February 2018.

 

Munson

Munsonator

Late in 2016 I needed a Victorian style slab serif font for a graphic design project I was working on at home.  I couldn’t find any good free Victorian slab serifs.  Most of the free ones weren’t any good, there were some very good commercial fonts available which would have been perfect for the job but I like free stuff.  I couldn’t find any free ones with good quality and a decent design of italic.

Some of the free fonts were passable but their designers thought that italic is the same as oblique which is not the case.

For this type of font italic should be a more cursive design not just the upright character slanted.

About the same time as this I was asked to be a beta tester for the new version of the font editing software I use and for this I needed a new font project.

This gave me the nudge I needed and so I decided to design my own my own Victorian Slab serif.

The name Munson is a reference to Audrey Munson who was the model for many of the bronze statues in New York from around the 1920’s era.

The inspiration for the font itself came from a typeface by a company called Stephenson Blake & Co. in my home town of Sheffield. This typeface was made around 1815 and was called Consort. It was a bracketed slab serif face with ball terminals where appropriate. I obtained scanned documents and photographs of typeface samples from that era which depict the Consort typeface and I attempted to re-create the look and style of that typeface in a modern font.

I have photographs of an incomplete set of the Consort typeface, I filled in the gaps and some of the characters in the Consort typeface were not to my liking so I designed Munson according to my own aesthetic preferences and with a great deal of artistic license.

There is also much of Clarendon in Munson. The Clarendon typeface was made by Robert Besley in London in 1845 and is particularly well known.

Munson is an amalgamation of all these influences, a sort of hybrid between the Consort and Clarendon with much of my own influence thrown in for good measure.

This is a font which I have created myself without using anything directly digitally copied from other fonts. This typeface is my property.

There was copying but this was done by hand and eye rather than by copy and paste.

Munson is now available for free download under the SIL Open Font license which means you can use it for whatever purpose you want personal or commercial, you may pass it on to others and modify it if you wish.  You may pass on your modified version (under a different name).

The only thing you can’t do with my font is sell it.

 

Cadman

Cadmanator

I have two friends who are dyslexic and they both expressed the need for a clear and legible font so I made one.

The name of the font is an indirect reference to one of these people who is a colleague at work and spends a lot of his time using CAD systems.

I don’t know if a specific font for dyslexia is a good thing or not, certainly some fonts are more legible than others.

My hypothesis is that the success of fonts which have been specifically designed for people with dyslexia is a placebo effect. The reader expects the special font to be easier to read so they put extra effort into reading the type. Knowing that a typeface has been specifically created to address one’s needs may well provide useful motivation that enhances concentration and engagement. Then, having better understood text for having made an effort to read it, the reader credits the enhanced comprehension to the special font rather than them having put in extra effort to comprehend it.

However having said that some fonts are easier to read and comprehend than other so why not make a font which fulfils all the criteria, it certainly cannot make the situation any worse.

The Cadman font has been designed to be as legible as possible. There is a lot of opinion on the Internet about which fonts are suitable for dyslexic people and much of it is contradictory. This is only to be expected, people are different from one another and what is suitable for one is not suitable for all.

However there are some characteristics which are commonly accepted as making a font more suitable for use by dyslexic people.

  • Sans Serif
  • Good ascenders and descenders
  • Wide apertures
  • b and d distinguished from each other not just mirrored
  • p and q distinguished from each other not just mirrored
  • Different forms for capital I, lowercase l and digit 1
  • Rounded g and rounded a as in handwriting
  • r & n together (rn) should not look like m
  • The f character has a descender to make it more unlike a turned t
  • M and W should be distinguished from each other and not just be mirrored
  • 6 and 9 distinguished from each other not just rotated
  • The use of distinct letterforms where confusion could arise
  • A slightly looser spacing than normal

Cadman fulfils all these criteria. But Cadman is not just for people with dyslexia.

Cadman is suitable wherever a clear and legible sans serif font is required. It has Bold, Italic and Bold Italic.

There are many open type features including SMALL CAPITALS, fractions and ordinals. There are two stylistic alternatives which change the digit zero from dotted to slashed zero or blank zero.

My colleague who uses CAD systems a lot wanted the font for scientific writing so Cadman contains a Greek alphabet suitable for mathematics and many Mathematical Operators, Letterlike Symbols, Miscellaneous Symbols and Dingbats.

Cadman is available for free download under the SIL Open Font license which means you can use it for whatever purpose you want personal or commercial, you may pass it on to others and modify it if you wish. You may pass on your modified version (under a different name).

The only thing you can’t do with this font is sell it as a font, however it may be packaged along with other software which is being sold, in which case the price charged is for whatever is packaged with it and the font is just a free bonus.

Enjoy !

 

Will Technology destroy Democracy ?

Technology has made some wonderful advances, it looks like we will fairly soon have self driving cars, just tell it where you want to go and it will take you there. Your fridge will know when things were bought and when they are likely to go off, it may also give you dietary advice. You might have a personal assistant on your desk listening to your every word you say and controlling your connected home, remembering all of your appointments so you don’t have to and answering any question you ask it.  There are many technologies which are ‘just around the corner’ so the next few years could see some interesting changes.

So how is it that with all the incredible advances in technology we have today and with increasing automation the rewards have not been spread more evenly ?

It seems to me that there is something very wrong about how technology is benefiting the world today. There is also a fundamental threat to democracy which few people seem to be aware of.

It is said that we have entered a new ‘Information Age’ but the information economy seems to be about endless austerity, jobless recoveries, lack of social mobility, and intense concentration of wealth and power for the few whilst most people struggle to make ends meet.

One of the principles of the information age seems to be the spread of free information and services. For example social media, Wikipedia, free software, free ‘Cloud’ storage (which is just your data stored on someone else’s server), free online education and many variations of the above.

Most people would think that this is a good thing. It spreads the power of information to the many. Control of this information has passed out of the hands of a few elites and into the hands of anyone who cares to download it.

But there is a problem. There are consequences which nobody seems to have anticipated.

Revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica came as a shock to many people but this should be a wake up call! I think that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that Cambridge Analytica was not unique among companies.

The actual problem runs far deeper and this is just one example of a struggle which is going on between technology and democracy. There are some benefits to free stuff online but this has blinded us to the fundamental ways technology is eroding our democracies.

A typical server, many racks each containing many computers all linked together.

A server is a group of computers linked together to perform a particular function. The computers in a server are linked to a network and provide services to other computers on that network. Computer programs can be split up to run on many computers in parallel and get results much faster than if the program was running on just one computer. A server may consist of a few tens of computers up to many thousands of computers.

All the servers that crunch ‘big data’ are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites in anonymous buildings and have lots of security. Because they are very valuable.

When people share information freely, those who own the biggest and fastest servers benefit in ways that ordinary people can’t even imagine let alone emulate. Companies with large servers can simply calculate wealth and power out of free information.

While the free and open information ideal feels empowering, it is actually enriching those with the biggest servers to such an extreme that it is weakening democracy. The uses to which some of this data is put is also weakening democracy, I’m talking about micro-targeting here.

It doesn’t matter if the servers run social media sites, national intelligence agencies, giant online stores, big political campaigns, insurance companies, or search engines. What they are all doing in the background is remarkably similar.

All these servers gather data about people and then process that data to find out all they can about the people the data is about. This data might include emails and tweets or social media likes and sharing, private documents on ‘cloud’ storage, sightings through cloud-connected cameras, or commercial and medical dossiers. There are no limits to the snooping.

All these sites (apart from the national intelligence agencies) need a ‘hook’ something to entice people into this asymmetrical information relationship.

The hook might be free Internet services or music, or easy-to-get mortgages. But there is a price to be paid for these ‘free’ services.

Ordinary people are the sole providers of the information that makes the big servers so powerful and valuable, and ordinary people do get some benefit for providing their data.

They get the benefits of an informal economy usually associated with the developing world, like reputation and access to barter. The real monetary benefits are given to those who own the servers.

More and more ordinary people are thrust into a winner-takes-all economy. Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful.

In most cases there was no evil plot, it is just a result of human nature. Many of the people who own the servers are genuinely nice people. But a lot of the people who use the data they harvest have their own agendas. And the people who have wealth and power want what almost all people with wealth and power want … more wealth and more power.

In a world of free information, the economy will shrink as automation rises radically. This is because in an ultra-automated economy, there won’t be much to trade other than information.

The threats to democracy come from the uses to which the data is put.

Our democracies evolved for an analogue age and they developed alongside institutions which support them like a free press and citizens who all have access to the same information. There are rules to follow like the secret ballot and expenditure limits. These institutions and rules keep the whole thing fair and equitable.

But in the past few years things have changed drastically and things are still changing. Most people don’t realise how much things have changed already.

Digital technology works by a different set of rules to those which evolved alongside democracy. It is de-centralised and difficult to control and it is improving at an incredible rate.

Western democracies have rules to make sure that all their voters have access to the same set of information for an election. The statements which a candidate makes are on the whole accurate because they know that if they make a false statement this will be picked up by news organisations and the media and they will be found out. Issues are debated in the media with representations being made from both sides of each argument.

But now we have ‘Big Data’ and micro targeted messaging and the rules which ensure free and fair elections don’t apply anymore.

Using Big Data analysis servers can build up very accurate and detailed psychological profiles of millions of individuals and politicians who pay for the services of companies like Cambridge Analytica can target each one of them with a highly personalised message. They can exploit our psychological vulnerabilities and prejudices on a vast scale and in a way that no regulator has access to.

It is out with the old shared frame of reference against which new information can be judged and in with millions of private frames of reference which may or may not bear any resemblance to the shared frame of reference.

How can we hope to hold politicians to account for their statements if everyone gets a different message and nobody knows what anyone else was told?

But it gets even worse.

Facebook have algorithms which can build up a very accurate psychological profile from what seems like innocent, unconnected and irrelevant pieces of information. The original purpose of these algorithms was to give you more content that you like in order to keep you on the Facebook website longer and therefore expose you to more targeted advertising.

But it didn’t stop there when Facebook amassed all this data about its users the next question was “How can we make more money out of all this data?”

It isn’t just Facebook who are tracking their users, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are doing much the same thing along with a host of other companies and national security agencies of many countries.

The more data they get about you the more accurate their psychological profile becomes, they can make predictions about your political and religious beliefs, how likely you are to take risks, how introverted or extrovert you are and many other aspects of your character which you might not have wanted to share with others.

Pretty soon your car will know about every journey you take, where you started from, where you went to and what time you set off and arrived, your fridge will know everything about your diet and if you like to buy the yellow label discount items from the supermarket and your personal assistant will know how you feel because of your tone of voice and all this information about you will be correlated and cross referenced against all the other sources of information about you.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. All this information will reveal more than you ever wanted to share with the rest of the world. In such a world as I describe there will be no such thing as privacy.

You will be constantly bombarded with messages based on all this information and that will open up a whole new level of manipulation targeted at you personally.

But there is another aspect to this which is fracturing society. In the social media realm we create our own reality which alienates us from one another. This is a result of the algorithms whose purpose it is to keep us hooked to Facebook and other social media platforms.

Democracies need informed citizens who all have access to the same shared base of information but in the social media realm we create our own reality. Social media gives us more of what we want so if we ‘like’ a post with a particular political leaning the AI on the server takes note and makes it more likely that we will see more posts from that particular political leaning in order to keep us looking at the social media platform longer and be exposed to more targeted advertising.

On social media we create our own reality, our own mix of opinion, information, misinformation, real news and fake news. This creates our own bubble in which we only see what we want to see and only hear the views of those people who agree with us.

This is making people more angry and more extreme in their views and it makes it much less likely that we will compromise with each other.

In the end there will only be one winner in the struggle. Either technology will destroy democracy and the existing social order will be destroyed or the current political system will exert its authority and control over the digital revolution.

As things stand at the moment technology is winning and unless things change dramatically democracy will be washed away just like communism, feudalism and absolute monarchies have been.

It will be regarded as a system which persisted for a while but could not adapt to the new technology.

If democracy is washed away what would replace it ?

I think it will be authoritarianism, but not like anything which has gone before !

Corporatocracy. Huge multinational corporations too big to fail will dominate the global landscape and a very few people in the world will, and already do, hold the vast majority of wealth and power.

Their wealth and influence being the key to influence global politics to favour their own needs. They will have and feel no responsibility to the rest of humanity.

Big business has already had such a tight grip on politics that for a long time now people have just accepted that you can’t budge big business and that the worker is in no position to fight back or negotiate.

They monitor us with advanced technology and have built a consumer society which seeps into our cultural psyche. We slowly, through globalisation, will become homogenous until all there are only two classes. The consumer, alienated and kept down by the exploiting classes and the capitalist, who demands a homogenous class of downtrodden and subdued consumers to keep themselves rich, and who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing !

Even now the ruling elites are plotting behind the backs of millions to set up trade deals and line their own pockets and have been doing so since the rise of neoliberalism – oligarchs are pulling the strings of our ‘democratic’ nations. In effect, these past few decades have simply been a restoration of power back to private industry and history is once again repeating itself. Over and over again it is the same struggle between humanity (the working people), and the ruling elites.

In such a world ruled by big business they would probably keep governments and elections just to keep a sham of democracy but government would be under the control of big business. Corporate interests, profits, growth, and returns would come before all else !