Take Note!

Why do I use a note taking program?

“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible … no matter how internal processes are implemented […you…] need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.”

Levy, Neil. 2011. “Neuroethics and the Extended Mind.” In Judy Illes and B. J. Sahakian (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, 285-94, Oxford University Press.

Why would I keep a set of notes on everyday insights and ideas over many decades, things which only I would be interested in.

Well, I write!

Imagine if you had to write a piece of text on a particular subject.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone came up with a list of suggestions and ideas for you on what you should write about.

You could then arrange these ideas and develop them into a coherent whole, fill in any gaps in the arguments, expatiate on any parts which need expanding and proof read it and edit your rough draft until the text flows correctly.  Then read it with a critical eye to pick up any background material which you have left out, things which you may already know but the reader might not.

Writing a piece of text like this is much easier than starting off with a blank page.

You might be thinking at this point that I am cheating here, only doing half the job, the easy half.  Surely coming up with the initial list of ideas is a major task in itself.

Well yes and no.

What if you already had a large body of notes on many different subjects, things which have sparked your interest over the years.  Things which may not have been immediately useful but which you thought were noteworthy at the time.

This could be thought of as a bank for ideas.  Obviously you can’t start making withdrawals until you make some deposits.  So you have to put a few ideas in there before it becomes even slightly useful.  But unlike a bank when you make withdrawals the ideas are still there and can be used as many times as appropriate.

Such a database of notes (a notebase) would be quite useful for ideas for writing.  The more notes it contained the more useful it would become and also the more interconnected the notes are the more useful the notes database is.  If it is small with only a few hundred notes then it is not that useful but there is a ‘critical mass’ of information beyond which it starts becoming much more useful and the more information which is added after that makes it exponentially more useful.

So, what is the source of these ideas and insights ?

Everyone comes across noteworthy ideas and insights every day it’s just that they don’t take note of them, they don’t write them down.  They don’t take note of them, and by the time they would be useful they have been forgotten.

I take notes.  I never go anywhere without the capability of writing something down.  I have a small paper notebook in my back pocket and I always carry a pen.  If I am going to work or somewhere where I will be carrying my backpack then I take my tablet computer.  The aim is to capture all the little ideas and insights which come to you during the course of a day.

Writing something down is more memorable than typing the same thing.

My tablet computer takes handwritten notes just as well as a pen and a piece of paper, except that my handwritten notes then instantly become available on my phone and computers.

Then when I get chance I read the notes I have made that day and write them out properly using full sentences.  Of course some of them get discarded for various reasons but often they find their way into the notebase (my database of notes).

Think of each note as you having a conversation with your future self and write in a way that you will understand, it doesn’t matter if it is incomprehensible to anyone else as long as you understand it.  It is best to write just one idea per screen.  If the note extends to more than a screen then it might be useful to think about splitting it into two notes.  So I write many small notes rather than a few larger notes.

There is another aspect of note taking which is equally as important and that is reading notes.  When reading a book it is essential to capture ones thoughts on the book.  Many people write notes in the margins of the book itself.  I don’t do this, for one thing it would deface the book, the other reason is that I would rather have all the notes in the same place and accessible rather than having to look through the book to retrieve my notes on that book.  Each reading note is accompanied by the page number and paragraph number which it refers to so that I can easily find the source of the idea again.

Notes can be linked together and used in different contexts.

I often go wandering through my notebase just to familiarise myself with the contents and this often sparks new ideas and new connections between ideas.

This idea is not new, my method is modelled on that of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, it is called the Zettelkasten Method.  A literal translation of Zettelkasten is ‘slip box’ i.e. a box containing many slips of paper.  His notebase consisted of many A6 sheets written on one side only, in wooden drawers.  Each card had a unique number and links between cards consisted of writing the number of the card targeted by the link on the card which was the source of the link.

Once many years ago I had a paper card index but it wasn’t as well thought out or as useful as Professor Luhmann’s slip box.

Then there was a Z80 computer running an operating system called CP/M running a program I cobbled together myself written in DeSmet C, and then there was an 8086 computer running DOS with a hypetext editor program called ‘Black Magic’.  I can’t find a reference to it but in some ways it was an early forerunner of ConnectedText except that it had much more limited capabilities and facilities in monochrome on a 24 x 80 text screen.

Nowadays I use a Windows PC running a note taking program.  I have been through many different note taking programs some good, some bad, some with just one good trick up their sleeve and the rest mediocre.  Finally I have found what I think are some pretty good programs.

There are advantages to using a computer program for note taking, links between notes are much more useful than on a paper system as are the other features of a computer program which cannot be replicated by a paper system.

There exists a program which was specifically written to replicate the Zettelkasten Method, unsurprisingly it is called Zettelkasten3.  It is free but the user interface is extremely awkward and clunky.  It is also not very good at revealing the emergent structure of data.  It is a very uninspiring and unimaginative program which has been overhyped.  I tried it a couple of times but I do not use it, I think it is an awful program.

There is another program called ConnectedText which is extremely good at being a receptacle for a notebase, it is not free but it is not hideously expensive either.  ConnectedText is probably the best at revealing the emergent structure of data and is probably the best of the three programs at being the receptacle of a notebase although it is not as pretty as InfoQube.  The editing is not as interactive as InfoQube but that is an artefact of the way it was written.

One of the really neat things about ConnectedText is the way you can place a link to a page which does not exist into a page whilst editing it.  The link comes out in red indicating that it doesn’t point to anything but if you click on that link ConnectedText will create a new blank page with the name used in the link and open it for editing.

Development was stalled for quite a while but recently the developer announced on the forum that he was back on the case.  However apart from the initial announcement there has been little apparent activity and the forum still appears dead.  I will wait and see, it would be nice if development was resumed as ConnectedText is an awesome program.

There is another commercial program called InfoQube which is also very good at being the receptacle of an notebase.  It is not as good as ConnectedText at revealing the emergent structure within the data but is has all sorts of other features which make it good at many different things.

The aesthetics of the interface and of the documents produced are better than ConnectedText but the functionality as a notebase is not as good.  The functionality as an appointment book is better, the functionality for project management is better, the outlining is better, many aspects of this program are better than ConnectedText but as a repository for a notebase it is not as good.

Linking things together in InfoQube is not as quick & easy as in ConnectedText and this is for several reasons.

There is a constraint in ConnectedText that no two documents can have the same name, all names must be unique.  So in ConnectedText you can just start a link and type the name of the target page, a list will drop down as you type and it will get smaller as you type because it only contains the names which match what you have already typed, eventually the list gets down to one or you click on one of the options in the list (and as stated earlier you can type a name which doesn’t exist yet).

In InfoQube there is no such constraint, several items can have the same name, they are distinguished by the ID numbers in the database.  This may seem more flexible but it is a huge mistake as it means that items cannot be unambiguously identified by their name.  In InfoQube you must select the target for a link from within a dialog box in which you search for the item you want (or a Tag or an external file or a URL or anything which can be the target of a link), this is more flexible but makes the whole process slower and more cumbersome.  To me this is a major detriment of InfoQube.

So why am I now using InfoQube for my day to day note taking activities ?

Well it has so many other good things all available in the same program.  The word processing features and the ability to re-structure documents mean that I am now using InfoQube instead of Scrivener as a word processor for structured documents and it helps to have your notebase to hand when typing such a document.  Of course InfoQube doesn’t contain such refinements as ‘Typewriter Scrolling’ which Scrivener has but … Oh well !

My notebase is present in a grid called ‘Zettel’ which contains an alphabetically sorted list of notes, deliberately not in any sort of hierarchy.  This is kept separate from anything else in the notebase, effectively this is the slip box.  Notes may contain links to other notes in the body text of the note and may contain a list of links to other notes at the end of the note as references (‘see also’).  I can pull out a bunch of notes and arrange them in a separate grid (created on the fly) as a cluster of notes.

InfoQube does transclusion properly so these are the original notes but you can arrange then into whatever hierarchy you wish.  You can do outlines in InfoQube, I do two different types of outline (my definition not InfoQube’s).  One is the normal outline and the other is the brainstorming outline where I move things about a lot to see what is the best representation of the information I have to hand.  For a normal outline everything is the same colour but for a brainstorming outline different levels have different colours.  In InfoQube you can define the formatting of outlines so that different levels have different colours, different formats (Bold, Italic), different fonts and different sizes.  This is a really good way to visualise things when you are throwing ideas about.

You can do outlines in ConnectedText too but it’s hard work (each item in the outline has to be linked to a document manually) and they are nowhere near as flexible as the ‘coloured by level’ outlines in InfoQube.

So the reason I’m using InfoQube is that it incorporates good word processing, brainstorming and adequate zettelkasten features in one program whereas ConnectedText combines good zettelkasten facilities with adequate brainstorming facilities.

Sooner or later I am going to have to ditch one or other of the programs (either ConnectedText or InfoQube) as my main notes repository because there is a lot of strain involved in maintaining two very different note repositories in parallel.

5 thoughts on “Take Note!

  1. Can I ask what tablet and tablet app you use to temporarily record your notes? Thanks for this summary entry, it’s a nice bookend to 2018.

  2. Thanks for this – I’m still on a never-ending quest for the “perfect” information manager, and it’s great to see how different people approach the issue.

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