A different approach to Note Taking

I take a lot of notes. I use them for reference. I use them for speculation about topics of interest. I use them to note down ideas so that I don’t loose them.

Before the digital age I had many paper notebooks and boxes full of index cards.

In those days I used to carry a HP 200-LX computer in my pocket and I thought it was an ideal note taking solution, oh if only I could buy one again, oh the nostalgia …

Whilst I was doing my degree I used to take notes at lectures on paper despite having several digital solutions available. I found that writing on paper helped me recall the material that I was writing much better than if I typed it onto a computer.

The physical act of writing is more visceral, it connects with the consciousness at a more basic level than typing. When typing one can go into autopilot and concentrate on the sequence of letters rather than the meaning of the words, the material gets typed accurately but it leaves little lasting impression in the memory.

But computer solutions are better organised and more compact. If one relies on paper then one accumulates many scraps of paper and old notebooks which are difficult to keep organised or refer to.

What I am looking for it the best of both worlds.  A paper notebook with unlimited pages which can transfer it’s content onto a computer, without many scraps of paper to keep track of, and hopefully without the paper.

Trees generate oxygen for our planet, we should not chop them down to be made into newspapers or chipboard furniture or paper notebooks.

For a long time I have relied on an application called ConnectedText which has served me well for a long time. It is a wiki with many powerful features, but recently I have found it to be less satisfactory than it used to be.

This is because I bought a new laptop and monitor with very high resolution screens.

The advent of high DPI screens and Windows 10 screen scaling has meant that the icons on ConnectedText are now microscopic and the titles of topics are only partially displayed.

The development of ConnectedText has now ceased and so it will probably never be updated and will continue to fall further behind as operating systems change until finally one day some update will break it.

This is particularly annoying for me because some while ago I paid quite a lot of money for perpetual licenses, the developer sold me licenses which would be for life, if there were any new versions of the software I would get an update to my license so I would get the new version for free.

He probably already knew that version 6 would be the last one and I already had a license to version 6.

If the developer has abandoned development it would be better if he were to release the source code as an open source project but I suspect he is keeping it going just to get a little more money from the current version.

I cannot now recommend ConnectedText for anyone wanting a new notetaking solution.

Perhaps it is time for some lateral thinking.

It would be nice if one could have digital paper, a screen on which one could write and draw but which could send these images to a computer and/or recognise the handwriting. Like a paper notebook with unlimited pages, no more stray scraps of paper to keep track of.

There are several possibilities.

One could use an Android tablet.

In my experience handwriting on an Android (a Sony Xperia mobile phone) is awful, the line drops out at random and the screen is slick, there is no friction and this tends to make my handwriting more messy. Also the note taking apps I have tried are cumbersome and awkward to use.

An Android device can also act as an e-reader for PDF and text files.

Despite this Android is not a good solution.

Dr Andus recommends a Boogie board.

I have tried a Boogie board and writing on the screen is much better and it is more responsive than an Android phone. However the Boogie board is not a very good solution for other reasons.

It is a write only solution, this is not what I want.

Once you have written a page or drawn a diagram, once you move onto a new page you can never go back to the previous page. The device stores them but it cannot display them. You can upload the stored pages onto a computer and this is the only way to see one of your previous pages.

The Boogie board is cheap but it is not a solution to the problem.

There is another device by Sharp, the WG-N20 which seems more capable than the Boogie board. It is an electronic notepad. You can look at and edit any stored page, sounds good, but there are problems.

The first big shock you get when buying one is the hidden costs. This is a Japanese import and so the price you see on the Amazon website is not the price you end up paying.

On the Amazon website it boasts free shipping to the UK but the UK Customs and Excise will open your package and impose an import duty on it. The shipping company will then demand this import duty plus an ‘administration charge’ before it will release your parcel for delivery.

The price you end up paying is about one and a half times the advertised price.

The manuals are in Japanese. So is all the text displayed by the machine, on the on screen buttons and in the dialog boxes.

The screen is slick and has little friction but despite that it has a better writing experience than an Android phone or tablet. The screen contrast is not very good, you are writing on a grey screen with slightly darker grey. This tablet needs good lighting to be able to use it adequately and there is no backlight.

The screen is a conventional LCD screen not e-paper. It is not an e-reader, it cannot import or display text files or PDFs.

It is not a good solution.

I have even been into the local Apple store to try out an Apple iPad.

I didn’t get along with it very well, the iPad suffers from a frictionless slick screen and the note taking application seemed to have some fundamental flaws. The iPads are expensive for what you get.

The staff in the Apple store are so full of artificial enthusiasm, everything about their products is wonderful and the fact that the annotations can be in any colour you like more than compensates for the fact that if you insert text the annotations don’t move with the text and are now in the wrong place.

I didn’t agree with the sales person!

I would rather have something in black and white that works properly than something multi coloured that doesn’t.

A random search (a clutching at straws exercise) pointed me at a potentially good solution for note taking which is the reMarkable tablet, but it is not available yet and it is expensive. If the advertising on the website is to be believed then they are trying to produce something which seems to fit almost exactly with what I want.

It is an e-reader, it can display PDF files (and e-pub files but I have no e-pub files), it cannot display plain text files which I think is a bad decision on the part of the designers.

There are an awful lot of legacy text files out there. But to be fair the text files could be printed to PDF files but this will increase their size.

Which brings us to the question of storage. The reMarkable tablet has 8 GB for storing documents and notes and drawings. This may seem like a lot but it’s only 100,000 pages. I can envisage filling that, maybe not very quickly but it is possible that I might be able to fill it up. There is no expansion, no SD card slot and the USB socket seems to be only for charging.

Once the storage is full you will have to either delete something or transfer something to a computer to make room for new items.

It is also big, just a little less than A4 size, 18 cm by 26 cm (7 inches by 10 inches). This is good for reading but definitely not pocket sized. What is needed is a small version which I could put in my pocket, 5 inches by 7 inches would be ideal, I wouldn’t use this as an e-reader just as a notepad.

Although it is not ideal it is far better than any other solution I have yet discovered so I ordered one. At the moment (in June 2017) there is a 33% discount on pre orders but I will have to wait five months, current delivery schedule is October but that keeps going up because demand is greater than their production rate.

If they had a pocket sized version then I would probably be ordering both the big and small versions, especially if they could transfer notes and documents between them.

I will write a review of it when I get it.






Where is the Computer industry headed?

If you’re a computer technology enthusiast who keeps an eye on developments in the field, especially someone who has been an enthusiast for many years then you’re probably not very happy with the way things are heading.

Everything that computers once stood for, everything that once made them great and exciting as a hobby has been hijacked by big business who are intent on controlling what goes on in your computer and turning you into a ‘user’, i.e. someone who doesn’t understand or even care what is happening inside their computer.

It’s not difficult to pick out the one phenomenon that people like to complain about, the one thing that people love to hate and accuse as being responsible for all the computer world’s biggest problems.  I speak, of course, of Microsoft, and more specifically, the Windows Operating System.

I had a first encounter with Windows 8 over Christmas, I was not impressed.  What were Microsoft thinking?  Don’t they have a quality control department?  Don’t they test the software before releasing it?  (perhaps not, look at Windows Vista!)

Can you imagine the conversation that took place?

Marketing guy : “We need something novel and innovative to differentiate this operating system from the previous one!”

Programmer (making a joke) : “We could give it a mobile phone interface, they are really popular these days”

Marketing guy (being serious) : “Great, that’s a really good idea!  We’ll do it!”

Programmer (in panic) :  “Hang on a minute, it wasn’t a serious suggestion!”

Marketing guy :  “Nonsense, I think its a great idea …..  ”


Windows just keeps getting worse and worse.  Far from benefiting yourself by upgrading, you are taking a big risk every time you upgrade to a newer version.  You will find it takes up more disk space and RAM, the applications you use might not work (or they may work fine but you need to buy a new license because your hardware has changed) and the most absurd thing of all is that nothing will be different.

Windows 98 did not have any significant improvements over Windows 95, nor did Windows 2000 improve significantly on 98.  XP was a little bit more stable but Vista got back to the usual standard, nice shiny graphical interface behind which the software was riddled with bugs, apart from all the bugs it took up far more computer resources and memory to do what is essentially the same job at the same speed.

Vista was just the Alpha version of Windows 7 and so the public could pay for the privilege of testing it and finding the bugs for Microsoft.  Windows 7 was better but now they need something new to try and make people want to upgrade their PC.

What few people seem to realise is that this is just what the computer industry wants.  The hardware industry produces faster machines with more memory and more disk space whilst the software companies produce bigger, slower more bloated software to neutralise all these advances.  The users end up having to upgrade all the time just to continue doing the same things as they were doing with their old hardware and software.

You already know all this.  It has been repeated time and time again by many people in the industry, and so it would be rather fruitless to dwell upon it yet again.  So how did things get this way?

Windows has been a messy, bloated operating system from its very first version.  The very first versions of Windows (versions 1.0 and 2.0) were awful, they worked intermittently if at all.  But by the time it got to version 3.0 Windows was relatively stable and usable.

And back then it was understandable.

Understandable in a technical sense, that is.  In the early 1990s, in the age of Windows 3.0 and 3.1, Windows could be mostly understood.  A power user could identify every single file that Windows shipped with and what that file’s function was (and Windows came with a lot of files).  Windows 3.x was an operating system that a normal human being could comprehend. Furthermore, it did not do much ‘behind the scenes’ work, at least not nearly as much as Windows 95 and beyond.

When Windows 3.x did something, you probably already knew about it, because you would have ordered the computer to do it yourself.  At that time it was the user in control of the computer, not the other way round.

Windows 95 changed all that.  Windows 95 did a lot of things ‘behind the scenes’ in a way that was simply annoying.  There were little things constantly going on inside your computer which you didn’t know about and hadn’t asked for.  Sudden, brief periods of hard disk activity, even when nobody is using the computer, was a sure sign of this.

I still remember the day in August of 1995 when Microsoft released Windows 95, the advertising promised it would change the face of computing forever, and indeed, it did just that.

On that day, reading about the new features of this revolutionary OS, I felt an impending sense of doom for my hobby.  It seemed that computers, as a whole, were becoming ever more automated.  User friendliness is all well and good but it seemed to me that control was being taken away from the users, more and more of the inner workings of the machine was being hidden and ‘protected’ from the owner of the machine.

As time went on, the trend of increasing user-friendliness began to take on new and sinister facets.  Foremost among these was the trend towards corporate domination.  As the Internet continued to grow in mass popularity and operating systems became increasingly elephantine and incomprehensible beasts, users seemed to be losing control over their computers, and the computers (or more specifically, the companies who wrote the operating systems running those computers) seemed to be reversing the role, controlling the user rather than the other way around, by spying on the user’s browsing habits and preventing them from having direct control over many aspects of their computers.

Although this was largely a software trend propagated by inflexible operating systems, it also had an effect on the way hardware was designed, by hardware companies manufacturing non-standard, under-documented hardware that was deliberately difficult to reverse-engineer to the user’s own preferences.

Before Windows 95 it was possible to put together a homebrew interface to some weird device you built yourself and control it from the computer with a little program you hacked together yourself.

Most hardware which you bought to connect to your computer had understandable well documented interfaces, so that if you wanted to do something unusual with them you would write a program to control it yourself.

After Windows 95 all hardware had to be controlled through a ‘device driver’ and this was not the domain of the home constructor.  If you tried to access your hardware directly the processor generated an exception and halted your program.  Around this time manufacturers increasingly started to hide the details of their interfaces.  Computers were moving away from being a hobbyist device and increasingly enthusiasts were forced out.

There was a general dumbing down of people’s knowledge.  One example of this is Microsoft’s ‘Internet Explorer’ program, which is just a web browser but in the minds of many people the World Wide Web became synonymous with the Internet. There is a lot more to the Internet than the World Wide Web but nowadays many people don’t even know anything other than the web exists.

Microsoft, and people who side with Microsoft will say that this is done to make the computer easier to use.  The end user does not want to know about all those silly little technical details.

The user is just that: Someone who uses the computer, and wants to use it with a minimum of complications doing only the things that the software authors allow them to do and nothing else.  Yet the truth is that most people who used computers back in the early nineties had enough expertise to get into Windows 3.1 and use it and its applications without many complications.

Now there are many more people using computers and increasingly users are deliberately excluded from the technical aspects of computing.  The main people who try to persuade users that learning about the technical aspects of your computer is ‘too hard’ are the people with a hidden agenda.  The software company that wants to convince you to buy their new software because it is more user-friendly.

The problem is further inflamed by the software vendors interests in concealing the inner workings of their software, afraid that other companies and technically savvy users might copy their ‘intellectual property’. They don’t want people to understand and so documentation has become trivial, lacking any depth, it is mostly on how to use the software, rather than anything that an enthusiast would want to know.

Apart from playing games a 5-year old computer running a basic set of applications could do everything that a ‘normal’ person wants to do with their computer.  The typical human’s needs have already been surpassed long ago, and that leaves the computer industry with a big problem.  They have to try to stimulate artificial demand using hype and advertising.  Novelty is king.  And so we end up with an operating system with a stupid mobile phone interface which does a very good job of excluding the user from any of the technical aspects of the machine whilst enforcing corporate DRM and controls on anything you do with your machine.

The role of advertising in the computer industry is exactly the same as it is for the rest of the retail industry, it is there to make you dissatisfied with what you already have so that you will go out and buy something new even though it might not be necessary.

Linux is starting to look more and more inviting with every ‘innovation’ perpetrated by Microsoft!