On note-taking, the meaning of notes, and what I use

Context

(FYI, this is the sort of thing that’s re-hashed over and over again …)

Some words mean many things — and while not quite as versatile as God or Fuck, Note is surely high on the list.

There are many takes on this, many apps, many opinions on what you should use, how you should use it, and so forth.

Noise

Some random articles. More random articles. Yet more random articles. We can go on. And on. And on.

I’ve found notes serve many different uses: notes can be tasks; notes can be memos; notes can be reminders; notes can be snippets of code; notes can be documents; notes can be links; notes can be transcripts; notes can be summaries; notes can extracts; notes can be snapshots.

You get the point, I hope: there will never be a final answer here; there are as many uses are there are people, maybe more. So all I’m going to do here is briefly mention what I either am using, or have used, or might use.

As it turns out, I have (1) tried out a lot of apps (occasionally falling into the “trap of the perfect” in the past too), but also (2) only use a small number of apps day-to-day.

What I no longer use

  • Evernote
  • OneNote
  • Wunderlist
  • Trello
  • Asana
  • Notion1
  • Bear
  • (lots more that I don’t remember)

What I use

DevonThink: the one indispensable tool for me, for the past several years … this is where pretty much everything is indexed for me.

Omnifocus: This is where al my tasks live, also where all Reminders flow into. With folders, projects, tags, and more, it has all the customizability I’ll ever need.

Tinderbox: Currently my go-to place to diagram, contextualize, link together stuff. Minimalist, spare, yet fully-programmable, with a uniform structure, and open storage format, I think of it as “the Emacs of note-taking software”2

What I might use3

Curio: The most feature-fun of the lot! But I don’t really have a use for it right now.

TheBrain: AFAICT this is a visually appealing, cross-platform, opinionated mashup of Tinderbox, Devonthink and Roam (at the cost of being proprietary).

RoamResearch: Used it a year and half ago, I see the appeal, but (at least right now) I don’t want to use a cloud-only product.

Notion: widely used tool now, but I’m conservative with the number of apps I use, so I’ll need to see where it fits in for me.

Looking forward

If I remember, I’ll do this again in a year, and … it’ll be interesting to see what’s changed by then. I’m quite sure DevonThink and OmniFocus will continue to be the bedrock for me, but the rest is … up for debate 🙂


  1. I still have a bunch of notes for this one, and of this list, the one I liked the most … except, I felt it didn’t do anything I can’t already do with what I have ↩︎
  2. Here’s a brief overview; five years old but still accurate ↩︎
  3. FYI, if I don’t use something, it’s not because I don’t like it, but usually because … I’m already using something else, and am no longer wiling to do any unnecessary migrations ↩︎

On debugging Elisp

Was playing around with Elixir, installed elixir-mode, but indentation wasn’t working.

About to give up, but took it as an opportunity to learn how to debug Elisp, and … whoa, it was effortless.

(debug-on-entry #'elixir-indent-line)

Hit Tab, and bang, right in the debugger, which is well-documented. Hit d to continue execution, see every expression being evaluated.

Decided to add some “print statements” (yes, right within the ~/.emacs.d/elpa/elixir-mode-1.0.0/ sources!), which in this case was something like

(message "Debug: cur-indent computed = `%s', current-indentation = `%s'" cur-indent (current-indentation))

Had to iterate a few times, but it was trivially (load-file ...) and hit Tab, watch the *Messages* buffer, repeat.

Turned out to be a typo, one of the calls to (setq not-indented ... was mis-spelled as (setq not-idented ...

Great, I thought, except … I found I was using an older version of the package, so the right fix here turned out to be … uninstall older version of elixir-mode, install the new one, get on with life. But heh, I still feel like I “leveled up” in my Emacs use today 😀

P.S. the original error is preserved in this marmalade mirror.

On the flow of text on the page

Xanadu

Ever since I’ve been doodling around on apps/tools like Notion1, Tinderbox2 and Roam3, I feel constrained when I look at the flow of text on a regular book.

Of course, it had to be that way in the beginning, because the printed word began with movable type, which had to be laid out in rows, and the page was composed of rows, and so words flowed top to bottom.

But (okay, speaking for myself here) I don’t think like that, and I don’t read like that either. If someone were to track my eye movement on the page of a book, it’s not dissimilar to that of a long-form article in the browser.

I don’t go left-to-right, top-to-bottom, I’m always darting around, going back and forth, summarizing as I go along, judging whether I want to proceed.

It would be interesting to see — while keeping the medium of paper — have a more random layout, perhaps with arrows linking blocks of text … maybe using colors and labels on links …. Just breaking down the wall of text that exists right now into tiny little pieces.

I’d read that.

  1. https://www.notion.so/desktop
  2. http://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/
  3. https://roamresearch.com

On writing instruments

After some trials over the past five years or so, I’ve found that I like to (physically, with pen and paper) write, I like to write a lot, and I like to write in a certain way.

In terms of paper, I seem to like either the soft, thin extreme of Tomoe River paper, or the semi-rough paper of a Baron Fig, or (more recently) Midori MD1.

The paper must have a dot grid — or, as in the case of the Midori MD, a solid grid is find, as long as it’s only lightly colored. Blank paper is no good for me, and lined paper is no good for me.

The only pens I keep around any more are either fountain pens or (for daily carry, and office use) gel pens2. For fountain pens, I have the Lamy Safari I started with3, a bunch of Platinum Preppy pens4, a Faber Castell Ambition5, and my current favorite: the TWSBI ECO6, which is my recommendation for a “sweet spot” in quality and price7.

There are plenty of more expensive pens around, but they’re going to remain in my wishlist, because I can’t imagine getting bored of what I have anytime soon.

As for the experience of writing with pen and paper, I think we need more of it, not less. There is some sort of brain-body sensation, introduced by it, which seems to make a positive difference, though I don’t understand it.

Still, if you’re at all curious, get something cheap to start with: a Platinum Preppy or a Lamy Safari, and a Rhodia pad, and then … write SOMETHING.

  1. No Moleskines for me!
  2. More recently, multi-gen pens, both the Pilot and Zebra Sarasa are staples now.
  3. Seven years ago now!
  4. Astonishingly cheap, at roughly the price of a Starbucks coffee
  5. Currently the most expensive pen I’ve allowed myself to buy, around $60-70
  6. In Fine and Extra-Fine
  7. Can usually get aroundd $30

More on Notion and Airtable

I had talked about tentatively trying out both Notion and Airtable earlier, and I have more to report on that.

Airtable is just a really great experience, makes it so easy to “just create a Base”, add tables, easily add color-coded “tag columns”, link between different tables, and so much more.

But — the price is too high, at $10/mo, and it seems to be more enterprise-focusses, or intended for teams, because no other personal software has such a high subscription cost — this is more than Notion, more than Bear, more than Evernote, more than Dropbox, more than Ulysses, more than … you get the point — so I don’t even want to go down a path of really using it a lot any more.

Meanwhile, in a sort of mirror-image of my dissatisfaction with Airtable, I’m amazed at just how much Notion can do for me. It’s great for my flexible note-taking style — I’ve always bumped up against “the rules of the world” with other apps — and it’s a very pleasant feeling to have it get out of my way.

It’s easy to add new bits and pieces, and then mold them as needed, and then make the whole thing easy to share, embed or organize.

Finally, the “dead-simple and fun-to-use tables” experience is mostly true within Notion as well, so I’m quite happy to not have to give that up either 🙂

I ended up signing up for the personal paid plan, because it’s just that useful to me now, and a super-set of the functionality of quite a few other apps.

Now (since I’m quite conservative about using new apps!) I hope Notion stays around! The team is responsive and seems to be focussed on the right things, and I wish them all the luck in getting more adoption for what they’ve been able to make.