The other night, @verso tweeted a question about running a little wiki on a home file server. I responded with TiddlyWiki, which is a whole wiki contained in a single HTML file. It actually may or may not fulfill her needs, since there are huge concurrency and remote access issues — it’s designed to be run from a thumb drive and used by a single user. This little bit of advice prompted me to write up a more detailed description of how I take notes.
The kinds of notes I keep fall nicely into three categories: deep storage, midrange, and ephemeral. In the following sections, I will describe each type and show what tools I use for them.
Deep storage includes things that I know I will need in the future, but really don’t care about this second. What size air filter fits in the furnace? (20“x25“x1”) What type of motor oil does my car use? (10W30 x 5) What’s my frequent flyer membership number? What port forwarding rules do I have set up in the firewall? What’s the pinout of a serial port? A USB port? What route does the #19 take versus the #20? What was that recipe for really good lemonade? What .vimrc config file do I typically use?
It is all stuff I need to know someday, but do not need immediate continual access to. It also subdivides into two categories: stuff I consider private or private-ish and stuff that would be of general use to others. Obviously, the private information includes my frequent flyer number, medical history, and even the furnace filter size — because it’s not like anyone else really cares about it. The general information includes config files, shell scripts, technical HOWTOs and whatnot. They are things I did a bit of research on (like integrating WordPress with Livejournal, tunneling a PPP connection over SSH, and finally figuring out an X Windows config file that supports multiple monitors on my crappy video card) and would not mind sharing with the world.
For storing and accessing private information, I use Evernote. They have a great notepad system that I can get to from the web, from a desktop app, and from the iPhone, all accessing and synchronizing with the same centralized datastore. The iPhone bit is important because I never know when, exactly, I might need this information. I may not have easy access to a computer, for instance, when I’m looking up the specifics of a bus route (admittedly, the PDX Bus iPhone app has access to route maps, but I like my Evernote page with all of the routes I commonly use side-by-side in a locally cached document).
For deep-storage of research, notes, and other things that might be of use to others, I run a personal MediaWiki at http://stackoverflow.org/wiki/. The installation is locked down to a single user account partly to prevent spam, but mostly because I am not terribly interested in direct collaboration on this content. I am happy to chat via email and incorporate suggestions, but I do not need the overhead of policing changes by unknown persons of my .bashrc file (be they benign or malicious modifications).
The other extreme is ephemeral storage. I take a good number of notes that have a shelf-life no longer than a few hours or a few days. This is, of course, what the Hipster PDA is all about. You can read more about my history with the Hipster PDA by reading posts tagged with the hipsterpda keyword here at Netninja. A friend suggests a movie, book, or television show to check out later, so it gets jotted in the Hipster PDA. I need to pick something up at the store on the way home, so it goes into the Hipster PDA. What tasks do I need to complete today at the office, or what tasks did I complete yesterday that need to be reported at the Scrum-style stand-up meeting? The email address or website of the person I just met, it goes in the Hipster PDA.
Some of these things go in to the Hipster PDA, kick around for a bit, then get crossed off. Other things migrate into tasks lists, address books, or Amazon Wishlists, depending on context. I used to be a die-hard Palm fan and used my electronic organizer for all such little notes, but the access time was nasty. Think about the iPhone; if you want to jot something down you have to pause your conversation, pull out the phone, turn it on, enter your 4-digit unlock code (your whole life is in your iPhone, so you’re locking it, right?), find and launch the right app, wait for it to load, locate the right screen to enter the note, then fumble with the keypad to type in the information. This is, of course, made more complicated if you are simultaneously using the iPhone for a telephone conversation instead of a face-to-face conversation. The (over-)simplicity of the Hipster PDA is a feature, not a problem. It’s quick, immediate data entry. The filing and categorizing of the information can be left until later.
Smack-dab in the middle of these are notes regarding things I am working on. They are too big and detailed to fit in a Hipster PDA (and may include things that would be a pain to transcribe, like code snippets, extracts of log files, half-formed potential blog posts, and the like. The shelf-life of these things ranges from weeks to months. They are not detailed, refined, or conclusive enough to get published in the Stackoverflow Wiki. Evernote feels a bit too cumbersome, and often the formatting gets in the way.
For a long time, I had a continually changing TODO.TXT file on my desktop. I would add stuff to the top, remove stuff from the end, and edit and insert throughout the whole file. It worked, but it may not have been the best solution in the world.
Tasks are sort of tangential to the deep/medium/ephemeral information described above, but worth including in this discussion. For me, if a single task or checklist of tasks is not work-related, OmniFocus is the place it goes. The not-work-related limit is due to the fact that my main OS at work is Linux, and it has just been too difficult to switch from workstation to iPhone or laptop for task management. This is where I put short-term tasks like Ebenezer’s reoccurring bi-weekly bath. Longer-term wish list type stuff goes in there, too, like various house remodel ideas. Even things I want to be reminded about in the future go into here: next year’s Highland Games are a long ways off, but a month beforehand I want to get a reminder so I can free up the weekend, get tickets, and talk to friends about it. Of course, OmniFocus has an iPhone client, too. I do not find the iPhone client quite as useful as the Hipster PDA, but I still occasionally run it.
So that is me and my notes and tasks. I’d love to hear if any of this works for you, or if you have suggestions, questions, alternatives, or improvements to any of this.