Wikis and notepads and text files, oh my!

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

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).

evernote-app evernote-web evernote-phone

For deep-storage of research, notes, and other things that might be of use to oth­ers, I run a per­sonal MediaWiki at 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).

Ephemeral Storage

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.


Midrange Storage

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.

Currently, I use a “wiki” (I have that in quotes, yes, and will explain why in a bit) called TiddlyWiki. You can see it in action as well as down­load a copy for your­self at More detailed instruc­tions, expla­na­tions, and FAQs are at (which is, iron­i­cally enough, run­ning on MediaWiki). TiddlyWiki is a “wiki” that is entirely self-contained in a sin­gle HTML file and runs entirely in your browser via JavaScript. As you make changes to your TiddlyWiki, they are writ­ten back to that very same HTML file. This makes it quite use­ful for keep­ing on your com­puter and even car­ry­ing around with you on a thumb drive. But if you are used to a “reg­u­lar” wiki, there is a bit of a learn­ing curve. Each “page” you cre­ate lives in the same web page as sec­tions that can appear and dis­ap­pear. These “pages” are actu­ally called “tid­dlers” and I was orig­i­nally told to think of them as 3x5 cards or sheets of paper. You can bring them into view and push them out of view. You can even have mul­ti­ple tid­dlers open side-by-side (or, rather, over-under) on the same screen. It does not quite work like a “nor­mal” wiki, but this design has many of the same advan­tages as a notepad or TODO list except you can also hide sec­tions that are not ter­ri­bly rel­e­vant to what you are inter­ested in at any given time.

What really makes the TODO.TXT or TiddlyWiki slick is Dropbox. Because Dropbox lets you syn­chro­nize mul­ti­ple com­put­ers, I can have a copy on my Linux desk­top at work, my lap­top (which moves between work and home), and my desk­top at home. I can even get to it (read-only, due to the way the JavaScript works) on my iPhone, but have never really needed that. It gets shared and updated every­where, and I do not have to think about mov­ing it around between machines.


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.


And Finally...

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.

Posted in: Gadgets iPhone Work

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

2 thoughts on “Wikis and notepads and text files, oh my!”

  1. Cryptide asks via Twitter, “where do i get this wal­let?”

    That is actu­ally the International Pocket Briefcase from Levenger. As you can kind of make out from the pic­ture (actu­ally, click on “More Photos” for a bet­ter image), there are a pair of tabs for insert­ing cards into the right side of the wal­let. I don’t really use that very much (I have a card there with things like phone num­bers, because some­times I have to give out my phone num­ber, land­line, or wife’s num­ber and it’s eas­ier to glance at that than dig through the iPhone). I mainly use the wal­let to envelop a hip­ster PDA.

    And if you wait long enough, it goes on sale a few times a year. The thing with Levenger is that all of their prod­ucts are pretty expen­sive. They’re well made, yes, and even worth full price — but you can often catch good sale prices or dis­count coupons if you wait long enough.

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