Storing Nuggets of Information

The following are comments I left on the high-fun personal blog PigPog. Back in 2005, Michael wrote a post on storing and retrieving nuggets of information. This invited a couple of unedited brain-dumps from your Humble Correspondent. I'm posting them here because my original links to the post were broken after a site redesign and I would not want to lose them again. Also, since I'm in info-school, they seemed appropriate to post here. As these posts are from 2005, I've naturally moved on and made changes to my routines, but they're a good snapshot of my thought and habits from that time.


A few things come to mind:

Other writers: From his essays, I twigged that Martin Gardner kept drawers of index cards, meticulously cross-indexed, with relevant articles or snippets from his reading paper-clipped to them. He’d draw on these when writing his books/essays.

The New Yorker magazine also had a legendary cross-indexed 3×5 index card catalog of the magazine’s contents going back to the founding. Their insurance company identified the index cards as a risk, which led them to move to a database, and then to scan in the issues, and then to release the magazine’s contents on DVD (I’m getting them for Christmas). The 3×5 card system has now been abandoned. (Read this in a NY Times article and an interview on NPR.)

Journalist James Fallows (who worked with Msft on the development of OneNote, I think, esp from a journalist's perspective) is a computer buff from way back. He touted the use of old DOS programs like Grandview (outliner program to help him organize his stories) and Lotus Agenda (”a spreadsheet for words,” which had pretty amazing natural-language processing of text on the fly– Google on that and breathe in the nostalgia). He used Agenda to collect snippets of everything, create categories and views on the fly, and essentially keep track of his research and notes.

Nowadays, he uses Brainstorm and Mindmanager, and who knows what all.

The novelist Robertson Davis kept a writer’s notebook of ideas, characters, etc (near to my heart as a writer). He numbered each page, and each entry on a page got a letter. When it came time to write a novel, he noted that entries 9F, 10A, and 12B related to a single character, and he drew the threads together that way.

I’ve also had (and have) the info-packrat disease, which fueled my purchase of Agenda, Infoselect, Ecco Pro, and god knows how many others.

The computer columnist Jim Seymour wrote somewhere, and it made an impression on me, that there is information that likes to be structured — by chronology, by someone’s name, by the alphabet, by location, by function, by program name, whatever — and then there is loose info that you can’t define a container for YET, but that you can’t bear to lose. This has caused me sleepless nights and I debate its core usefulness to me, often.

The 43Folders post on living inside a single text file inspired me to try again at home with Notetab (Windows text editor). It has a simple structuring facility it calls an outline, but which is simply a flat list of topic headings on the left, and the text on the right. I’ve found I prefer the flat headings to hierarchical; they remind me of keeping notes in my Palm Memo (ie, “Books/Loaned to,” “Books/Library,” etc). it’s also like spreading everything out on a table so I can scan it quickly; nothing is hidden underneath another topic; everything is on the surface.

Lately, I’m trying to bookmark less often, save info less often, UNLESS I have a specific project in mind. In that case, I create the folders/structures to contain that info and the info naturally adheres to it.

At work, I use a dead-simple program called Electric Notebook (http://lincoln.midcoast.com/~ian/notebook.html), a very personal (ie, idiosyncratic) program with few of the amentities of OneNote, except that it can sit open all day, I type stuff in as it occurs to me, with (I hope) the right keywords, and then I search on it as I need to. Which is never as often as I think. It’s an electronic logbook, basically. It’s based on just keeping stuff chronologically, but in a rough-and-ready fashion. I find that it’s dumbed-down enough to suit my simple needs very nicely. I find, though, that I use it at home less than I use Notetab.

For structured info at work, I use an OpenOffice Writer document to simulate Word’s Document Map function (which is similar to Notetab’s outline function — is there a pattern??). This document is called “infoindex” and holds various Unix commands, checklists, timecard chargecodes, etc., that demand to be stored and used as reference, not stuff that’s part of the passing scene. Stuff I input into Notebook that’s worth remembering or referring back to more than once gets migrated to the infoindex.

I find this two-pronged approach works well for me. Electric Notebook for unstructured info, Infoindex for structured info. And it’s a simple enough process that I can use it when I’m distracted or under the weather.

I would also refer you to the c2.com wiki’s entires on LogBook (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?LogBook) and ElectronicLogBook (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ElectronicLogBook).

Sorry for the long post! But this is a big interest of mine.

Mike


Oh, and another cs.com link to Programmers Notebook, which includes a list of best practices: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ProgrammersNotebook


Hi Michael — ... I’ve always been a fan of commonplace books, don’t know why. I keep a Word file that I dump them into, and at end of year I print it out and put it in a “Commonplace” folder; the folder also holds hard copy I come across that I want to preserve.

See, information packrat :)

I bought Brainstorm and have tried it a couple of times, but it also doesn’t click with me. I’ll probably try it again; I like trying out idiosyncratic programs made by developers at home. Notebox Disorganizer is another oddity; the UI is basically a spreadsheet grid, but each cell is a cubbyhole in which you can dump your information. The Editorium newsletter had a neat description of how he uses it; scroll down to “Resources.”

Mindmaps are more fun to hand draw and noodle with, IMO, than the software-based ones. Too much cognitive overhead and time spent getting it just right on the 'puter, when a good-enough handdrawn one will help sort out your thinking.

There’s also Evernote, if you’ve not tried it. It’s been getting some good buzz.

Yes, Agenda was Kapor’s brainchild, and he’s now working on something called Chandler, supposedly another info mgmt tool. Agenda still has quite a loyal following.

So much software, so little value from so much of it. I wonder if, in a world of less software meant to save time and improve my life, I’d have read more books.

I think software is sometimes best used for a specific project or purpose, not as something to live in. That’s why I like the idea of the single text file approach — Google has taught us that categorization is not vital if you have full text search. And there’s little in my personal life that requires the full categorization that I need in my workplace.

Still, I’m one of those people who like to file and make categories, so it comes naturally to me. I remember something I read a long time ago, that humans (esp computer people) tend to leap for the complicated solution first, thinking of all the exceptions that have to be trapped, and so on. In reality, a good-enough system will probably work and you only should handle exceptions as they arise.

This is why I’ve drifted away from all-in-one software solutions, because I find I tend not to think of them as easy to use as a pencil or a text editor. (I daresay PigPog is an attempt to simplify GTD in the same way.) I also think that’s the value of the weekly review, to refresh those brain synapses about what’s out there. You can’t remember everything, but if you can remember where you put it, then that’s just as good. As the Extreme Programming guys say, do the simplest thing that could possibly work.

You probably read/heard about the researcher who used DevonThink as his commonplace book/dumping ground for bits of text. He had an assistant type in lots of stuff and then Devon searched around and made unusual connections the writer would not have thought of. But the time cost of doing something like that is prohibitive to me. And as you say, what if the software never progresses (like Agenda or Ecco)?

Sorry for another long post! I find this kind of discussion hits on things I’ve tried to figure out in my own life/work.

All best — mike