Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Unsolved Mystery of Storing Notes and Data Scraps on Computers

I recently bumped into the hardest question in current day personal computing. I needed to store two chunks of data somewhere:
  • 1. FedEx International Connect Plus has the best international shipping rates.
  • 2. Santa Susana is the darkest place for stargazing on the Setúbal peninsula.
Where do I put them???

In olden days, they'd have wound up scrawled onto sticky notes. But we foolishly expect computers to liberate us from such hell.

I certainly didn't want to create new folders on my Mac titled "Shipping Rate Tips" and "Portuguese Astronomy Tips". I've been down that road. Because my interests are very broad, I've built immense arrays of virtual filing cabinets stuffed with folders each containing exactly one moldering, forgotten item. It's a horror.

This stuff's non-heirarchical and non-linear. Much of it connects, but only in a helter-skelter web style of connection that doesn't lend itself to tidy conventional filing schemes.

Programmers, trying to solve this, have created a class of app with many names. "Gutbucket" apps. "Shoebox" apps. "Personal information managers". Options range from baroquely complex, expensive, feature-stuffed, unusable software like DEVONThink or Roam Research to dauntingly free-form, open-source unusuable software momentarily championed by geeks who, despite their raves, inevitably soon move on to some other trendy competitor.

Really, developers are damned if they do or don't. Sleek easy apps lack the power to tame huge hairballs of info. And the more the app tries to assist me, the more assumptions (inevitably false) it's making about the help I need, so I feel pushed around. So there's got to be a learning curve. And if you give me an open playing field to do as I like with, I'll throw up my hands in confusion. We users are impossible!

Obsidian is starting to win the war, at least for non-Geeks. A high learning curve is inevitable (per reasons above) for any powerful/flexible information manager, so I'm resigned to it. And this category of apps only prove their worth after months of dogged use (which explains why the crowd keeps moving on). So this is like recommending a binge watch of a TV series that gets good in season 8...but you have to watch it all to follow the plot. Like all these apps, Obsidian requires dogged tagging, which does not come naturally to me. One day, shortly before I expire, AI will be empowered to suck down all my notes and make ordered sense of it all. But I'm starting to accept that, barring such help, tagging and all the other laborious aspects are necessary hurdles for a gutbucket app to work - to integrate my stuff so it doesn't wind up forgotten and inaccessible, filed, one-item-per-folder, in a jillion virtual filing cabinets. Or adrift on a curling sticky note.


I follow MacSparky, who's about to release (this week or next) a "field guide" to Obsidian with a slew of video tutorials. Worth watching for (here). Here's a generous free 43 minute preview video explaining the app, comparing it to other tools, and demonstrating the basic set-up process.

Note that Obsidian is VERY aggressively it keeps changing. Aside from general overview (like the older MacSparky material in the previous link), avoid any tutorial or guide over six months old. This two hour epic tutorial is pretty recent, and only somewhat irritating.

But I get a feeling that TiddlyWiki might be the best of all. Maybe a notch or two over the geeky line for most users, but the extra power/flexibility seems worth the learning curve. For one thing, while Obsidian, under the hood, generates thousands of text documents (easily exported, but only Obsidian owns their context and connections), TiddlyWiki (if I understand correctly) builds a single-paged wiki, so your stuff is really really consolidated. Also: much stronger and more flexible interlinking.

Grok TiddlyWiki is the canonical get-started guide.

Here's a list of newbie resources from the TiddlyWikitters themselves

Mehregan is an interesting variant of Tiddlywiki

I'm sullenly un-wowed by apps claiming to offer a graphical layout representation of YOUR MIND, man! Sure, babe. So I almost discarded Tangent, but took one last look, and had to admit this implementation might be useful in an info manager app. And Tangent, itself, looks interesting, at a glance.

In the end, the Obsidian vs TiddlyWiki decision is a larger issue of Note Taking Apps vs (Personal) Wikis as a Personal Knowledge Store


Anonymous said...

Yes, note storing is such a good topic! I'm in the process of re-evaluating the space a bit, and obsidian had caught my eye.

I personally go for only text files. Let's be honest, those are going to be the only things that survive this age of evolving software that will all become outdated and inaccessible due to the shifting sands of popularity and fate. Text files have their downsides, but they'll at least be the most likely thing to be readable in 10-50 years time.

My go to for text file organization has been Notational Velocity for years, which is outdated now. It spawned an offshoot nvALT, but that developer seems to be in the early stages of launching a new app called nvUltra which is going to be paid. I guess we'll see where that goes.

Jim Leff said...

All these apps save to text. You and I certainly aren't the only ones concerned about data rot.

Notational Velocity is VERY outdated. In fact, this posting might be just for you. It's outlining the new vanguard. Once you transcend the notebook model, it gets, as I said, harder to learn and more confusing, but much much more powerful and flexible.

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