Needing notes

Whilst I’m thinking about all these different topics that I’m interested in, can anyone help? I’m in the market for a new desktop note-taking tool. It must start up in <3 seconds and save each note as a standalone text file, using some form of text-based notation (like wiki, textile or markdown).

If that didn’t eliminate enough options straight away, it would ideally auto-save every few seconds and allow tree-based note hierarchy. A couple of tools have come close over the years, such as WikidPad, Zim and KeepNote, but none have quite hit that sweet spot.

So, any suggestions? I am willing to pay!

Lighthouse theme for Trac

Lighthouse is “beautifully simple issue tracking” (a hosted bugtracker to you and me). It looks great and is pretty much a joy to use.

At work we use Trac. Trac is a locally-installed bugtracker (plus wiki and source browser). It looks like a nightmare and there are parts which make the baby Jesus cry[1].

With that in mind, here is a greasemonkey script that makes Trac look like Lighthouse. It turns this:


into this:


(ticket titles hidden to protect the innocent!)

So far it has made my Trac usage much more enjoyable. I should point out that this is a tribute to Lighthouse, and I’ve not copied any of their actual CSS or images.

Be warned that it dials once every two weeks to see if there’s an update (since I’m sure there’s loads of things that I’ve missed and will fix as I go). To disable that, just remove lines 11-15 (the call to autoUpdateFromUserscriptsDotOrg).

We also use a couple of other simple Greasemonkey scripts for Trac at work (most of which are on our wiki here). A number of them were learning exercises, so YMMV. Caveat installer 🙂

[1] Of course, I do actually like Trac, or we wouldn’t be using it. It’s a great tool with excellent extensbility and plugins, but the UI could definitely do with some love!

Tiddlywiki, RippleRap and Confabb

Screenshot of ripplerap in action
Screenshot of ripplerap in action

I use a different note-taking tool for almost every conference I attend. I try and use ones which have both off- and on-line components for allowing me to write if there’s no connectivity but allowing me to publish easily if there is.

At FOWA 2008, after discovering it shortly before OpenTech and then talking to the Osmosoft guys about it, I used RippleRap.

So, some basics:

TiddlyWiki “is a single html file which has all the characteristics of a wiki” – you save it to your computer, open it in your browser, and it all still works. It’s open source and supports plugins, of which there seem to be hundreds. There’s a great interview by O’ReillyGMT with its’ creator Jeremy Ruston here. Excellent stuff.

RippleRap is a note-sharing tool based on TiddlyWiki. It comes with a particular set of plugins and a server-side component which handles the uploading and sharing of your wiki pages (called Tiddlers).

Confabb is a hosted RippleRap server component. You sign up, go to the page for your conference, download the pre-configured and pre-populated conference RippleRap and start making your notes which are then synced to the website. Here is the confabb for FOWA 2008.

The summary: TiddlyWiki and RippleRap are great, Confabb is not.

A bit more detail:

The good: offline editing in a web interface suits me down to the ground. TiddlyWiki is very easy to use, and with a pre-populated schedule it makes adding new content a breeze.

The bad: syncing with confabb just didn’t work. TiddlyWiki doesn’t support Textile (which I have hardwired into my brain) or other humane markups like Markdown. Also the sidebar of schedule was really long, so as the day went on you had scroll to bottom, find your talk, click its title and scroll back to the top before you could start writing notes. Very annoying indeed.

In the future I wouldn’t use Confabb – its server-side component seems pretty rubbish although the custom conference TiddlyWiki was great (it would have been even better with presenter bios and links from the conference website!).

If I want to try TiddlyWiki and RippleRap at a conference again I’ll either host my own TiddlyWiki server (this is apparently not entirely straightforward) or use one of the solutions mentioned on TiddlyWiki for the rest of us.

As an aside, after Kathy Sierra’s excellent talk (no video, boooo) it turned out that serendipitously I’d been sitting next to Osmosofter Phil Whitehouse, who’d watched me using TiddlyWiki and we had a productive chat about it before Diggnation Live started. We’d actually met before at OpenTech when I showed how him how to upload new apps to the BUG using Eclipse, but we’d both forgotten!

My wiki is a ghetto

Because it’s on the web so I never go there to actually look for stuff, and it’s not built into my normal search

Where’s the “search my shit” button that searches delicious and twitter and flickr and my wiki and my IM conversations for that one link I added or sent three months ago?

Practically, the reason Tomboy is so useful is because it’s so local. Local to my PC and local to my brain because it comes up with a simple key-combo and lets me either start typing, searching or opening notes. It’s the shizzle. Which is why it going cross-platform for 0.12 is awesome.

What do I do in the meantime? I really like the look and feel of Tudumo but I don’t really need a GTD app, my GTD is sorted by index cards, I just need somewhere to dump notes every now and again before my brain explodes.

It seems vaguely ironic, although possibly in an Alanis Morissette way, that as people become happier to use and more reliant on using the cloud (including me), my demands on my local applications have gone way, way up.

That is to say, the value of the cloud to me is the network (that is to say, the people), plus it has some vaguely nice tools, but where all that data is most useful to me is on my local PC.

Wiki or facebook? Decision decisions.

Loads of people in my office have a Wii. Being British, this is a terribly amusing state of affairs.

I was considering setting up a space on our work wiki where we could jot down our friend codes, games we’ve got, would recommend, release schedules, etc. (or just link to external resources – the world always needs another clearing-house, right?) when it struck me that Facebook might be an alternative – it would be easier to open to other people (although harder to regulate the scummy masses) and easier to post information.

The problem is that I just don’t like using Facebook. There’s something terribly clumsy about its interface which really turns me off. I can never quite find where I’m supposed to be going at a particular time, and the way groups are formatted is just a bit, well, shit. There’s the Wall for conversations, but also the discussion boards, and it’s just a mess, especially with no way of checking what’s going on without putting some dedicated effort into visiting all the time. I thought we left that behind the best part of a decade ago.

So I’d like to use a wiki and integrate our forums, but our forums are, uh, well, “not available” is pretty accurate. I guess I’ll plough through the Confluence plugins and see what I can do.

Square-bracket hell

There is little wiki syntax interoperability. In fact, it’s so bad that there are dedicated libraries for converting between almost every wiki system, the best probably being a Perl library called HTML::WikiConverter which also has an online demo and can covert HTML to sixteen different syntaxes. Sixteen!

There have been several efforts over the years to come up with a common syntax, and they’ve all petered out. The latest is called Creole and at their last workshop Ward Cunningham was on the Panel. In their own words:

Creole is a common wiki markup language to be used across different Wikis. It’s not replacing existing markup but instead enabling wiki users to transfer content seamlessly across wikis, and for novice users to contribute more easily.

They also have a reasonably impressive list of wiki engines with plugins for supporting this interchange syntax

You can see the wiki syntax they propose in the latest version of the spec (0.4 at the time of writing).

It’s not too bad so long as you can read words mixed between five vertical bars [[a bit|like this]] [[and|then]] [[maybe something|like this]]. It’s obviously to maintain the “all formatting is double-character” and to allow people to keep putting things in square brackets. Which of course they do all the time. Or, in the several thousand wiki pages I’ve seen, twice.

At least it doesn’t use MediaWiki’s markup for italics and bold. Visual clutter is crap.