Note-taking strategy early 2016

I’m probably what one might call an obsessive note-taker.

I’ve talked in the past about the importance of keeping a lab journal. Initially I produced a stack of books filled with hand-scribbled notes. Although this is my favourite authoring modality, the fact that such notes can’t be easily indexed and queried (maybe one day?!) soon leads one to try electronic solutions. Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of different tools (see under “Nerd News”) to do this.

This post summarises my current selection of tools.

For making notes with a visual aspect, for example photos of beers that I’ve tasted, and sometimes screenshots of websites, I use Google Keep. This has a really great Android app with which you can easily save a website, including screenshot, using the Android “share with” functionality. On the desktop, this has a web-app that looks like this:


One of the neat features of Keep is that you can easily have it extract and OCR text from images, for example if you’ve taken a photo of a business card. Unfortunately, the web-app is quite sluggish (this could be because I live in a bandwidth-constrained world here at the southern tip of Africa), and there’s no web clipper with which I can easily save web pages whilst on the desktop. Furthermore, I find the layout to be quite chaotic, and therefore I treat it more like my similarly chaotic digital cork board.

After a two year hiatus, I’ve returned to the SimpleNote universe as my core mobile and desktop note-taking tool. They have great apps on IOS, Android, Mac and Web. I use the super sleek, some might say austere, SimpleNote Android app (recently rewritten when Automattic, makers of WordPress, bought Simperium, makers of SimpleNote) and on the desktop I mostly use nvpy, my open source SimpleNote client. The latest greatest version (0.10.0, soon to be released) looks like this:


Because SimpleNote is text-only, and it’s a fully synced offline-capable tool, it’s nice and fast. This is the tool you want to use to store those small but useful factoids, quotes and code snippets.

For more in-depth and technical lab journals, I use GNU Emacs with Org mode. This enables me to write documents with beautifully typeset math, syntax-highlighted and in some cases even live-evaluated code blocks, and good document structure, all in plain text. Here’s a sample of my November 2015 lab journal where I started reading about and experimenting with a bit of D language:


Parts of these journals can be sent directly to your WordPress blog from within Emacs, and you can generate high quality PDFs at the press of a typical simple 12 key Emacs shortcut combo. This being Emacs, the experience can be easily customised to emulate SimpleNote in terms of interactivity, but this will not easily compete with SimpleNote proper in terms of transparent syncing between all devices and in terms of accessibility on mobile.

Using these three tools together currently takes good care of my note-taking requirements. However, I think that there might be room for a fourth type of tool that is more visual, supports rich and graphical linking between data items and even between sub-components of such items and, perhaps most importantly, enables us to build note landscapes that are natively as non-linear as our thoughts.

11 thoughts on “Note-taking strategy early 2016”

  1. Just joking. :)

    I just checked my simplenote archive, I evaluated Evernote on the Thursday of week 4 of 2012. This is what I wrote:

    * evernote, if I can ever download the app, has much promise too. but payware…
    * it has a special ink mode for tablets. doh.
    * no headings
    * had great problems syncing 200 text files
    * many great features, but too big, too much, and not worth it.

    I know that many people swear by this, but for me it was too heavy-weight and did not work smoothly enough.

  2. If you use different note keeping tools (keep/simplenote/orgmode), do you have a good strategy for searching across all of these three (i.e. how do you know which one to search)?

    1. Hi there Ward!

      No, I unfortunately don’t have a good strategy to search through all services. I rely on my normal categorization (what type of note I put where) and on the fact that my canonical source of information is orgmode in Emacs.

  3. On your initial recommendation, I still use simplenote after all these years.
    The offline availability is the key feature for me. I dont always have internet access to my phone (shielding: annoying stuff through which the phone photons struggle to get through in an organised manner.)

  4. Hah!

    I used to use Simplenote. I went back to it about 5 minutes ago, after reading your moving to fastmail post on HN, and finding your nvpy app (which I have installed and running). Cute app :)

    Have you ever used OneNote? I’ve sworn by OneNote for all pc-based note-taking, but it’s mobile app is one of the worst out there. For mobile I’ve been using Wunderlist, but might move totally to Simplenote, becuase of nvpy.

    1. I was also super disappointed by OneNote on Android.

      Microsoft looks like they’ve really got their groove back, except sometimes their products can be hugely inconsistent. OneNote is a textbook example of this, as I’ve heard and seen great things about it on Windows.

      Anyways, Emacs and orgmode have absorbed even more of my life, also on mobile. I will write a 2017 update to this note-taking post. The good news is that a new nvpy-maintainer has just stepped up to the plate, so there will be much more activity the coming months.

      1. I’ve looked into Orgmode, a little too much for me. Perhaps if I spent time in Emacs anyway, i.e. if I were programming, I’d be able to get into it. (Though even our one developer at work, who I showed it to, thought it looked daunting.

        I’ve also been looking at Connected Text[0], which is a personal wiki application, which looks like it could be very cool. Have a look!


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