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.

Weekly Head Voices #96: Never gonna give you up.

The week has resulted in a terribly nerdy list of bullets. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! (there’s a beer recommendation or three at the end to compensate)

  • It turns out that the terrible Samsung trim bug which would eat all of your data, as discovered by Algolia, was a Linux kernel bug after all (now patched by Samsung) and that it would only affect RAID setups. Let’s hope there are no surprising new turning outs.
  • Found out that the fastest ADSL lines available at my new place are a whole 2 Mbit/s. We’ve called off the transaction and we’re now searching for a new house.
  • I’m joking. It was really shocking however to consider the world as seen through a 2 Mbit/s connection. Now it seems that I will soon be entering the wonderful world of 5 GHz wireless connectivity, which should give me a fast enough connection, at least until fibre is rolled out in the year 3047.
  • Started watching Mr Robot. I don’t normally do series, but the pilot was just that good. I like the story, I really like the socially very strangely adjusted hacker protagonist and I love the cinematography. Up to episode 3, I give it 4 out of 5 Linux Distributions!
  • Continued fighting with OSX to get it completely working with my Dvorak and Emacs keybindings, also in Java apps such as IntelliJ IDEA. Two weeks ago I mentioned karabiner as a solution to most of these problems. The final piece of the puzzle was unbinding keys like Alt+W (or Mod+W as Apple calls it) in ~/Library/KeyBindings/DefaultKeyBinding.dict to prevent OSX from turning it into a \(\Sigma\) (sigma); as everyone knows, M-w is the Emacs shortcut for copying the selected region! You can use this trick to prevent OSX from turning any of the other Mod combos into completely unwanted special characters. (My base dict file is that of Jacob Rus.)
  • I guess OSX only Just Works(tm) if your time is worth nothing. Err…
  • My first Kivy pull request, a fix for a Mac-bug (go figure), was recently merged into master. I’ve been using Kivy in the third or fourth generation of my current and probably longest running side project.
  • I’ve also been screencasting some of my night-time coding sessions using one of the more prominent livecoding sites (bonus points if you can find these sleep-inducing performances). It has been an interesting and strange experience programming with people watching over one’s shoulder as it were.
  • On Sunday, I ended up at the Root44 Market in Stellenbosch for another of those really terrible balmy winter days. I had so much fun in the sun, tasting Devil’s Peak First Light Golden Ale and their King’s Blockhouse IPA, and Stellenbrau’s Craven Lager, all from the tap, that I forgot to take a photo of the beautiful surroundings.

Have a beautiful week dear readers! Just remember, I’m never gonna give you up.

Weekly Head Voices #89: Xanthohumol.

I found myself in Stellenbosch this weekend, so I drove by my old student house. Fifteen odd years ago, the house used to go by the name The Far Side. It was usually inhabited by five fairly attractive yet dangerously intelligent male engineering students, who were, quite unexpectedly, also extremely modest. (In those days, prepending “male” to “engineering student” was mostly redundant.)

Well, it seems The Far Side has gone through a little transformation of its own:

Yes, there are little hearts hanging everywhere, and the little hearts have, probably in some kind of fractal frenzy, been arranged to form even larger hearts. In my mind, The Far Side was still exactly as we had left it, except with a new bunch of unexpectedly modest engineering students, thinking, saying and doing things almost like we used to, except for the occasional interjection of ideas that did not yet exist in our time, like “wifi”, “tablet” and “smartphone”.

Initial pattern-matching-driven expectations and consequent surprise aside, this was a physical reminder that even mundane matters can change quite significantly given sufficient time. This is a good thing, although the whole fractal cardiac decoration aspect was perhaps not completely called-for.

On the nerd front:

  • I wrote a vxlabs blog post on sending pretty emails with math and syntax highlighted source code, of course using emacs, org-mode and mu4e.
  • After some emacs-lisp tracing through mu4e and gnus, I finally discovered how to activate format=flowed in the default text/plain emails sent with mu4e, thus enabling reflowing of hard-wrapped emails on receiving (mobile) clients that support this. It occurred to me that the group of nerds affected by this particular behaviour in this particular software setup is extremely small. Read all about it in my github issue report on the matter.
  • I wrote an osssa blog post on the opening of the new Cape Town Open Data Portal (fantastic!) using non-open Microsoft file format standards (not so great).

Blog reader MrK sent me this sciencedaily article with the great news that there is a small but real chance that beer might protect us from neurodegenerative diseases. In lab tests it was found that xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, could potentially protect brain cells against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Of course we should be very careful jumping to conclusions based on these types of experiments performed on isolated compounds under lab conditions.

That being said, I do think that careful optimism whilst enjoying beer might be justified. As we all know, the more beer one drinks, the more intelligent one becomes, at least up to a certain optimum:


It seems there’s even a shadowy but very powerful organization built upon this exact principle. They are called The Inebriati:

Thanks for reading this. I hope that you have a great week, and I hope to see you again soon.

Weekly Head Voices #86: Beardy.

You could have set your watch by the appearance of this weekly blog post! Enjoy it while you can.

Here’s a random photo from my week:

I finally figured out what planking is.

Note-taking and todo system chaos (NERD WARNING).

My email-note-taking-todo-system is again slowly morphing into something strange and unknown. I once called using Trello for task management “the time management connoisseur equivalent of lying in the gutter with a cheap bottle of wine in a brown paper bag”.

Well either I was just plain wrong, or I’m lying in that gutter again and I just don’t realize it.

Because I became very frustrated with all the task systems that I tried (and committed to) because all of them (including the one I designed together with big G) insist on presenting all of my tasks in neat little project-grouped or deadline-ordered lists, whilst my brain is a chaotic spread-out network that wishes to see everything at the same time, preferably spread out and very visual, I’m back to using a giant Trello board (that 2560×1440 monitor is very slowly earning its keep).

It’s perhaps better than it sounds: When I process mail on my phone or in my Emacs, I forward the ones that need action to a secret Trello address which turns said mail into a Trello card in the “incoming” list of my tasks board, including all email attachments and images. Sometimes I’m naughty, and I reply to the sender summarising the list of actions I will attempt to undertake, and then Bcc that reply to Trello.

On that Trello board I have lists for reminding me of the important projects I have to remember to work on, and then lists for ASAP, This week, Later (scheduled) and Someday / ideas. I also have lists called Done (week WEEKNUM) into which I can move cards once I’ve taken care of them. After a few weeks, I archive the whole done list of a particular week for posterity. It also doesn’t hurt that the Trello Android app is quite beautiful.

On the notes front, I’m currently very much in love with Emacs org-mode, as you might have guessed from last week’s WHV. What I did not mention then, is that I now also have a date-stamped .org jourrnal for each project that I’m working on. From each general daily .org journal I link to the various project journal .org files for that day. Based on these daily / project-based log files, I can generate high-quality LaTeX reports, technical blog posts and even presentations, if only I can remember the exact sequence of 17 emacs keyboard shortcuts to do so. As mentioned previously, I use deft-turbo to navigate my notes database.

I still dream of an even more graphical and non-linear way of doing all of this.

Musings on beards (REAL MEN WARNING).

Besides being the sign of a true man, the internet says that the beard was “seen as the defining characteristic of the philosopher; philosophers had to have beards, and anyone with a beard was assumed to be a philosopher”. Based on extensive research, I can assure you that this is still the case.

On a slightly more serious note, I might be getting slightly beard-rospective, because my hairy face-friend might really have to disappear soon. I’m going to have to do my part in an academic committee or two, and I’m going to have to cross borders into the EU. The former might not be such an issue, but my current slightly middle-eastern look might not be the best option in terms of the latter.

In any case, before I reluctantly join the shaven masses, I would like to share with you two realizations from the perspective of a weirdly bearded man.

In my town, there are no hipsters. There probably will never be. That, plus the fact that I deviate significantly from the text-book hipster look, means I get recognized everywhere I go. I think this is partly due to appearing different from most other people I would normally be pigeon-holed with. Subtly complementary to this is the fact that my face has become a kind of a graphical icon of itself: If you were to take a photo of it, and you were to scale it down to 32×32 pixels, you’d probably still be able to recognize it. The upshot of this is that even when I’ve visited a restaurant or cafĂ© only once, the next time, weeks afterwards, I am treated like a long-time regular. That’s pretty cool.

More important than this, is the fact that people now experience difficulty applying their pigeon-holing mechanism. Around these parts, there is far too much assumed piece-wise homogeneity. In other words, people are used to believing that they are able to stereotype you after one look. I have now experienced that when I have contact with locals, their little stereotyping sensors start smoking a little bit and then fizzle out. There is usually a short moment of panic, but then we start afresh, which is nice.

While (1<2).

I would like to leave you with this track from deadmau5’s latest album. I’m doing this, because it’s an extremely surprising album. You should definitely listen to the whole work, but this track should serve as an example of the while (1<2) surprise.

Weekly Head Voices #85: Gone south.

From now on I’m going to try a more fluid weekly blogging schedule. My approach up to now was to try and write up the weekly right after the weekend, at which time,however, I’m usually caught up in the usual start-of-the-week storm of, uhm, possibilities, and hence let the blog writing slip, and once you start slipping it’s a challenge to stop. So now, instead of focusing on the when (the failed after the weekend) I’m going to focus on the how often. Maybe this works better.

This past weekend, we visited Cape Point, the almost-southernmost tip of Africa, and the spot where the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean crash together for a part of the year. It’s quite beautiful, and always great to have visitors that we can take there. I took this photo of the Cape of Good Hope from the Cape Point side:

Emacs nerdery.

My first significant Emacs Lisp hacking was first blogged by Sacha Chua (Emacs goddess!) and then accepted into the org2blog upstream repository. Nerd-adrenaline-rush!

On this topic, I also published deft-turbo, my fork of the original Deft to support recursive directory searching and now also multiple file types. If you’re into Notational Velocity style note-taking and into Emacs you’ll love this.

I now use Emacs Org mode for my daily note-taking, for blogging (this post is being written in Org mode in Emacs) and since yesterday also for generating beautiful presentation slides using the fantastic org-reveal. (As you might recall, I also use Emacs with mu4e as my email client.)

It’s crazy to think that GNU Emacs was first released in March of 1985, which makes it almost 30 years old, which is practically immortal in software terms, and yet it’s still the most powerful text editor in the world today.

Finally: The cracked phone screen.

After a great number of years using smartphones without covers of any kind (they’re so beautifully designed, why cover that up?) I finally dropped my Nexus 4 from about a metre height because a WhatsApp message arrived and I thought that I could easily fumble my digital friend out of my pocket whilst typing with my other hand.

Apparently I couldn’t.

The screen acquired an impressive new crack, and the digitizer is completely dead. I’m having it repaired, because it’s still a great phone, and Android 5.0 (Lollipop) is being pushed to Nexi 4 worldwide as we speak! (Fortunately I could factory reset the phone using only the hardware buttons.)

In the meantime, I’m using a backup Motorola Atrix 4G. Thanks to Android and much open source hackage, I was able to install Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) on it, in spite of it being a 2011 phone that was practically abandoned by Motorola at the Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) stage.

The end.

If you run into me in CYBERSPACE, and I’m late with a blog post, I give you permission to badger me about it.

Have a great half-week and weekend kids!