Taking notes

Notes on notes on notes

Advanced note taking

Org-mode, zettelkasten, plain text notebooks, means and philosophies of writing stuff down to aid thought.

Methodology

A popular thread here is the Zettelkasten system, (i.e. note box, but exotically written in German) which is a particular collection of habits for sorting notes into topics. This seems to be an easy thing to yak shave, and there are a lot of notes online about about how to make better notes, many of which seem like they could use more notes on their notes. I do not claim to be authoritative here. I would like to see empirical validation of the usefulness of particular techniques, but not so very much that I will do a literature search right now.

See, e.g. abramdemski’s Zettelkasten diary, or Jethro Kuan, How To Take Smart Notes With Org-mode:

The primary purpose of note-taking should not be for storing ideas, but for developing them. When we take notes, we should ask: “In what context do I want to see this note again?”

His blog post is an intro to the philosophy; you can bleep over the technical implementation details.

There is a list of Digital Zettelkasten tools on the r/Zettelkasten/ wiki.

Philosophies of less interest to me:

  • taking notes on paper cards (not portable enough for me)
  • mind-mapping. At least, I do not like purely hierarchical note indexing, instead of a flatter associative way of organising my notes.

Tools

For me, my notebook is mostly this plain text blog, which I construct inside VS Codium. I auditioned a few methods before I settled on this. What follows is a messy collection of such note taking software options from the perspective of my needs.

Good advice from the Zettelkasten wiki

Note that it is likely that the tool you use doesn’t really matter all that much. The original Zettelkasten was a huge stack of paper slips and even that worked great. There is one case where the choice of the tool has a huge impact, namely the case where the tool you use is discontinued. To avoid being left with a stack of 5000 notes that you can no longer access, prefer tools that export/save to common formats.

I also prefer tools that enable secure note taking.

Notational velocity

Notational Velocity / nvalt 2 – Text-oriented with zettelkasten style search. This is/was a classic system but seems to have become unfashionable for reasons that are opaque to me. Lack of mobile support?

NOTATIONAL VELOCITY is an application that stores and retrieves notes.

It is an attempt to loosen the mental blockages to recording information and to scrape away the tartar of convention that handicaps its retrieval. The solution is by nature nonconformist.

UNIQUE [sic] CHARACTERISTICS

  • Modeless Operation Searching for notes is not a separate action; rather, it is the primary interface.
  • Incremental Search Searching encompasses all notes' content and occurs instantly with each key pressed.
  • Transparent Database Encryption All content is compressed and encrypted (enabled optionally) before it is recorded to disk.
  • Mouseless Interaction Notational Velocity's window was designed for keyboard input above all else, and thus has no buttons.
  • Data Instead of Documents There is no manual "saving" in Notational Velocity; all modifications take effect immediately.
  • Complete External Access Synchronize natively with Simplenote, or via files in Dropbox […]

Sounds more or less like the usual bullet points of Zettelkasten to me?

Joplin

Joplin is a cross-platform client for note-taking. Its clever feature is that it, it backloads end to end encrypted notes into a pre-existing sync service, NextCloud or Dropbox or Google drive or whatever. Of course, you could do this with any note app which stores its content in a sync folder then using file sync encryption. However, that does not work on your smart phone. Joplin is thus the only one which is secure across all platforms. It even has an iOS client, and apparently full ability to import from Evernote. It supports proper text editors.

Simplenote

Simplenote is an open-source and free note taker owned by the creators of Wordpress, who provide both a sync server and client apps for pretty much every platform. It is not encrypted so if they are subpoenaed or hacked your notes will be disclosed. There does not appear to be a public API. It looks pretty.

FSNotes

FSNotes is a macOS/iOS notes editor. The complete lack of polish on the name reveals much about both its aesthetic and functionality. Let me quote Andrew Kortina, the author of the even-less-artfully-named VScode Markdown Notes:

Of all the dedicated notes apps I tried, my favorite was FSNotes. It self describes as:

File System notes (FSNotes): is modern notational velocity (nvALT) on steroids.

It has a kind of ‘coder ethos’ which I like. Everything is stored in plaintext, you can use textbundle if you want, it is backed by a git repo so you have version history, it is open source, and there is a mobile app.

By default it will use iCloud to sync and is pretty reliable (but you could also use Dropbox or Google Drive to sync as it is filesystem based).

There’s no inline image support (uses a side preview instead) and no vim keybindings.

It supports mathematics, which is good. I sorta like the look of it, although due to recent financial embarrassment I now have non-Apple laptops and this kind of Apple-only system does not cut my mustard.

Bear.app

Strictly using macOS/iOS? Maybe you want Bear.app which is a pretty lookin’ subscription service with clients for various apple products. AFAICT it is a glossier version of FSNotes. Optional encryption via your fingerprint, which is fine as far as you trust mandatory backdoors in your local juridiction presumably. USD15/year.

Zettlr

Zettlr seems to be similar to notational velocity but with certain academic writing features such as citation support in the form of zotero integration. Like notational velocity, it is desktop-only.

Zettlr has been developed with academic writing in mind. Therefore, it offers a lot of powerful tools to help you write academic texts right out of the box. …ß

VS Code

Of course VS code fans made a notes app many many notes apps for that text editor.

There are some listed below, distinguished by being documented well enough to be sure that they actually are note taking systems. Many more pop up on a google search.

VS notes

One is called VS Notes. TBH VSNotes looks very… busy? With some extra configuration and strategic ignoring some of the fripperies it looks like an acceptable workflow.

VScode Markdown Notes

Don’t be fooled by its name, which is so unmemorable that I have already forgotten it, VScode Markdown Notes might actually help you remember stuff. Maybe your first note can be the name of this particular VS code extensions so you an find it again?

Anyway the author has made a sensible design document with which I agree in every detail that is not the necessity of vim keybindings, so it looks fun.

org-mode

🏗

A famous note-taking system for emacs nerds especially for TODO lists but it can be used as a Zettelkasten system apparently?

I was surprised to learn that org mode does not need emacs. It turns out it is essentially a file format convention, and you can notionally edit it using a variety of packages and plugins, or manually. C’mon now, though. Will you really? I won’t.

Much note taking theory is based off org mode’s clever fancy wiki-style linking, which is its selling point, e.g the zettelkasten tuorial above. Nonetheless I prefer slightly shinier note systems.

Roam research

A hyped, quirky, exclusive, web-nerd note taking app: Roam research seems to be a popular amongst people who would like to optimise their hyperlearning with buzzwordy techniques.

It might be good? But I would not know. I am not on the special elite beta list, so my experience of it per se is nothing but jarringly bubbly social media endorsements.

AFAICT its main feature is something like Wiki-style links (which in note-taking land is more or less Zettelkasten) but with a less nerdy UI than emacs org mode? I dunno, I ran out of investigative enthusiasm just then. 😐

Turtl

Turtl is a notes syncing app. Promises host-proof encryption of “text, bookmark, password, image, and file/document”.

There is a supporting business offering hosting of their custom server in exchange for money, but it is open source. I would happily fork out money for this if they supported iOS. Has nifty features such as sharing content, rendering mathematical markup and permissions for users.

Evernote

Commercial notes app whose workflow I did not really enjoy, nor the needy upselling, so I deleted it. AFAICT they were not convincingly confidential either.

Airtable

airtable is another unorthodox productivity/managing/note-taking thing which I had recommended to me but have not investigated yet.