What can a Linux fan use for consistent note taking and archival?
December 29, 2006 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I am studying in human science (psychology), and I'm starting university next month. I have been using a laptop running Linux to take notes and write assignments during the past two years or so, but I feel my current technique for note taking is unsatisfactory.

My current method is this: fire up OpenOffice Writer with a blank document, start typing in bullet-list form, with a Heading1 title at the top of the document, and save the document as "yyyy-mm-dd-topic.odt" in a folder such as school/the_subject/*. Whenever a semester is over, I compress the files into a tar.gz archive and put it in an archival folder. This prevents me from having the files indexed by Tracker.

- must have: formatting controlled by a central/GLOBAL STYLESHEET, unicode, open source, runs on Linux
- nice to have: OpenDocument, drawing support, autosave, wysiwyg, ability to zoom text to disproportionate sizes (those 1280x1024 widescreen laptops strain the eyes easily)
- don't care about: spellcheck
- don't want: proprietary stuff, obscure file format, latex, a database

I have been scratching my head over this for a little while, so far I see these options: OpenOffice, plain text with Gedit or whatever, Abiword, coding XHTML by hand on the fly, using Tomboy (but it is slow), using a wiki such as PmWiki running on a local server on this laptop, none of which particularily seem to fill my needs completely. Please let me know of any other possibilities I have overlooked!

Latex (even Wyneken) are beyond my understanding, and I feel they are overkill for note taking (maybe when I end up writing a huge thesis or something...)

I want everything I write to be accessible 20 years later. Actually, I have only two big criticisms against my current OpenOffice technique: it forces me to load openoffice (which does "feel" heavier than most text processors), and the contents' style is per-document, not system-wide (like in a CSSed page collection or in Latex).
A criticism I have against PmWiki (the only wiki I tested, but it uses no database, and that is nice) is that filenames it creates don't really support non-english characters properly, and I have to concede that is a limitation of the web itself; accents mess up nicely in URLs, and pmWiki doesn't like to have them on the filesystem either; actually, the problem may lie in the fact that it feels like I have "less control" over the filesystem since it uses all those WikiWordFileNamesThings. Furthermore, editing in a wiki is not exactly WYSIWYG. You have a very easy syntax, and it has the advantage to use CSS over all your documents at once, but you cannot "visually" distinguish a header paragraph from a regular paragraph, not as easily as you would in a WYSIWYG application (you have to save to do that). Printing is also a bit tricky, and a wiki is, to a certain extent, a bit of annoying maintenance to deal with (security upgrades for example).

I like solutions that "respect" my filesystem instead of forcing me into a set style of folders, or worse, a database; I backup and synchronize notes between my laptop and my desktop over the network using Rsync scripts I wrote.

I am "more inclined" towards certain file formats so far: OpenDocument or xhtml, but feel free to suggest something else. I mean I don't quite like RTF, but if it's guaranteed to work everywhere anytime, it could be useful; or even taking notes in plain text in front of a laptop without X.org would be possible (but pretty friggin radical! :).

Actually, I'm realizing that I'm typing this in Gedit, a plain text / code editor, but that's only because I do not trust the Web (even if my browser never crashed) and don't want to lose a long post.

Thoughts? Experiences? Recommendations? Questions? :) I realize there *is* note-taking software out there such as Gournal or Jarnal if I remember correctly, but are those really the end all solution? A computer certainly does not behave like a physical paper notebook, and I'm especially interested in the "way" (or maybe the medium) the notes are taken in (if you have special techniques, I'm also interested), not really specific applications. I know this is a weird question, I will try clarifying as soon as possible if you have needs for clarification.
posted by a007r to Computers & Internet (10 answers total)
I've not used this particular extension -- I do note-taking under OSX using a tool that works similarly but saves XML -- but if I were in your situation I'd take a serious look at VimOutliner before casting much more net.
posted by majick at 4:50 PM on December 29, 2006

I used tiddlywiki to keep notes about a linux server install. It keeps the whole wiki in one html file that you can store anywhere. The code for it is done with CSS and javascript and is contained in the same file, too. A cool hack. Just open the local file in any browser and start editing.

I have a main list of sections and add wiki pages as needed. I add multiple tag names to the pages so I can assign them to different groups of pages. And there's a built in search function.

The tiddly name is goofy, but it works good.

From their website: "Because TiddlyWiki is a single HTML file, you've actually already downloaded the entire software just by viewing this site"
posted by jjj606 at 5:49 PM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've used tiddlywiki; it's pretty cool. :D The main disadvantage is that the format seems to always force you to have wide left and right margins(for the menu, on the left, and for the options and stuff on the right). If you go with this, definitely get the YourSearchPlugin, too. It gives you more control over searching, and it cuts down on search time(because it's not opening all the tiddlers that come up in search results) and it does more search-engine-like results(giving you short clips of the tiddlers that show exactly where your search term comes up) instead of just opening all of them.

You can do bullets and other formatting; just go to the link jjj606 gave and search for "bullets" or whatever kind of formatting you want and it'll give instructions.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 6:14 PM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

...Oh, and it sounds like you don't like the WikiWordNameThings, so I thought I'd mention that tiddlywiki'll let you 1)make a tiddler with a title that's not a WikiWord(and that can even have spaces in it), by enclosing it in double square brackets and 2)make a mixed-case word not be wikiwordified, by putting a ~ in front of it.

So [[stuff to do]] links to a tiddler, and ~WotD doesn't.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 6:20 PM on December 29, 2006

If you want your junk to be read in 20 years stick with a pretty simple text file. Come up with a consistent way of organizing it so that you can hop through it and search in it efficiently. Use Markdown.

Text files, text files, text files.

Then learn a nice GUI editor, and do folding and so forth and emulate an outliner. Put the complexity in the editor and not the data.

I keep 90% of what I make as plain text. I admit that it does baffle me as to why there are no good outliners for Linux.
posted by yesno at 9:55 PM on December 29, 2006

Based on what you specified, have you considered Nvu? Although it's more often positioned as a web authoring tool along the lines of Dreamweaver, it:
  • creates XHTML documents
  • Lets you specify arbitrary (and thus global) stylesheets
  • Provides a WYSIWYG editing interface
  • Lets you zoom text in and out
On the minus side, it's not a lot more lightweight than OpenOffice, and the WYSIWYG editor isn't the fastest.
posted by boaz at 10:30 PM on December 29, 2006

Nthing Tiddlywiki. I'm a recent convert to it and I use it to keep track of about 6 different things so far. It's simply wonderful.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:16 AM on December 30, 2006

Maybe I'm just being an old fart but taking electronic notes never worked for me at all.

Undergrad (Philosophy/Biochem-MolecularBiol/Zoology major) - class sizes were capped at 30 people, so typing was too noisy and distracted me from interacting with everyone else in class.

It was fun going through my paper notes years later, but never once have I needed anything from my notes once the exam for the class was over. If I needed to know something, I'd go back to a textbook or search primary sources (ie., pubmed).

MSc (Immunology) - class sizes weren't very big, typing was noisy, and distracted from interacting with everyone else in the class.

Never once have I needed anything from my notes. Again, primary sources if I ever needed to find anything out. I've sat in a couple of under-grad level classes with 100-300 people. People actually taking notes on their laptop were annoying/distracting. Most people with laptops were either checking mail or playing Everquest over the campus wifi (or something).

PhD (Neurosci) - I haven't bothered trying to take electronic notes at all. I didn't even buy the textbooks. If I need anything, I just go to a primary source.

One advantage I can think of is if you have really good metadata associated with your electronic notes or a really good desktop search engine that can search inside your notes - there have occasionally been things where I go, "Oh... there was that thingymabober... can't remember the exact name... but it was during the same lecture where whatchaname was discussed..."

However, just shooting the shit with a labmate or someone else has always helped jog my memory enough to at least know the right keywords to search with (or someone knew exactly what I was not entirely remembering obviating the need to do a search).
posted by porpoise at 10:20 AM on December 30, 2006

OK, I'm not a Linux guy so this answer will have only limited usefulness to you. I needed a way to jot quick notes and have them timestamped, and I didn't want to have to open an application each time I did it. I found a quick VB script called Quicklogger, which I then tied to a keyboard shortcut on my Win machine.

Now, with a quick Ctrl-Alt-L, I'm presented with a short prompt. Whatever I type is appended to a text file with the timestamp.

I don't know if you can do something similar with Linux, but here's the code for Windows:

Option Explicit

Dim filename
filename = "D:\My Documents\worklog.txt"

Dim text
text = InputBox("Add to "&filename&":", "Quick Logger")

Sub WriteToFile(text)
Dim fso
Dim textFile
Set fso = CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject")
Set textFile = fso.OpenTextFile(filename, 8, True)
textFile.WriteLine Now & " " & text
End Sub

Hope that's useful in some way...
posted by RossWhite at 10:57 AM on December 30, 2006

Thanks for your replies folks! As TiddlyWiki seems pretty popular and... "special", I will give it a try. The plain text idea is not so bad either, it's kinda tempting. NVU is pretty much out of question as it is a dead project, it is slow and produces somewhat destructive code (my opinion), I'd rather use Amaya maybe.

Porpoise: well I don't really mind the typing noise (I'm pretty stealth usually), even in dead silent classes, even though I type at 60+ words per minute; I have survived a whole 3 hours of intensive note taking one day, and I would never had done such well-written, complete notes using a plain pencil (and I would have had a lot of finger pain).

I don't exactly understand what is this folding stuff all about... This isn't code, I don't know if it's really useful when you can use a search function...

RossWhite: hmm that's pretty similar to what Tomboy would do I guess... I would have to do something in python if I wanted to write one from scratch, but I doubt I will have the guts to do it!
posted by a007r at 9:11 PM on December 30, 2006

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