Saturday, February 11, 2012

Trying out Evernote for my note collection

Since 2005, I've been keeping my collection of notes in a text file. It is part journal, part idea book, and part todo list. I tried a few different tools and techniques, but kept coming back to the simplicity and ease of a single file edited in vim. I wrote a few supporting perl scripts to make it a little easier, including a template for new notes, timestamps, backups, and some very basic search capabilities. Despite also using version control (RCS), I managed to delete a significant portion of my notes when upgrading my server at one point, and so the system remained a little fragile. However, when I got a smartphone about a year ago, things changed and I began to need a way to add notes on the go as well as from my computer. I created a simple web application wrapper for my notes file, and then I could post to my notes file from the web. Unfortunately, this system was very much optimized for writing notes, and much less useful for searching or browsing through related items. I was intrigued by the idea of a commonplace book as described in the outstanding book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. A commonplace book is a cross between a scrapbook, a journal and and idea book, and rose to popularity nearly 500 years ago in Europe. One of the most interesting characteristics of a commonplace book was the cross-indexing of topics to enable me to pick up threads of earlier ideas and combine them together serendipitously. I wanted to have better searching capability than I was willing to write or wire in, and I wanted to be able to combine notes gathered from other sources (like audio transcriptions, documents, images and web pages) into a "common place".

Enter Evernote. I tried their free online note service a few years back when I was looking for an online Getting Things Done (GTD) application, but it didn't stick. However, this time around I was excited to be able to upload audio notes from my phone straight into Evernote, and then transcribe them at my leisure. I record voice memos when listening to audio books on my android phone, or any other time when I have a phone but not a keyboard. I also like Evernote's synchronization feature, which stores notes in the cloud, and also locally on one or more computers/devices, and will automatically synchronize them. (Cloud + local storage is the best sort of backup). What finally tipped me over to giving it another try was the text (XML) import/export format. I'm concerned about vendor lock-in, and wouldn't want to put my notes into a cloud-based application without a clear path to getting my data back out in the event that I was unhappy with the system. So, with a bit of perl hackery, I wrote a script that would parse my existing notes file (350+ notes), massage dates, extract tags, and covert it into an XML document that could be imported directly into Evernote. Evernote has a number of companion products and services made possible through their API, and that is a big plus. The one feature that caught my eye is service that will transcribe up to 30 seconds of audio for free. I'm going to give Evernote another go, and see if I can improve on notes.txt + vim.

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