The Evolution of My Notes

I have written a lot about my TODO list. I rely heavily on my TODO list because my brain is bad at remembering to do things, but digital lists synced to the cloud and linked to periodic reminders are much more reliable. However, I don’t only use digital systems to remember to do things: I also use them to remember important facts and my ideas. That is why I have an extensive notetaking system that has evolved over the years.

My notes started in analog. Through high school and college, I took all of my class notes in spiral paper notebooks. By college, I had a laptop to take to class, and I knew I could type faster. However, I also saw other students on Facebook during lecture, and I got distracted from lecture even when I saw them out of the corner of my eye. The risk of having my own web browser up was too great, so I kept it analog.

However, I did keep some digital notes. I had text files in my Documents folder for directions from SFO to Stanford and my packing list whenever I went home from college. I occasionally had to reorganize those files, but it was sufficient for how often I used them.

At some point near the end of college, I switched to Evernote. I was using both my personal MacBook Pro and a work Ubuntu desktop, and it was awfully helpful to have automatic syncing. Besides, it was a cleaner interface to switch between my notes rather than opening, saving, and closing individual files. I had to use the web interface in Ubuntu, but it was better. I began to use my notes more extensively for writing down Magic decks, personal notes, work notes, and other wacky ideas.

When I got a iPad and iPhone, I used the Evernote iOS apps. However, I never paid them because I was just using it for text and didn’t need space or team collaboration. Then one day, they limited on the number of devices that you could sync to, and it was less than the 4 devices I had.

Since I was entirely entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, I switched to using Apple Notes. It also provided automatic syncing, and I can’t remember a single feature that I lost in the transition.

I most extensively used Notes for the various tabletop RPGs. There’s a lot to figure out and remember to create a seemingly real and consistent world. I kept notes for characters, religions, plot points, geography, cultures, adventure notes, and anything else to flesh out an entire world.

I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t have a better system until I went to a talk on Worldbuilding at a local bookstore. They brought in four science fiction and fantasy authors to talk about how they created the worlds for their stories, and although I’m not fiction writer, their ideas obviously applied to running games. They all recommended using a personal wiki, and I realized that would instantly solve my problem.

My RPG notes got messy because the information is inherently relational, but the most structure you get out of notes are outlines. I love lists and outlines, but you only get single hierarchy. When you have a wiki, you can use hyperlinks to connect any two arbitrary pages. For the coders out there, this is the versatility of an arbitrary graph instead of using only trees.

Rather than using any of the commercial wiki sites (which could die and take my life’s work with it), I decided to use vimwiki. vimwiki used the same editor I quickly type code in and also could be stored in a self-maintained repository. It was a long process to transfer my notes, but it has worked well. I currently use it for several RPGs and rely heavily on hyperlinking.

However, I still use Apple Notes for everything else. Although I like using vim for vimwiki, it also means that I can’t easily edit my notes on my mobile devices, which I often carry to RPG sessions. I also can’t access it offline.

I have looked for other solutions that satisfied all of my needs, which include:

  1. arbitrary hyperlinks between documents so I could structure my data as I wanted
  2. self-hosting so I wasn’t depending on someone else to store my entire body of knowledge
  3. offline sync on my iPad
  4. easy editing options from anywhere

These constraints are difficult to satisfy together. In iOS, you can largely only access things through an app or your web browser. Apps tend to be proprietary, which reduces self-hosting options. Web browsers tend to require online access, which defeats the point of offline syncing.

The best solution I found was TiddlyWiki, an open source wiki with multiple clients across desktop and mobile. It offers self-hosting through CouchDB and PouchDB for offline access using the web browser local storage.

It’s brilliant, except I couldn’t install CouchDB on my personal server (GitHub issue here), so I couldn’t self-host. And that’s why only two of my three RPGs are in a wiki: my new Masks campaign is in Apple Notes because I need offline sync very badly.

And that’s the state of my notes today. It’s regrettable that I’m using two different solutions, but it’s sustainable for now. I will have a new system in a few years, so keep an eye out for the next blog post.

2 thoughts on “The Evolution of My Notes”

  1. With Tiddlywiki, why a CouchDB approach? Why not just a file-based approach, with TW5?

    The other alternative would be federated wiki. If you don’t want to be public, you can run a private wiki on your personal computer, npm install wiki.

    I have been working around wiki for some years. http://wiki.coevolving.com .

    1. I decided on CouchDB (specifically https://noteself.github.io) because it was the only one I found that offered both self-hosting and offline edits and sync in iOS. The tough part is that iOS has locked down files so they can only be synced through Dropbox, iCloud, or other commercial cloud solutions. I’m not opposed to using them, but at that point, I realized that is more or less what I get with Apple Notes.

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