tool sharpening fail: notebook / idea management

At work, we recently moved our internal project and defect tracking from Trac to LiquidPlanner. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: LiquidPlanner is fantastic. It’s really helping get an eye on what’s going on.

I wanted to set up an agenda for a meeting I want to have tomorrow, and I thought I’d try doing this in LP. It was easy. I made a task list, started a bulk item entry, and entered each agenda item on a line. Done! Instant meeting agenda, and it shows up on the schedule (even if it does pretend to have no impact on anybody’s workflow).

This wasn’t really good enough, though. I often want to manage lists of discussion items or questions that I want to review. I could put them all in LP, but there’s a point at which dumping all these little notes to myself into LP isn’t appropriate. I wanted a quick place to dump bullet lists, possibly with other hunks of text or images. The first thing that popped to mind was Microsoft Office OneNote, which my friend Tom uses for this sort of thing.

There’s no OneNote for Mac, though, so I had to think about alternatives. Evernote had some noise about “switching from OneNote?” recently, but that’s crazy. Evernote has nearly none of the features of OneNote. Then I remembered Curio, from Zengobi. It’s got a lot of OneNote-like features. I had a (free) copy of version 3, but 5 just came out, and looks wildly improved, so I grabbed a copy.

A Curio notebook has a bunch of pages, called Idea Spaces. On each page, you can put lists, text boxes, images, files, web page snippets, live web viewers, and similar things. Anything can be made into a to-do item or given a due date, and then you can get an aggregated list of what you have to do in your project notebook. You can easily make mind maps that have surprisingly tolerable keyboard editability.

I made a notebook and put some lists into it. A few formatting glitches worried me, but it’s a new release. I can cope with a few uninteresting bugs. I played around with some of its features, and it seemed pretty cool. I didn’t have a real need to dump much work stuff into it yet, though, so I thought I’d try dumping in some play stuff: notes for my D&D campaign.

Allow me to digress… I keep the notes for my RPG campaigns in TiddlyWiki files. This works fairly well, but there are some annoying bits. I’m not a big fan of wiki formatting, and wiki tables tend to be completely horrible. Also, TiddlyWiki lacks a few features that I think are essential, and while these are fixed by extensions, extensions never quite fit in 100% with every other core feature. Worse, because it’s a wiki, it means I need to have my browser running, and my browser (Firefox 3) tends to be a big, slow hog. To combat this, I had made a Fluid instance just for browsing my RPG wiki. Safari (and thus Fluid) is far, far faster than Firefox. I run LiquidPlanner in Fluid for just this reason.

Unfortunately, TiddlyWiki sucks under Safari. It doesn’t properly update the URL bar or history while working, so hitting Back, which works properly in Firefox, tries to make you leave the wiki, in Safari. You also have to install and trust a Java plugin to save – but that didn’t bother me, once I got it working. Anyway, all this Just Works in Firefox, but Firefox sucks for different reasons. I wondered, “Is there something like Fluid for Firefox, to make Gecko-based site-specific browsers?” There is! It’s called Prism, and it sucks, at least on the Mac. Among other things, it totally breaks the ability of TiddlyWiki to go back and forward. That’s a deal breaker.

So, I thought maybe it was time to try something totally new to store game notes, and Curio showed some promise. It quickly proved that it would not be usable, though.

It just isn’t wiki enough. Linking between one idea space and another is a pain. You drag the thumbnail of the target page onto someplace on the current page, and an icon or thumbnail appears. There’s no text to tell you what it’s linking to. The icon form does have text: “Link.” You can edit it, but why do you have to? If you have a bunch of pages with similar thumbnails (say, because you use templates) this is untenable. You also can’t have inline links. Links are either entire bullet items in a list or entire text boxes. That means that if you write five paragraphs, the entire text area can link to one and only one other page. Also, if you do this, you will no longer be able to double-click the text to follow the link. Where will the link go? Who knows! The tool tip says, “double click to follow this link.” To… somewhere.

So, fine, Curio isn’t a wiki. It doesn’t need to be a wiki. I just wish it would steal more good ideas from wikis. The triviality of link creation is one of a wiki’s greatest strengths, and it makes it very easy to set up a lot of pages without even writing them. Linking to something that doesn’t exist reminds you to do it later.

Maybe I’d have more look with other similar products. Circus Ponies Notebook didn’t seem to have direct, simple linking. VoodooPad is a wiki, so of course it had linking. It does a lot of things I’d want in a notebook, but it lacks the thing that makes Curio so appealing: pages as collections of floating items. In VoodooPad, a page is a lot like a page in a word processor. It just has links and embedded items. In Curio, a page is more like a page in a desktop publisher. The page itself is a blank container onto which objects can be dropped. You can put text boxes here and there, a list up there, and maybe some diagrams right in the middle. They aren’t flow-positioned, they just sit there on the page.

That’s how I use a real notebook. I position things all over the page, and then I draw borders between them or arrows connecting them. I don’t just write in paragraphs down the page, sometimes stopping to include a skech.

I’m really hoping that Curio radically changes the ease of linking, because I think that could make it a really great notebook. Until they do, I think I’m going to end up sticking with TiddlyWiki.

Written on August 17, 2008
🌀 productivity
💾 software
🏷 tiddlywiki