Getting Back Into Evernote

When I decided to put macOS back on the notebook a week or so back to remove some of the friction I was consistently rubbing up against when trying to work, I decided to also give Evernote another try. There was a time when the note application was my go-to resource. It was used extensively between 2011 and 2013 on the iPod Touches I had and, after getting an iPhone, the application became even more useful thanks to all the geo-tagging that could be done with the notes. Evernote was so much a part of my day-to-day life that the prototype version of 10Centuries was an Evernote-based blogging tool1. However, some time around 2015 the company started to change. The applications were slow, bloated, and too difficult to use on the phone. The desktop application did the job, but wasn't as good as previous versions as a result of a bunch of extra "chrome" that was added at the bottom of every note. By the autumn of that year, I uninstalled the software and let my premium account expire. The system just wasn't for me anymore.

The next couple of years weren't particularly great for digital note-taking. I tried OneNote and an array of alternatives that were all trying to be like Evernote, but none could solve the problems that I actually had. What I need from a note application is not at all revolutionary. In fact, Evernote did everything I needed and then some … but the applications were just hard to use. In 2017 I decided to give the service another try, installed the application on my phone, and almost instantly regretted it. My inbox was hit with a slew of spam from Evernote! They wanted to welcome me back. They wanted to offer a discount for a year of premium service. They wanted to let me know about new features. They wanted so much for me to centre my entire life around their service, which is not how notes work. Less than two hours after installing the application, I uninstalled it and added to the mail filter, sending everything automatically to trash.

Not having a decent digital note system is not an option anymore, though. An entire 150-page A5 book is filled with hand-written notes every five weeks for all the things I'm doing at the day job. Another one for 10C sees 15~20 pages written every week with ideas, bug analyses, data structures, and more. All of these things can remain in paper form and still be quickly referenced, but this still works out to over 1400 pages that I'm hand-writing every year just for development projects, not to mention client work and the various essays I've been working on that are in various states of completion.

Plain text files have been used, but don't easily support attachments or meta-data. Word processors like Microsoft's Word or LibreOffice's Write are overkill and do not have decent PDF OCR and indexing built-in. Try as I might, the best tool for the job since 2011 has been — in my mind — Evernote. So here I am with a trio of these …

Evernote's Squared Smart Notebook

This third time around has actually been quite positive. I'm not being inundated with spam. The applications on the tablet and desktop are actually pretty decent. The advertisements — for the moment — are minimal. I've even started scanning receipts and other documents into the service again, which is something I once did religiously in order to keep track of important things that needed to be quickly searchable later. For the most part, I'm enjoying the reduced friction that comes with using a tool that is wholly aligned with the things I need from a note management service.

My only hope is that the service continues to leave me alone while being dependable going forward. I'll get the premium account. I'll get the notebooks that make it easier to have hand-written notes and sketches get processed. I'll even learn to use Penultimate on the tablet with a stylus2. So long as the marketing engine doesn't get in the way of the service, it might just remain part of my digital toolbox for the foreseeable future.

  1. Quite literally. The only way to publish a post with Noteworthy is via Evernote.

  2. Much to Steve Jobs' chagrin, of course.

Notes are Unstructured Groups of Structured Data

One of the very first applications I wrote for the Palm platform was a note-taking application designed for my specific use case at work, a home appliance repair centre, where I would typically receive hundreds of phone calls a day and needed to keep track of hordes of information with near-instant access. This was back in 1999, and the paper notes that my colleagues and I would share often got lost or misplaced depending on who the last person to touch "The Book" was. Luckily, because most of these notes had a very specific pattern to them, creating an application that would allow these notes to be recorded and synchronized between devices was a simple weekend activity.

We needed a name, a phone number, make and model of the machine, and a few notes to know what that person needed and whether the record was "done". Even at the ridiculously youthful age of 20, this program did not take too long to make and it worked very well for its purposes. After a month or so, we started adding refinements, such as not storing records that have been complete for more than a week and a desktop application that could also read the synchronized database, allowing us to search every record regardless of its age. As a combination To Do/Note-taking tool, it excelled.

That was nearly 20 years ago and, while I have long since moved on from the stressful world of appliance repair¹, I have not yet found a note-taking application that I can use for anything else as effectively.

Notebooks and Electronics.jpg

I take a lot of notes. Every day I fill a dozen or more pages of A5-sized paper with bullet points, arrows, diagrams, half-formed sentences, questions, answers, and anything else my three pens² might allow. I've tried a lot of note-taking systems over the years and a bunch of applications that were designed around these various systems … but nothing sticks. The problem is that the vast majority of the notes I take are completely free-form and cannot be separated from the supporting scribbles.

The bullet-point list cannot be a separate entity from the checklist or the margin-sketch that explains a feature, structure, or idea. These three very different things must coexist in order to have any meaning. Some notes appear as little more than the editorial cartoons in the back of some local newspaper but, contained in that rough doodle, is a larger idea. How can these possibly be put into the same note-taking application when they have fundamentally different structures and intentions?

Systems like Evernote try to accommodate this by scanning images uploaded and extracting the text via OCR so that we can search the documents … but this doesn't work for an editorial-like drawing unless we do a bunch of post-upload work, adding tags and descriptions and other things that are wholly unnecessary if left as a drawn-upon piece of paper in a book. One of the more annoying problems comes when you try to add more to the note later. It must be done digitally and within the constraints of the application.

This just doesn't work for me.

In the past I've tried to use tablets with custom apps and expensive styluses in order to "solve" this problem, but these things never worked as advertised. The handwriting recognition was suboptimal and the tablets were never sensitive enough to capture my handwriting properly. Everything was just messy and out of alignment. While a lot of what I do on paper is free-form, there are groups of structure as well. Why is it that none of the millions of software developers on the planet have been able to solve this given the incredible advances in both hardware and software over the years?

Why haven't I been able to solve this problem?

Some people are able to write notes in a top-down fashion, where everything can fit nicely into a Word document. I envy them. That said, if we approach the problem of looking at notes as groups of structured and unstructured data with geographical positions on a page of infinite length and width, then a number of problems go away. The most difficult one being "How do I translate this object into something digital that can be indexed, edited, and added to?"

I've been playing with the idea of making a note-taking application that works in layers³; every layer being a different type of structured data with it's own set of tags, attributes, and limitations. I have no idea if this will work or not, because layers introduce their own complexity, but I would really like to have a single place where I can put all my notes and have them instantly indexed and searchable.

Time will tell …

  1. If the Maytag man really was as bored as the commercials made him out to be, it's because he worked in Pitcairn or some other remote location where Maytags were few and far between. They break down just as often as any other manufacturer.
  2. Blue, Black, and Red. All three being Mitsubishi UB-150 ballpoints with a really nice 0.5mm tip.
  3. This will use 10Centuries as its central repository, of course. If I can make the darn thing work the way I want, then it may make sense to build a stand-alone app.