19 July 2008

It's the little things that count

At first I thought that after giving the overview of Linux, I would jump right into looking at my favourite word processor and related applications. But word processors are word processors, and really (this is heresy, but really) writers don't necessarily need a fancy word processor to get the job done. Neat formatting and organised content, yes. But not fancy, not unless you're writing something with lots of cross-references and hand-tooling your own index. Even then, any full-fledged word processor will handle that easily.

No, it's the little things that count, those little widgets or mini-features that we get attached to beyond all reason. That's why this time I'm going to write about note-taking.

I used to take notes either a) on paper or b) in a word processing file. Then I would promptly lose the notebook page I wrote the note on (or, in extreme cases, the entire notebook), or forget where I saved the word processing file.

The first problem was solved by getting my N-800 that I've already blogged about and using Maemopad+ to write notes.

This post is more about Linux on a full-fledged computer, though. For that situation, I have wound up with two solutions: one for work and one for home. For work, I built myself a searchable database — something that's very quick and easy to do in OpenOffice. I'll blog about that soon. The home solution was to put Tomboy Notes in my Ubuntu launch panel.

There are lots of different sticky notes applications out there, but I picked Tomboy because:
  • It doesn't put notes all over my desktop. Instead, my notes are listed in a menu that drops down when I click on the panel icon.

  • If you enter the title of one note in the text of another note, Tomboy will automatically create a hyperlink for you. This is great for doing preliminary story outlines. You can also create new notes that are linked to your current note by highlighting the text you want to use to link, right-clicking, and selecting the "Link to New Note" option.

  • You can organise your notes into notebooks. If you've ever been in a meeting where the chair has a "parking lot" of a piece of flip-chart paper with sticky notes on it — that's kind of what notebooks are.

  • All notes are searchable, so if you can't remember the title of the note where you jotted down that important piece of information, you can at least search for it. The search dialogue also acts as a nice overview of all of your notes.

  • Unlike the other sticky note applications I've used, the text is formattable. I like this because it means that if I get carried away in a note and then think, "Hm, maybe I should copy this into the actual document I'm working on," I can do it without having to insitute any formatting. It's nice being able to use all the expressiveness that formatting allows too. I'm particularly fond of bulleted lists in my notes. Web and e-mail addresses automatically become links.

  • Notes can be exported to HTML (that's web page formatting). If you can export to HTML, you can import into pretty much any contemporary word processor.

Finally, since TomBoy is a Gnome project, and Gnome is the environment that Ubuntu runs by default, it comes pre-installed with Ubuntu — you just need to add it to the panel to make it handy.

Further explanation if that last paragraph made no sense to you: Unlike other, ah, more commercial PC operating systems, the layers in Linux are all customisable. There's the "core" — the part most casual computer users only see when the machine is starting up (you know, all those cryptic messages about memory counts and things). Then there's the environment, which is the pretty part with the desktop wallpaper, windows, icons, menus... By default, Ubuntu comes with Gnome, a very popular environment (but not the only one). If you can use MS-Windows or Macintosh OSX, you should be able to do basic navigation and application use in Gnome without having to learn much that's new. That's not to say that everything is exactly the way you're used to — because it isn't — but it's familiar enough. It's sort of like going to a restaurant in a country you've never been to before — some things will be different, but the basic conventions of ordering from the menu and so on are the same.


  1. I was so happy when I discovered Tomboy -- it was the perfect notekeeping tool for me, 'cause I like to know how things might be connected even if I haven't made the connection myself. (If that makes sense.) The way Tomboy automatically hyperlinks keywords made that task a LOT easier.

    Been using Ubuntu (home only, alas) for about a year and a half now. Probably about time I did the oblig blog post about it, hmm?

    (Got here via Dennis Cass's site, btw.)

  2. Katherine: Fwiw, I resolved my problems (which were QUITE frustrating) with Flash/Shockwave under Hardy: apparently all I had to do was uninstall -- completely -- the swfdec plugin. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but after trying everything else it was the only thing which worked!


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