Note-Taking and Knowledge Base

One way that works for me to retain information better is to write it down. Digitally if possible, as I never had great handwriting, so computers were a nice level up ๐Ÿ˜…. Because of it, I've already done multiple iterations of changing my note-taking and knowledge-base information storage: I began using simple text files, then Microsoft Word documents, then further explorations of wiki software; and, with the advent of smartphones, a myriad of note-taking applications like Evernote and Google Docs.

Note-Taking

Local-only content is not a problem, but I now stay away from binary formats (including databases) for the content. On the other side, if I use a mobile application for note-taking, I want it to be swift, even if it only keeps local notes; I don't care about having any fancy features, but if it stores content online, it should be quick.

Leaving aside "PC solutions" for a moment to focus on mobile apps, I tried a few apps for months each before jumping to the next one, but the main highlights are: Evernote -> Google Docs -> Dropbox Paper -> Notion -> Markor

Evernote got too big and slow, so it died for me. GDocs is excellent on the desktop, but I was never a fan on mobile. I've used Dropbox Paper for a long time, because on desktop works excellently, but on mobile the synchronization was sometimes noticeably slow (and apparently dependent on the number of documents you have, even if others didn't change). And Notion, yesterday's new kid on the block, is also slow on mobile, probably because of the many features provided that I don't need. So I settled on using an offline markdown-based text editor, Markor. It's by far the fastest app (both booting up and regarding responsiveness) I've ever seen on Android, and I'm okay with checking notes when I arrive home and manually syncing them.

Knowledge Base

And what about the knowledge base part? After years of using Dropbox Paper for it (~ 60 documents total), what made me change away from it was mainly a "have you tested your backups?" situation ๐Ÿคจ.

I have been strictly exporting all Dropbox Paper documents monthly in markdown format. Once or twice I sampled one or two of them, and everything looked fine. But lately, I've started to peek at "my archives" to see some things that I could convert into blog posts/pages to share (e.g., the list of Linux command line tools I use), so I picked up a few exports, opened them in the IDE to preview the rendered markdown... and found that the formatting was far from good.

Markdown is very simple: you can't change font sizes (outside of using headers and sub-headers), line and paragraph spacing define aspects such as if a sentence is part of a paragraph or goes on its own, bullet lists are simple bullet lists (unlike MS Word's chaos of indentations and icons), and code blocks should be code blocks, right? Well, it seems that is not that simple, because I got sentences weirdly spaced (or grouped), almost no multi-line code blocks (a few converted to single-line equivalents), and nested lists sometimes got wanky. All of this is visible in the source and when rendering the export vs. the current Paper document side-by-side.

And thus, a new quest for an alternative began, and in the end, I found what I was looking for in Obsidian. I'm not going to do a sales pitch of what it offers (other than offline-first markdown file edition). Instead, I'll explain what, how, and why I'm using some of its features after spending quite some time fixing in anger all the formatting issues in my existing files:

  • My primary use is for editing markdown files, and with a nice "export as html" plugin having the choice of reading without the app
  • I am not using the Canvas sub-product as of now for my existing KB; It is helpful for brainstorming and topic exploration, though
  • I am still not proficient with how the links and #-links seem to work
  • The read/edit view toggle is quick and immensely useful (it keeps the cursor where you were when you toggle)
  • Opening the document outline's right sidebar is crucial (it should be visible by default!)
  • I am not using it right now, but having the option of online sync (paid feature), plus mobile apps, makes it a complete solution if I ever want to use it for note-taking
  • There are a bunch of exciting plugins I want to check

Solving the markdown formatting has taken most of my effort so far using the approach. From now on, I expect to enjoy more of its features, as I can begin splitting big documents into smaller ones and link/reference them.

Tags: Tools

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