Zettelkasten: one database or several databases?

In recent months I have decided to implement the Zettelkasten approach to taking reading notes a bit more rigorously than I did in the past, by which I mean that I started taking individual bite-size (index-card type) notes, rather than keeping all notes pertaining to a book or article within a single document. I created a separate database in ConnectedText (my Zettelkasten software) for this, which I named “Quotes.” I also created another database called “Notes” for my own ideas, which I intended to keep separate from “Quotes.” My main reasoning was that I wanted to keep “Quotes” ‘pure’ as a reading notes database, rather than contaminate it by a type of notes that were of a different provenance.

This dualism didn’t matter much until just recently, as I was almost exclusively taking reading notes, which allowed me to record my own associated comments, without the need to start populating the “Notes” database. You could say that I did not have any “original” ideas of my own to record. However, just today I had an idea, which, although inspired by my reading of a book, I thought was an original thought worthy of recording on its own. And then it dawned on me that I do not need to put that note into a separate database. I can just consider it a special type of a “reading note,” the author of which is me. Rather than recording it separately, I can just add my own name as an author in the Categories field, so that I can filter those, if needed. Otherwise there are all kinds of benefits to keeping it together with my other reading notes. For example, they can be searched together or grouped together thematically. And there is no need to be switching between databases.

I realise this may not sound like a very profound realisation that should merit its own blog post, but for some reason I found it a relief that I could reduce the number of databases for my notes. I still have my old “Readings” database, which is based on the principle of collecting all notes per publication in a single CT document. But since I’ve started using the index card approach, I had not felt the need to create another “Readings” entry. I suspect that one day I may break those up into index cards as well and merge them with the “Quotes” database (which I should really rename to “Quotes and Thoughts”).

How do you deal with quotes and your own thoughts? Do you keep them in the same database or in separate databases? Do you keep quotes and your comments about them in the same note or in separate ones? And why?

Christian Tietze on the Zettelkasten way

Here is an interesting post by Christian Tietze that spells out the main software requirements for the implementation of a Zettelkasten type notes database. This is pretty much how I manage my reading notes these days in ConnectedText. I am really looking forward to reading the software reviews that Christian aims to undertake.

Planning a PowerPoint presentation in Gingko

I have just discovered another great use for Gingko, the horizontal outliner: planning PowerPoint presentations. Why not just use PowerPoint itself? There are a number of reasons. While PowerPoint is very good for presenting the end result, it is not so good for developing the content itself. Sure, you could start adding the content straight into the slides; however, if you still need to develop the conceptual side of your argument, you will find that PowerPoint is not the best place to work it out in.

Firstly, space on each slide is limited. You could try moving some of the expanding new material into the notes area below the slide, but then soon you will start losing contact with the text, as it will disappear under the fold–not to mention that you can only view the comments for one slide at a time. This will inevitably prompt one to move content into a new slide, and the dangerous proliferation of slides begins.

However, presentation time usually is also limited, which means that it would make more sense to determine the maximum number of slides up front, and stick to it religiously. This is where Gingko comes in. Let’s take the example of a 30-minute presentation. If you apply a rule of thumb that one slide will take about 3 minutes to present and explain, then you should have no more than 10 slides.

As Gingko index cards look very much like slides, it is easy to set up 10 blank Gingko cards sequentially in a column. As you start developing the content and find that you have more material than you can present in a single slide, you can start moving the less relevant material to linked cards in an adjacent column to the right. Gingko allows you to add as many linked cards as you like, in as complex a hierarchy as you like, while preserving the integrity of the original 10 slides.

The reason this works well for conceptual development is because you can see all the material laid out in front of you (as opposed to the single slide view in PowerPoint), and it is easy to move text and cards around as you are abstracting, reducing, organising, and synthesising. No matter how messy and complex your working-out process is, at the end the original slides will contain the essence of your project, assuming that you have stuck to your guns and avoided the temptation to add more new slides.

Think of the top 10 slides as the tip of the iceberg that contains all the essential information that needs to be presented. Everything under the water level is still important as supporting material, but it does not need to be featured in the slides themselves, considering that there wouldn’t be time to discuss them in the presentation anyway. The end of the process is just a simple copy-and-paste job from Gingko to PowerPoint, although you could also use some of the other more sophisticated export options available (Markdown, HTML, .docx, impress.js, or json).

[Video] Easier Writing in Gingko App, the Most FLUID Writing Environment Imaginable

Dr Andus:

An excellent video case study on how to use Gingko app for academic writing.

Originally posted on The BLOSSOMING-Fledgling Researcher:


It’s been a long while since I’ve been able to post. My thesis deadline is fast looming, and so this will likely be my last post until I finish my thesis and finish presenting in Spring of 2014.

I’m going on hiatus with a bang, though: Below is a very quickly-made video of how I’m using Gingko App (you’ve GOT to see it) to do the Single Method of Academic Writing, which Dr. Single outlines in her book “Demystifying Dissertation Writing.” Her method is a game changer. You want to know about the method. :) Gingko App makes it SUPER FLUID. But, even if you don’t use her method, Gingko App is still just an amazingly fluid writing environment.

ASIDE: One thing I left out of the video is how easy it is to create the quotes in Citavi by just highlighting the quote in the PDF preview displayed…

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An Offline, Desktop App for WorkFlowy

Dr Andus:

My favourite task manager just got better.

Originally posted on WorkFlowy Blog:

Screenshot 2013-12-18 10.45.12

Offline. That magical word. We’ve been promising it for years, and now, finally, you can use WorkFlowy in a plane, train or automobile. In the subway, under the ocean, in the desert. With a frog, in a bog, on a log. And so forth.

We’ve been using the desktop app internally for several months. I personally use it almost exclusively now, and am really happy with it.  There’s one caveat, though. We built the desktop application on top of Google’s Chrome browser. You don’t need to use Chrome to use the app, but you do need to have Chrome installed. Hopefully that isn’t too much of an annoyance for you. If it is, we’re looking into launching a desktop app that doesn’t require Chrome, but we can’t say exactly when we’ll get to that.

Oh, and one more thing. Offline is free. We’ve been saying offline would require a WorkFlowy Pro…

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My minimalist writing environment

…with research question permanently displayed

As I’m writing up my PhD dissertation, I am continuously striving to streamline my writing process and simplify my writing environment. For this reason I have been drawn to minimalist writing applications that reduce unnecessary distractions, such as too much chrome and colourful menu buttons in applications. I use different software for different writing situations. Currently I am writing up a chapter for which I have detailed notes organised in an elaborate Freeplane mind map, which I keep in my right hand monitor.

My central monitor is where I do the actual writing. Currently, this consists of a WriteMonkey window that takes up most of the left and centre of the monitor area, while on the right I have a Notepad2-mod window open to take some ad hoc notes and organise them into a quick outline prior to writing. To do the actual writing, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate directly into WriteMonkey, while looking at my Freeplane mind map, which I check off gradually, as described in this post.

Notepad2-mod is a recent discovery for me. It is a replacement for Windows’ own Notepad. I have learnt about it at the Donation Coder forum, where you can find instructions on how to turn it into a very simple plain-text-based outliner. I like to use it in conjunction with WriteMonkey, as it is easy to copy and paste unformatted text from one to the other, and I also find it distraction-free enough. I also use Notepad2-mod as a scratch pad area, to work out ideas quickly, before dictating them into WriteMonkey.

There’s one more screen element that has become an important part of my setup. As I was writing my chapters, I continually wished that I was able to view my main research question at the top of my screen, so that I would be reminded of it at all times, in order not to lose my main focus. However, I had a hard time finding a solution that would display a single line permanently at the top of my screen, without there being any chrome around it, and without it being obscured by maximised windows.

Eventually it was another of Mouser’s brilliant little solutions that allowed me to do this. It is a very simple little application called DesktopCoral, which lets you reserve an area of your screen and prevent other software from covering it. Besides other uses, you can also select a .jpg image file to be displayed within it. So all I had to do was to take a screenshot (using Mouser’s excellent Screenshot Captor) of my research question displayed in a single line in WriteMonkey, and insert it into DesktopCoral’s docking bar, which I docked to the top of my screen. It takes up just a tiny sliver of it. As you can see (exactly because you cannot actually see it!) from the screenshot below, the DesktopCoral bar blends into my screen environment seamlessly.

WriteMonkey, Notepad2-mod, DesktopCoral, Winsplit RevolutionTo achieve this effect, I also needed to enlist Winsplit Revolution, which I used to position the WriteMonkey window into the centre-left area while in full-screen mode (otherwise WriteMonkey would cover up the DesktopCoral bar, as full-screen mode is different from maximised-window mode). (By the way, I’m not bothered by my Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen. It allows me to quickly switch between applications with the mouse, and I don’t find it too distracting.)

If I did not need the Notepad2-mod window, then I could just centre WriteMonkey in full-screen mode (again, with Winsplit, in order not to obscure the DesktopCoral bar), and the research question area at the top would simply look like it belongs to WriteMonkey itself, except that it is permanently there, and it does not disappear when I scroll up or down, or indeed do anything else: it remains visible even when I close WriteMonkey and switch to other tasks.

At the moment nothing is more important to me than remaining mindful of my research question, therefore I do not mind at all that it is always in my face. I could imagine that other people might find this solution useful for pinning important reminders—or even inspirational quotes—to the top of their desktops to permanently remind them what is important.

The most amazing thing is that, with the exception of Dragon, all of the above tools are free– though their developers do welcome donations, and they deserve them, too. I just love these tools to bits—or should I say, to bytes?


If this is just not minimalist enough for you, you could always 1) turn off the numbering in Notepad2-mod, if it’s too distracting, or 2) instead of Notepad2-mod just use another instance of WriteMonkey and position it on the right with Winsplit Revolution, and 3) make the Windows taskbar autohide. With 2) and 3) it would be truly just a single-coloured background with a single-coloured font, and nothing else to distract you. Here is what the screen would look like then (the file name, word count, and time info in blue at the bottom is optional, as is Winsplit’s little floating tool in the bottom right corner):

WriteMonkey with DesktopCoral and Winsplit RevolutionP.P.S.

WriteMonkey’s developer tells me that it is also possible to display the research question with WM’s own Corkboards plugin. And it turns out you may not even need full-screen view + Winsplit to get rid of WM’s Windows chrome: you can just CTRL+right-click with the mouse on the right side of WM’s window, and the chrome disappears. Here is his screenshot of the Corkboards feature:

WriteMonkey with Corkboard plugin

Dragon NS 12.5 and WriteMonkey

I have recently updated my Dragon NaturallySpeaking to the latest version of 12.5. Currently I am using it mainly with WriteMonkey, as I like to write in a minimalist environment. But while I was playing around with Dragon today, I realised that it is also possible to dictate directly into ConnectedText (or any other software not directly supported by Dragon), if you permanently turn off the Dragon Dictation Box feature that pops up. This might mean that not all of Dragon’s features will work in those unsupported software, but I only ever use dictation anyway.

I’m impressed how well Dragon dictation works with WriteMonkey. I wonder what it is about WM that makes it not to trigger the Dragon Dictation Box, as opposed to most of my other non-mainstream writing software…