Notable PDF is getting there

I’m not sure if I mentioned it here before, but last year I got myself a Chromebook (a 1st gen. HP Chromebook 14), to replace my aging and increasingly decrepit (or should I say decrapit) iPad 1 as my main portable note-taking and web-surfing machine. I quickly became a Chromebook convert, especially after I discovered how easy and convenient it is to use Chrome Remote Desktop to access my Windows 7 PC, thus always having my office with me.

The only area where my Chromebook and Chrome OS were lacking and where my iPad 1 (with the GoodReader app, for instance) was still superior was PDF annotation. It was certainly possible to read a PDF on a Chromebook but there was no satisfactory solution to annotate a book-sized PDF, both online and offline, and then be able to export the annotated PDF file or the annotations themselves. Not until Notable PDF appeared on the scene that is. I have been using Notable since its beta days on and off, but until recently I kept running into problems that made me return to annotating on the PC or on my old iPad.

However, in recent weeks I checked back again and I was very pleasantly surprised that Notable have ironed out some of the obstacles that kept me from adopting it permanently. Finally I was able to download my annotated PDF file and open it in PDF XChange Editor on the PC, and I saw all my highlights and annotations in place. It is still not perfect, as the highlights in XChange Editor show up as some kind of colour overlay rather than XChange’s own native highlights, but hey, I can live with that. What is more important is that I am now able to read and manipulate my Notable annotations in XChange Editor.

Moreover, Notable has some tricks up its sleave that give it a distinct advantage over some other PDF annotating options. Notable PDF is a Chrome browser extension, which makes it cross-platform on desktops, as long as you have Chrome installed on your other machines.* It appears to save the annotations in the cloud, which means that it doesn’t matter where you keep your file, and how many copies of your file you have, it will sync the annotations to that file (and its copies) across all the browsers. You can even have two different copies of the same PDF file open in different machines in Chrome, and the annotations will sync live and automatically, in front of your eyes. This feature of course would be very useful for collaborations, as you can see instantly what others are commenting on that file.

To me, this feature means more flexibility. For example, the copy of  the PDF file I’m reading is saved on the hard drive of the Chromebook. When I’m offline, the annotations are saved offline, and then synced when I’m back online. However, I also have a copy of the same file on my Google Drive account in the cloud, and if I’m on another machine, let’s say a PC at work and I do not have my Chromebook with me with the original file, I can just open the copy from Google Drive, and Notable recognises it as a copy of the annotated file and it populates it with the annotations saved on their server. I find this rather clever and very useful.

In any case, I just wanted to say that I’m happy now to include Notable PDF among my favourite apps and recommend it to others, especially Chromebook users. While it’s not entirely perfect for my needs (I wish the yellow highlights could be converted to native highlights in PDF XChange Editor, so they can be extracted from there), it is probably the best option for PDF reading and annotating on Chromebook today. Also, I have been following them for the past year, and development has been on-going, so I am hopeful that Notable will continue to be improving.


* Having just looked at their website more closely, it turns out now they also have a web app, so in fact you can use their service on any browser, not just Chrome.

Latest enhancements to my ConnectedText ‘ecosystem’

Actually I’ve used these tools for some months now, I just haven’t had a chance to mention them on this blog. I use the two in conjunction with each other, so it makes sense to mention them together.

The first tool is a software called TaskSpace. The need arose for this one with the introduction of the floating windows feature in ConnectedText v. 6., which allows you to open an unlimited number of CT ‘topics’ (documents). If you work with a multi-monitor setup (and even if you don’t), there comes a point where you might have several floating windows open, which you would need to move around individually (in my case from one monitor to another), which quickly becomes a hassle. Moreover, floating windows come into focus every time you have the main CT application in focus, meaning that the floating windows would obscure whatever other app window you might want to look at in the other monitor while looking at the main CT window.

TaskSpace solves both of these problems. Firstly, by using the handy CTRL+SHIFT+M combination, you can send individual CT floating windows to a single TaskSpace window, where you can further organise them into rows and columns, and then move them around the various monitors as a single window. It is also possible to create tabs within TaskSpace, so you can add as many CT floating windows to it as you like. Secondly, the paid-for version of TaskSpace also gives you the option to change the behaviour from “always on top” to “normal” etc., which I presume would disconnect the floating windows from the main CT app, making it possible to view them independently (and hide them from view at will). I say “presume” because I’ve never tried that feature. I use a comparable feature that comes with Direct Folders, where you just right-click on the close button of any window (except Chrome, with which it doesn’t work for some reason), and the window changes from “normal” to “always on top” and vice versa.

Here is a screenshot of a TaskSpace window with three CT floating windows docked:

TaskSpace_with_CTThe second tool is a piece of hardware called Boogie Board Sync, which I use almost exclusively with ConnectedText, by creating handwritten notes, syncing them via Bluetooth to my PC, converting them from PDF to .PNG files in PDF-Xchange Editor (which allows you to semi-automate the process by setting up the file names and desired image resolution), and dropping them into CT. Then I use TaskSpace to view these handwritten notes as CT floating windows in one monitor, while working away in CT in the other monitor. I use Boogie Board Sync mainly to capture ideas concerning my main writing project quickly (especially when my PC is not turned on), and then I tick them off in CT eventually, once the work recorded in the BB Sync file has been done.

BB_SyncIf you are a CT user and you are still looking for a Christmas present for yourself, I can highly recommend the BB Sync. But make sure to read the Amazon USA etc. reviews about it to understand its limitations. Many customers seem to have unrealistic expectations about it, and then they complain that BB Sync didn’t meet them. However, if you read carefully what BB Sync offers, and you’re happy with those limitations (such as the inability to recall notes on the device itself – saved or deleted notes need to be synced with the PC to be viewed), then BB Sync can become an invaluable tool for getting handwritten notes into a PC quickly, and into ConnectedText in particular. There are of course many other possible use case scenarios, such as e.g. using BB Sync to write handwritten diary entries and then using the date topics feature in ConnectedText to build a handwritten journal.

Taking reading notes with ConnectedText

Recently I have developed a reading note-taking process with ConnectedText that follows the Zettelkasten method more closely and is an alternative to the note-taking process with Freeplane that I have described earlier. The main difference is that the earlier method with Freeplane produced one large mind map that contained all the reading notes in a single document and which tried to capture the inherent outline (logical hierarchy) of a book’s argument, while this new method produces many small index cards with quotes and notes, which nonetheless can be assembled into an overall outline at the end, to reproduce the overarching flow of the original text’s argument. The main advantage of this latter process is that it results in bite-size chunks of texts that can be connected and reassembled in many other ways, thus providing more versatility and ease of use during the analysis and synthesis stage, and throughout the life the Zettelkasten.

Here is my process flow (when reading a book in PDF format):

  1. I read the PDF document.
  2. I copy and paste interesting passages into NoteTab (plain text editor) to fix the line breaks with CTRL+J and use CT’s markup to preserve formatting (mainly italics and superscript for footnotes), if required.
  3. I paste in the quote into a new “date topic” in CT. Date topics are CT documents with some special properties. E.g. they are prefixed automatically with the date and time of the creation of the topic and allow the topics to be listed in chronological order in the “Topic list” pane. Before starting to take notes for a section of the book (e.g. a chapter), I create a dedicated template (a plain text document) for that section. CT remembers the last template used, which means that whenever I create a new topic, I don’t need to worry about selecting the template again. The template contains all the major fields of a reading note you’d expect, such headings for “Quote,” “My comment,” “Bibliographic reference,” link to page in the PDF file, and “Categories.” The reference is already marked up with CT’s “attribute” tags, which allows for automatically gathering topics with the same attributes. In the “Categories” I would include any labels (tags) that will pertain to all the notes within that particular chapter (including the chapter’s title and the author’s name). I also set up a phrase with the “author date” format in PhraseExpander, so that when I create a new topic, I won’t need to retype that bit again. Here is the sub-process for creating a new date topic in CT:
    1. click on the “new topic” button in CT.
    2. click on the “add current date/time” icon in the “new topic” dialog box.
    3. start typing author’s name and select phrase from PhraseExpander’s pop-up, e.g. “Smith 2013”
    4. type a descriptive title for the quote. The final topic title will look something like this:
      1. 29/04/2014 10:34 Smith 2013 definition of scientific method
    5. click “OK” to create new CT date topic.
  4. paste in the quote from NoteTab.
  5. Add any comments, such as interpretations or ideas triggered by the quote.
  6. Use yellow and pink colour to highlight any crucial sentences in the quote (optional).
  7. Add the page number for the PDF page link (to be able to go back to the source page with one click).
  8. Add labels (tags) in the Categories section to characterise and categorise the quote.
  9. Save.
  10. After having finished reading a chapter, I drag and drop all the newly created date topics into a CT outline file (.cto) I  created for the whole book, and organise them into a hierarchical structure, thus recreating the underlying logical structure for the chapter’s argument (and gradually for the whole book). This is the process and mechanism that replaces the single Freeplane mind map with the previously described method. Should I still wish to see this outline as a mind map, I can export it into Freeplane, where each outline item would be a node, and each node would have a link that leads to the quote in CT, thus acting as a virtual dual-pane mind map/outliner.


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.