Evernote? NOW?

Back story

For longer than I can remember I have adopted the position that 1) notes should be in ASCII: universal, future-proof, small files and 2) markdown syntax should provide more than enough formatting for notes. I managed my ASCII, markdown notes through a variable set of multi-platform apps (notational velocity, simplenotes, drafts, textmate, vesper, etc.), sometimes tied through Dropbox. Most of these notes, once taken, were never modified again. Or even looked at.

In more recent years, I have felt the increasing need to intermingle words with pictures (research figures mostly). I’ve found I need this for work and thinking, iterating on projects, meeting notes, research notes, travel notes, etc. The point was to get something like a Lab Notebook. For this I have tried dropbox Paper (opaque organization), google docs (a big mess), MindMeister, Apple Notes (not so bad), Curio, Omnioutliner (etc.), and dedicated “Lab Notebook” apps like Findings. None really stuck.

structure propals au 15 mars.png

Sure, I could do this in Markdown. But I could also do it in Google sheets, insert a screenshot in a word file, and use the two hours I’ve just saved to do something else.

Onenote sideline

The app that stuck most was Onenote. The free-form aspect promised by Onenote was so conceptually seducing that I agreed to put up with its worse aspects:

  1. Onenote’s UX is very laggy (Mac/iOS). Every interaction has a huge transaction cost. Writing notes. Moving stuff around on the canvas. Moving around on the canvas. Switching notes.
  2. Sync is so slow that it discourages device-switching on the fly. Forget starting a note on the iPhone and picking it up on the Mac. At some point I had to re-authenticate every time I opened the app. Slow sync made things even worse, especially given that…
  3. Onenote’s Notebooks have to be opened and closed, like files. Because of this, there is no ‘master list’ of notes. Because of the lag, notebook switching is by itself a whole operation with several steps that I need to think through. Sometimes notebooks auto-close behind my back, and I have to hunt for them in Onedrive (which is confusing by itself).
  4. I’ve never liked Onenote’s note structure and organisation. Newest notes go down, which I find confusing. For this reason every time I create a note I feel like I need to review and revise the whole notebook organization – meaning I immerse myself in lots of information that might not be relevant to what I’m trying to do at that point. There’s very little context to notes: no easy way to find creation/update dates for notes, or sort them by dates. Everything feels very heavy and immutable.
  5. Free form is a great concept, but does not translate well to small phone screens. You end up zooming and panning around, trying to make sense of big blocks of text. Eventually you give up Onenote on iPhone, except when you have to use it reluctantly because the info you want is in there.
  6. Do you want to share something from Onenote? Well, it’s the whole notebook (sections and all) or nothing. This might be fine for sharing classroom material, not so much for meeting notes. Shared notes open in the web version of Onenote, which gets points for existing, but not for much else.
  7. It feels to me like Onenote has its own text rendering engine or something similar — text just looks different from any other app on iOS, which bothers me. I have tried lots of fonts to fix this.

Anyway, I have issues with Onenote, apparently, but I still used it because I just needed something to store text mixed with images and other stuff (PPT or docs).

Changing position

A few months ago, while thinking about this I realized what I could actually work with would be an app that let me edit word files (i.e. Formatted text+images+other) with a note app interface (master list view with, maybe, tags). But I needed to see formatted text so I could  think through it, not markdown syntax. Once I got over the shock (Word files? What have I become !?), I then found myself going back to apps I had been using years ago and since then discarded: Macjournal, Day OneDevonThink, Yojimbo, Together, etc. I had been a fervent adept of such ‘Everything buckets’ apps in the past, but only as containers of PDF, never for text I would write *myself*, because (remember) notes should be ASCII only… I was now coming back to them with fresh eyes from a revised position. Testing those apps proved the approach was what I needed. But most of these apps did not provide sync or iOS apps and were not really fun.

I ended up going all the way back to one of the first apps I’ve ever tried, i.e. Evernote. Apparently I created an Evernote account in December 2008 (6 months after it came out of private beta), but I never really used it. I had always put Evernote in the same “Everything buckets” group*, but I had always found the app weird and alien.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 18.25.25.png

Most of the links still work


After using it for a few days it quickly transpired that Evernote is just fucking great. I moved my Onenote archives to Evernote, slowly at first as I was trying to avoid going over the upload quota, then in bigger batches as I realized how great the thing was and it dawned on me I would end up getting a paid account. (My experiment happened just after the launch of the iOS v8 app, so I don’t really know how things were before that. V7 sure looked confusing though.)

I’ve found that in Evernote:

  • Note-taking is fast. Note-switching is fast (esp. with cmd-J). Note organization feels very fluid and light.
  • syncing is fast (so far) and happens without me noticing it,
  • moving notes around is fast, easy (lots of ways to do it) and low-cost,
  • search is fast and powerful, the search grammar is even better than I thought.
  • it scales well with screen size.
  • I can mix formatted text and images and whatever else.
  • Notes are OCR’ed, and very well, so your handwritten notes surprise you in search results.
  • I have a master list of all my notes front and center, and I can browse it up and down
  • without thinking about it.
  • I can add tags to notes and use the tags, which is not possible in Onenote Mac/iOS.
  • The web clipper, that until now I had considered below my contempt, impressed me: you can select areas of a webpage to save, and it shows results from your own notes when you search on Google.
  • The Evernote menu bar thingie lets you add several screenshots in the same note in succession, something I need very often. I can also right-click within a note, and select “Capture selection from screen”. Seriously, just that capability saves me tons of time.
  • You can share an individual note, a notebook or a stack of notebooks. All can get their own public web link.
  • The notes view does a good job at presenting each note as an individual object that can be acted upon, instead of a item in a list. On the Mac the card view is particularly effective. I clearly remember finding this view extremely weird in the past, things change.

Evernote has also been around for quite a while and 8-years-old notes of mine are still around. That counts for something, even if the tech world has clearly fallen out of love with Evernote.


The contents of my oldest note. I wonder what’s on the other screens…

Last but not least: for some weird, mysterious reasons, I actually want to write in Evernote. I find this very strange — much better-looking apps for would-be writers never had this effect. I suspect it might be due to the text reflow, which somehow respects my expectation of how text should look and behave on every platform and screen size (not a small feat). Things in Evernote also feel very fluid to me, and I feel encouraged to move stuff around from note to note, playing with formatting to provide visual cues to myself (warning: long but good article), etc. But I don’t really know for sure why I really enjoy opening the app to write up stuff. Proof of the pudding: I have outlined, drafted, and organized this post in Evernote (with images, links and all). Maybe even more damning is the fact that I felt the impulse to write all this stuff and post it on my blog, ending a 6-years long silence.

Parting words

If you look at how the tech community reviews apps and services, it often feels like a zero-sum game in which there should be only one of each: the objective best (of course). Different approaches to reach the same goal apparently aren’t allowed to co-exist. This is not what I want to do here. Above I have focused on what I don’t like about Onenote and what I like about Evernote, but I don’t mean that Evernote is the best choice for everyone. There are a lot of strong negative opinions on Evernote on the web, often from long-time users who just might have finished a cycle when that app was appropriate for their needs and is not anymore**. Those users often mention switching to Onenote, which is the right fit for them today. The things I don’t like about Onenote might not be problems for you today, and Onenote surely has lots to recommend – multi-platform sync, elegant looks, colored tabs, paper selection, free form, 25Gb on Onedrive for free. It handles handwritten PDF annotations way better than Evernote (unfortunately), although neither can touch PDF Expert. The other apps I mentioned are good too (DevonThink nowadays has a very nice iOS companion). All have their idiosyncrasies and personality, none is perfect for everyone. Maybe one app is good for you today, and a few years down the road it’ll be another one. YMMV. It’s not a contest. We do not need to carve our choice in stone. Being able to switch between lots of apps is a good thing. Today, I use Evernote.

* Evernote is slightly different – while in most apps notes and other files (PDF, PPT, images, etc.) co-exist at the same level inside folders, in Evernote everything is a note. Other files live within notes. This is conceptually a little less clean, but has some advantages: you can use text and images to provide useful context around the files.
** lots of people also complain about syncing and slowness issues. I have not seen those so far, maybe things get worse with 1000’s of notes. We’ll see.
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indefinite hiatus

As history suggests, this blog might never be updated again.

I’ll leave it open for archeological purposes, and because some posts seem to be actually useful for some people:

Take care.

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New in Snow Leopard: Minimize windows to App icon and Expose

dock preferences screenshot

dock preferences screenshot

Another thing I haven’t seen (yet) mentioned anywhere… In the last snow leopard build (10a394), the new “dock+expose” feature is enabled, and a new related option has appeared in the Dock preferences (see screenshot above). The checkbox label translates to “Minimize windows in the application icon”.

When you check this option, minimized windows don’t squeeze in the right side of the dock anymore; instead, they go “hide” behind the application icon. You actually don’t see the minimized windows anymore.

So how do you get to them do you ask? Well, if you have hidden ALL the opened windows for a specific application, just clicking on the app dock icon will un-minimize the last minimized window. If you already have at least one window opened for the application, this won’t work. Instead, you’ll have to use expose!

Expose with minimized windows

Expose with minimized windows

See, when the option above is activated, and you have minimized windows, Expose now divides the screen in two, with opened windows in the main top area, and minimized windows in a new bottom row. Pretty neat.

I haven’t yet found a way to minimized/unminimize windows directly from within expose (i.e. move windows between the top and bottom areas), which I could imagine would be useful. One weird thing though: if you hide an application, its minimized windows still show up in expose, the others don’t.

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I haven’t seen this reported anywhere, and it’s not really surprising since it will affect only a minority of Mac users, but here goes:

In Snow Leopard, french locale, the “Movies” folder will be called Vidéos. Finally. At least that’s what it’s called in the 10a380 build, and I seriously hope it’s gonna stay this way from now on.

For non-french speakers, you should know that since forever (at least since 10.3) the Movies folder in the french locale was called “Séquences”. While technically correct, nobody uses this word to describe video files. Videos is much much better. This is one of the small details that always bothered me in the OS, and it’s finally gonna be fixed. Yay.

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My new favorite font

Anonymous. Looks good anti-aliased or not, at various sizes. Very readable, and a lot of personality – a nice change of air from Deja Vu/Inconsolata.

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For those who just ditched Matlab for another scientific package and miss the inpolygon function, I suggest taking a look at the Shapely package. It’s full of good stuff having to do with polygons and seems interesting for any kind of GIS application. The API is very clean and its installation is totally painless if you already have the geos libs (and if you have basemap installed, you have them).

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NVChannel Fifo: Graphics Channel Exception… and Plex

For this first post in a long, long time, why not explain another weird problem I had with the iMac ? Yay, let’s.

During the past two weeks or so, the iMac began behaving strangely. The problems were mostly with the graphics, but after a while the system would slow down to a crawl and a reboot was needed. The problem manifested itself through the appearance of visual artefacts: mostly bits and pieces of the interface trailing behind actual windows or menus, but also horizontal lines in Safari or the Finder, or in the worst case entire parts of windows obscured by colored blocks. Once, I exited Firefox but its window stayed on-screen like nothing happened – I had to “erase” the window myself by using a Finder window as some kind of screen wiper. The easiest way to trigger this bug seemed to repeatedly open and close stacks in the Dock: sometimes the stack would appear only half-opened. Dock icons would also become corrupted after a while.

At first, I feared some kind of hardware failure, but I soon found out that after a reboot all these problems disappeared. Everything was working fine and dandy again, no video glitches. I thought it might come from overheating: nope, the temperature was below 50°C all this time, and problems sometimes occurred just as the computer was coming out of sleep (“waking up”, I guess).

A trip to the console enlightened me: the system.log for previous days was filled to the brim with entries more or less like

kernel[0]: NVChannel(GL): Graphics channel exception! status = 0xffff

kernel[0]: NVChannel(GL): Graphics channel timeout!

kernel[0]: NVChannel(GL): Graphics channel exception! status = 0xffff info32 = 0x3 = Fifo: Unknown Method Error

… and so on. I googled the problem, and eventually ended up on this seemingly neverending thread on the Apple Forums. In it, people alternatively blame Leopard 10.5.1, World of Warcraft, the Leopard Graphics Update, Aperture, Google Earth, any software that tries to use OpenGL, etc. I tried panning and zooming like crazy in Google Earth for a while, but no problem whatsoever — this was not it. But it led me in the good direction: video-intensive applications.

What video-intensive application do I use on a regular basis? I don’t play games, I run iPhoto once in a while… but every other day I end up watching a movie using Plex (not too hard to guess if you read the title of this post). So I kept Console opened in the background, launched Plex in windowed mode, opened a movie… and behold! Tons of graphics channel exceptions! Ha-ha!

Needless to say, I trashed Plex and its LaunchAgent right away. I’m pretty sure the issue only arised because I had tinkered with an option I shouldn’t have on my particular hardware; Plex is otherwise a pretty nice piece of software. The weird part is that I replaced Plex with XBMC (which is basically the same thing but less Mac-focused), and there was no Graphics channel exception to be seen. After switching to the MediaStream skin, it was as if nothing had ever happened. Without the graphical problems.

Maybe next time, I’ll write something more interesting, like how the Sarkozy government is slowly dismantling the research structures around here with the help of the AERES, creating inequalities between teaching positions to increase competition and handing  the control of universities to the private sector, all imposed from above, without concertation with the people who do the actual work, by a minister with strong ties to big corporations. Maybe.

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Enthought Python Distribution, now with basemap

A new beta 2 of the Enthought Python Distribution has been released. It includes updates to the latest versions of wxPython (, VTK (5.2), IPython (0.9.1), matplotlib (0.98.3), ETS (3.0.2) and some other stuff. It looks like NumPy is still at 1.1.1 though – I guess NumPy 1.2 will appear in the final EPD release as it is almost ready to roll. Still no netcdf4-python, though.

Another nice unpublicized thing in this release, that is only mentioned in the release notes, is the addition of basemap (a nice mapping toolbox for matplotlib), which provides plotting functions I use a lot.

With previous EPD releases I always had to reinstall or upgrade one package or another, but now everything I need to work is there out-of-the-box, in the latest version for important packages. It’s a pretty impressive accomplishment, given how difficult it was to get a coherent “Scientific Python” stack as early as a year ago. The future is looking good for Python as a scientific toolbox.

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Python in Science proceedings

The proceedings for Scipy2008 (ie the 7th Python in Science conference) are now online. It would be worth mentioning for the State of Scipy article alone, but there’s tons of nifty up-to-date information there, which is hard to get otherwise (or has to be inferred by delving into mailing archives).

Maybe even better: the slides are up too.

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Python for Science on Mac: Enthought Python Distribution

As a sort-of follow-up to my own post praising SAGE as an all-in-one Python distribution including tons of science goodies, I want to also point out that the Enthought Python Distribution is now available in beta form for Mac OS X (and non-beta for linux and windows).

EPD is smaller than SAGE in size and also includes tons of good science stuff. There’s some overlap between the two distributions (for instance, both include the NumPy/SciPy/Matplotlib triad as well as IPython), but EPD is more geared towards observation data analysis and visualization. For instance, EPD includes netcdf and HDF5 libraries, VTK, WxPython, PyTables, PIL and lots of other stuff. And since it comes from Enthought, it also includes the whole Enthought Tools Suite, which are components aimed at making the development of standalone scientific applications easier (for an introduction to ETS see this nifty tutorial by Gael Varoquaux). The Enthought people also seem to my often-misinformed eye more directly involved into NumPy et al.

I’m not necessarily saying this distribution is better than SAGE’s, but if you don’t feel the need for some of SAGE’s extras (e.g. the Mathematica-like notebook approach, or the tons of symbolic math packages and libraries), you might want to take a look at EPD. The installation is painless and everything works as advertised (at least on Mac OS X).

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