43 Folders on DEVONthink and Smart Groups

Over at 43 Folders, Merlin Mann is rediscovering the wonderful Mac application that is DEVONthink Pro – DEVONthink: An appreciation of “smart groups”

I’ve now had DT Pro v. 1.1.1 in battlefield action for the last few weeks, and have been dutifully feeding it anything I find that seems tangentially interesting or useful; a few custom Quicksilver triggers mean one-click, no-look addition of any data type, from web pages to text selections to photos, full PDFs, and movie files.

DEVONthink Pro is probably my favourite piece of software. Ever. While I use a score of multimedia applications (Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, etc.) on a regular basis, I am –by nature and trade, in the broadest sense– an information worker. I need a digital commonplace book to collect, track and act upon all those things that Merlin mentions, and much more. While DEVONthink Personal proved an excellent application for doing this, the introduction of DT Pro and its subsequent updates have left me continually astounded. (See my earlier detailed review of DT for more information.)

Merlin goes on to mention the “smart groups” –basically, agents to collect items automatically based upon their content or properties– but I’ve always found that its real power starts to show with things like concordance (estimations of related items — see Berlin’s article), offline archiving of web pages (very useful for changing sites like the NYT), sheets and records (think about a database), Dashboard widgets for quick access, and a teeming horde of AppleScripts. Those starting off with the software might not appreciate all these functions, but I can assure you that they all come in very handy, very soon. And the fact that DT/Pro gets “smarter” as you feed more information into it translates into a more powerful application every day.

Those needing to dig up knowledge on a constant basis can take the application a step further, though: I’m just now exploring DEVONagent, an “intelligent research assistant.” For a long while, I resisted: I’m definitely a Google power-user, and it seemed to do everything I needed it to do. Or so I thought. It turns out that DA has increased my research abilities many-fold. It scours not only the web in general, but also specific online databases to collect and collate information, compiling a useful text-only preview of all those tidbits it thinks I might like to know. With one click I can view the full pages in an integrated (tabbed) browser, or add the information into DTP. The new version also adds an interesting “visualiser” to see how other words and topics relate to your current item. The application takes a little getting used to, but it really pays off after a week or two.

So much information, so little time. At least with the DEVON gear, I can generally make the most of it.

Tinderbox Sparks and Flames

Perhaps I’m just hopelessly naive, but I normally try to assume the best intentions from people (at least, most days… sometimes an ill wind has been known to blow from my direction, however briefly, and I try to make amends when that happens). I tend to believe that everybody is intrinsically good, but that folks often make mistakes, take a wrong turn, or lose touch with their nature. As such, I’ll try to take someone at their word.

Which is why I’m a little confused by a post from Lee Phillips, who suspects a hidden agenda behind my recent review of Tinderbox as a brainstorming and writing tool. I can’t imagine I’ve personally slighted him, so I can only assume a sort of paranoia at work. (He runs a mailing list about the product which he calls “uncensored,” which is a little unusual in itself.) Now, I’m not going to get all kumbayah here, calling for peace on Earth and all that (it’s been done), but I would like to set the record straight on the back-story.

One of the little D*I*Y Planner side projects I’ve been playing around with lately has been a way of using OpenOffice.org templates to import (via macros) some external data, essentially populating the forms and prepping them for print-out. I’m only at the early stages of it right now, but I wanted a nice self-contained tool for experimentation that would let me structure information in various ways and export ready-to-use data for OOo. After trying a few dozen alternatives, I decided that Tinderbox –with its outline stucture, agents and high-powered export template language– would be a good choice to start with.

I contacted Tinderbox creator Mark Bernstein about the project, asking for his opinion about how his software might fit the needs of my crazy scheme. He said that it could probably work, and offered to donate a copy of the program for our little non-profit project. Now, where I live –eastern Canada– one good turn still deserves another, even in this day and age, and so I offered to run an ad for Eastgate on my sites for the month of December, free of charge. Eastgate not only carries Moleskines, which would appeal to many of my readers, but also index card briefcases and Florentine journals (that, alas, I can only drool over right now). I thought the fit was apt, and I could return his kind consideration.

Now, my review came, as they all do, as a result of the dedicated usage of the product for a few weeks. The fact that it was favourable is simply because… well, it’s a damn good product. That’s it, really. No money exchanging hands, no Eastgate conspiracy, no grassy knoll, and no little red guy sitting atop my shoulder with a pitchfork. It shouldn’t be that boring, but it is. If I hadn’t liked the product, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reviewing it at all.

As for the “smell,” I do try to wear a strong deodorant and take a shower daily, but I am a really big, hard-working man who spends a lot of time in the woods with a dog. Sorry, Lee, but I’d advise standing up-wind….

Tinderbox as a Writer’s Tool

Tinderbox IconFor a year or so now, I’ve been evaluating quite a number of digital brainstorming tools in order to find one that best serves the way I think, the way I make associations, and the way in which I like to fiddle with vague and ethereal ideas before they become solid. I’ve tried plain text editors, wikis, various mind-mapping tools like NovaMind, FreeMind and Inspiration, outliners like OmniOutliner, and “notebooks” like Mori, AquaMinds NoteTaker and Circus Ponies Notebook, but none of these seemed to possess the right mix of power, visual layout, rapid entry, and emphasis on text.

And, oddly enough, the answer has been right under my nose for a while. I had been trying to force Eastgate Systems’ Tinderbox into becoming my digital Commonplace Book, but it was a poor fit for me. I required so much multimedia and OS X services support that I felt like I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and eventually I decided upon using DEVONthink Pro. While I have not regretted that decision for a moment, my inner geek still lusted after Tinderbox, having had fleeting glimpses of the power that lay untapped beneath its surface.

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