To Tweak or to Chuck, that is the question

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Access.

There comes a time in every person’s life when they see a fork in the road. Do you stick with the comfortable, the tried-and-true, or do you throw caution to the wind and embark down the path of the Great Unknown? Let me get back to you on that.

In other words, after playing around a bit with ConnectedText over the past two weeks, I’m starting to have misgivings about my headlong rush into personal wikis. I have a tendency to do that with technology: get really excited about a new idea (see the recent post on my Access database), and only later get buyer’s remorse, or else lose interest. With computers especially, it’s easy for me to be swayed by the new features available in a new piece of software – the siren song of What-Might-Be. Thus I dutifully planned out how I would create an even better note-taking system in CT:

Taking notes on note-taking software. Ironic, no?

I had written up a whole long list of the advantages of CT, but after some early frustration with the syntax and structure of CT, I went back and restudied the list of advantages. It turns out most of the ‘advantages’ of CT were actually just different ways of doing things that could be done in Access, but would require some additional work. Considering the amount of work I had already put into just learning (barely) the basics of CT, it made me reconsider whether it wouldn’t be easier to improve Access. I had made some headway with CT, but I realized I had a long long way yet to go.

ConnectedText mockup

As I surveyed what I needed to do in CT, I was reminded of the importance of making sure that a new approach would add to, not just substitute for, features that you currently have in your existing system. And the amount of time required to make the transition, and to redo already-done work, must be taken into consideration as well. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the project I was embarking upon, I realized that I should give my old Access database another chance, to see if I can make a few tweaks to replicate the features that I liked with CT, and to generally fix all the little things that were annoying me. My interest in CT was primarily motivated by two problems with my database: awkward searching, and an inability to see an overview of my data. Could I improve those capabilities in Access rather than convert to an entirely new system?

Upon closer study, a few of the CT wishlist features were already in my database – it’s easy to forget all the features you’ve created over twelve years of fiddling. With a broader perspective offered by my flirtation with CT, I also realized that several new features to speed up my workflow could be added relatively easily to Access – one, for example, cut the number of mouse clicks for a common action from six separate clicks down to one. There are one or two other improvements that will take the annoyance out of the process, which means I’ll be far more likely to do those things in the first place. A few features of CT are still beyond the reach of Access, such as using Python for textual analysis and visualizations, but these are “nice to have” features rather than “must have” features (and I was having problems getting Python to consistently work with CT in any case). As I’ll mention in future posts, many of these text-analysis features are increasingly to be found on various websites for free.

Playing around with CT has also left me with a new-found appreciation of the simplicity and power of having every keyword as a field – all fields are treated the same, and searched the same. The flexibility of every possible keyword or text field being queryable with Access’s simple query interface (or with SQL) is something I didn’t really appreciate until I saw how complicated querying was in CT. If you only have a few things you need to search by, you can choose from the five or so different ways of sorting and searching your info, but if you have a LOT of info to process (like I do), it’s a lot more complicated: some information should be in the name of the ‘page,’ other information is found in an attribute within the page (or demarcated subsections within a page), others in properties of that page, and all of these require different syntax for searching, not to mention whether you want your results to be displayed as a link to that page versus as the actual text content extracted from that page. CT does have some nice features to automate linking dates between pages, which I thought I could use, but that would require creating one page for each day. Just my lil’ ol’ Spanish Succession war lasted ten years, which would mean creating over 4,000 pages (one for each day from 1 January 1701 to 31 December 1712), in addition to the 10,000s of pages for all the notes I already have in my Access database. Way too much work there, just to be able to collect all the sources pertaining to a particular date – something that can be done on-the-fly in an Access query in a few seconds. Plus, doing mathematical manipulations of the data looks like it requires add-in Python code, yet another thing to learn. A CT power user also recommends using yet another program (Auto HotKeys) to automate some coding – yet another thing that you need to learn the syntax for and set up. Admittedly, if you know how to do all these things in CT already, it’s not difficult. But therein lies the rub. The user community for CT is supportive, but creating a sophisticated personal wiki from scratch is daunting, even for someone like myself who is well-versed in database design. When I find myself having to make a cheatsheet (the user manual isn’t very clear) to keep track of all the ways you can search your pages, that’s not a good sign. It’s even worse when I can’t get some of the searches to work.

ConnectedText search cheatsheet

So instead of assuming that CT would do everything I wanted, I decided to spend a little bit of time to make my Access database do what I want. My first significant upgrade took several hours, but it was the kind of effort I was comfortable with – fiddling with minor formatting tweaks in a familiar interface and the occasional code monkeying around with VBA. Though slightly tedious, it was nothing compared to the past couple of weeks reading up on CT and trying to develop a skeletal personal wiki that I still haven’t fully figured out, with only 15% of the features in my Access database.

The result of this labor? An overview of my notes, and a better way to navigate my notes on the sources. So here’s my first attempt:

Notes Switchboard, v 1.0

This will serve as the home screen for the Notes section of my database. The form makes it much easier to find a variety of notes by various fields. It includes (on the left) a list of all the sources I have notes on, and how many notes I have on each source. Most importantly, the right-hand list shows all the individual notes I have on the various sources – before now I only had the single record view from a previous post, which made it impossible to see the forest for the trees. Conveniently, Microsoft also includes an automatic filter feature on the list (as the right-click pop-up menu illustrates), so that I can quickly sort as well as narrow the list down by whichever field I desire – either by the current value in that field, or you can create your own criteria on the spot. You can also sort and filter each column with these same criteria (and sort multiple columns too), so I can filter out all notes but those on source X, and then sort by Author… And then you can double-click on any record and go to the full view. This is only the beginning, but already I’m starting to realize that I haven’t been keeping up with Access’ new features even as I’ve been mindlessly upgrading. Learning what Access could already do makes getting rid of it that much harder. I guess it’s another twelve years of MS Access.

So was my experiment with CT a failure, a colossal waste of time? Some might say so, but in retrospect I like to think of it as a once-every-twelve-years top-level review. It’s reminded me of some of the forgotten features in my existing database, as well as renewed my interest in taking advantage of the features it offers and making little improvements along the way (Kaizen, as the Japanese would say). I wouldn’t recommend the process more than once every twelve years though.

Any suggestions as to which features to include in a pimped-out note-taking system?

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