Sunday 14 April 2013

Evernote and the Con

Every year we attend the British National Science Fiction Convention, or “Eastercon”. My first Eastercon was in 1984, and we haven’t missed one since 1996. It’s a great four days, of guest of honor talks, of serious scientific talks, of panels discussing authors and sub-genres, of silly SF-themed quizzes, and of meeting up with friends.

I take notes at cons, partly as a conditioned reflex, and partly because there are interesting ideas, and suggestions of new authors of books, that I want to follow up later. I have put some of my notes up on my website. But the last couple of years, I haven’t had the time (or the inclination) to transcribe the resulting 30–50 pages of notes, so they are languishing on paper only.

Recently at work, I’ve moved from paper to a computer-based daybook, based on Evernote. It started as an experiment, to see if it would work, but within a month I had abandoned paper note taking completely, and am exclusively Evernote-based. So I decided to trial Evernote at this year’s Eastercon, too. Here’s how it went.

Before the con

Gone are the days of waiting to get the Con programme guide on arrival at the con hotel. Nowadays it is up online in advance. So the day before we were due to drive to Bradford (these cons are in such exotic locations) I sat down with the online programme guide, and decided which items I would attend, from the four parallel sessions. First I created a new Evernote notebook for SF cons. Then I made a new note for each chosen item, adjusted its “creation time” to that of the item itself, and copied in the item title, location, and abstract. This had the helpful side-effect of giving me a schedule I could easily consult on my phone when I wanted to know where I was supposed to be next, and a reminder of what it was about.

At the con

I used the same Samsung N145 Plus Netbook for note-taking that I use at work. This has a 10" screen, and a nice keyboard that accommodates my just-about-4-fingered, semi-touch typing skills (although the Caps Lock is a bit too easy to hit accidentally).

It weights in at 1.2 kg, which is fine for toting around between talks, but after a couple of days of it resting on my lap as I took notes, I became uncomfortably aware of its two sharp little feet at the back. It also runs quite hot. However, the battery is nicely long lasting: the Friday and Monday were less than full days, and I got by with a single charge; the Saturday and Sunday, being longer, required a recharge. One day that involved leaving it charging in the hotel room over dinner; the other day I found an unoccupied power socket in the programme room, and sat by it for that item.

It was all very straightforward to use: arrive at the item, sit down, open netbook, type in my password, click on the item’s note, and start typing. The keyboard is quiet, and so (hopefully!) the sound didn’t disturb anyone around me. And this set-up has one great advantage over manual note-taking. In the main programme hall, tech switches the lights off during items (I assume this is to aid with recording said items). This makes it rather difficult to take hand-written notes. But with the netbook, I just closed it up slightly (to around a 90 degree angle), which directed enough light from the screen to illuminate the keyboard sufficiently. Another advantage: no writer’s cramp. A further advantage: the notes synchronise to the cloud, so I didn’t have to make backups during the con.

After the con

Back home, I synched Evernote on my desktop machine, and started tidying up the notes, correcting spelling mistakes, removing irrelevant and incomprehensible bits, and tracking down interesting references and linking to them. This took about half a day (partly because I was spending time reading up about some of the interesting stuff I’d found). Once I was happy with the notes, I made a new note to act as an contents list for the entire event, comprising a bullet list of links to each of the item notes. That was very easy to do using Evernote’s “Copy Note Link” function. I sorted the list into earliest first order (rather than the latest first order I usually use), selected all the notes, then exported them as a single HTML file. I edited that file with Notepad++ (my current HTML editor of choice) to add in some preliminary material, and modify some of the formatting provided by Evernote. Hey presto, my con report web page! Everything from “Programme highlights” onward is output from Evernote. All in well less than a day.

What I’ll do differently next time

This was definitely a great success. However, next time I will add a little more markup to my note templates, to tag the title, panellists, and summary parts. This will let me use Notepad++’s regular expression-based search and replace more easily to modify Evernote’s formatting to my specific requirements. And that’s it, essentially.

What I’d like Evernote to do differently

Evernote is great, and the more I use it, the more I like it. But it’s not perfect, and the more I use it, the more the imperfections bug me. The main niggles from the con use:

  1. Undo. It doesn’t always work properly. Most of the time, it’s absolutely fine, doing what you’d expect. But every so often, it doesn’t restore to the exact previous state. A typical problem: paste in something with a format, realise you meant “Paste as plain text”, undo – but it doesn’t (always) reset to the previous format.
  2. Bullet list indent,outdent commands. These don’t always work properly. Again. most of the time, everything is fine: use tab or the icon to indent, use Shift-tab or the icon to outdent. But if you copy a bullet list, this can get messed up, and on indenting/outdenting, the bullets disappear. This is a big deal for me, as I am an inveterate user of nested bullet lists.
  3. Spelling mistakes. As you type, spelling mistakes are highlighted with the usual red wiggly line. However, when you move away from a note and come back, notes no longer highlight the spelling mistakes. This made the “tidying up” process harder. SF notes have a lot of weird words in them, and it’s easier to scan and ignore the red wiggles than step through the list using the manual spell-checker.
  4. Daylight savings time. This one is bizarre, and very annoying. As is often the case, Daylight Savings Time (here the move from Greenwich Mean Time to British “Summer” Time) kicks in over the Easter weekend (hey, let’s steal an hour from your holiday weekend!) On Sunday morning, I noticed that all the “created” times on my Sun/Mon notes were out by an hour: Evernote had changed them! It had decided that, when I created a note during GMT, even though I created the note for a time when BST would be in force, it needed to update it. Mutter, mutter. Later, when looking back at my previous notes (all my previous notes), I discovered that their creation times had also changed by an hour! That is, Evernote is currently displaying the creation times of all my notes, no matter when created, in BST. I can think of no circumstance when this would be the desired behaviour. This is definitely a bug. I suspect Evernote is treating daylight savings time as a different time zone, and “correcting” for the change (which is often not what is wanted in that case, either).
However, despite these grumps, I’ll be continuing to use Evernote. The more I use it, the ever more useful it becomes, because the more material I have in it, have linked from it, and can access really easily.

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