I mentioned the other day that I was looking to build a fact file, but that I wanted to follow up on this in a bit more length. As you know and/or have probably guessed, I'm a writer, and I consume a lot of information in the pursuit of this practice. That's par for the course. The problem is figuring out a way to store collected information so that it's useful later. Here's a story:
I have a story that imagines a future where there are colonies and outposts throughout our solar system (among other things). I found myself a few days ago plotting out some details and I realized that I might be imagining a future with not only far flug outposts but also a substantially different system of orbital mechanics. I know about Hohmann transfers and enough about gravity assists, that getting between planets in the solar system is complex. My hope is that by knowing a bit about these things, I can avoid rank absurdity. In any case, I found myself looking up the length orbits of Jupiter and Saturn around the sun.
Now mostly this was just to get a sense of the distance, because unless I also posit free, lightweight, super-powerful propulsion systems, a trip between Jupiter and Saturn is going to take a number of years (say, 5-15; and even with posted amazing-drive, we're probably still talking several years,) and no matter how fast/what kind of propulsion system you use, there are going to be a very limited "windows" for transport. If you miss the buss from Jupiter to Saturn, it could be 10 or 20 years before you could get off world. Not to mention the huge impact this would have on the course of cultural development on these colonies.
But having said that, this detail about the orbital lengths (though burned into my memory at this point), isn't the kind of thing that I track very well, and what about the next time I have a question like this? Or what about a news story that I come across, or the abstract of a scientific paper that catches my interest? This detail about orbits of the outer planets was really just the straw that broke the camels back.
It was clear that I needed a system for storing information, facts, notes for later retrieval. I wasn't sure what that system would look like, or what I would need from it, but I was sure that something was better than the "read and hope" method I've been using.
I did some brainstorming and came up with some basic requirements. I needed something pretty unstructured so that "records," which were just links and a few words would be just as complete as records that had lengthy notes. I needed built in meta-data functionality to store categories, tags, and citation information (links, date, identifiers). Easy capture and editing is a must, and while I was, and am, willing to consider functionality outside of emacs, but emacs is preferred, and it would take a lot for me to want something that couldn't be stored in plain text files.
When other people (individuals) come to me with similar problems I almost always recommend private instances of Wordpress where people can post notes. This often is just the right thing. Conceptually it works like a notebook or journal in the physical world, but it has good meta-data support (categories, tags, dates), you can use it from anywhere (the web, the API), and it's a mature system. This works great for a lot of people, but I'm not incredibly happy with the web-interface, and I'd need to rely on search more than I think I'd like.
I put out a call on identi.ca for help on this problem. There were suggestions of PlannerMode and various systems based on org-mode (which is what I'm inclined to use at this point.) I then had this "moment" issue about not wanting my "fact file" to be built on some sort of to-do list. Todo lists are great, I love todo-lists (perhaps too much?) Having my information management software be built around "tasks" and "projects" provides too much of the wrong kind of structure.
I was frustrated, as you might imagine. After all I just wanted some sort of index-able note-card system, that I could use to store some basic information without fuss. I've settled down a bit and I'm using a format using a skeleton/org-remember template to store my fact file in an org-mode text file (data.org). The entries look something like this:
* The title :a:list:of:tags: :PROPERTIES: :date: <2009-03-14 Sat> :cite-key: a-u/uid :link: http://tychoish.com :END: And then finally some notes text
And the input is just an prompt-tab interface. I can also add more details to the properties, section. If that makes sense at a later date. So the creation of these records is pretty quick. I'll get come code up when I have something a bit more clear. In the mean time, I'd like to continue to have a bit of a discussion about this information management problem. It's a domain that is clearly very suited to technological enhancement, but at the same time there aren't a lot of solutions on the ground. I suppose that's where I come in, but feedback is most appreciated on interface questions, on alternate use cases and applications. I look forward to hearing from you...