Saturday, May 07, 2005

Tools for Readers 2, updated

There's much to revisit in the previous column. I've been carefully navigating away from the world of Windows for the last year, and I haven't kept up with much of the material mentioned here except Golden Section Notes and AskSam, now up to version 6.0. As is so often the case, the counterparts in the Mac alternate universe are vastly superior in many ways: Golden Section Notes pales next to Sticky Brain, and AskSam seems much less wonderful next to FileMaker Pro, a piece of magic (also available for Windows) that seems to have sprung like Athena from the head of Zeus. I'm learning both FileMaker and Sticky Brain now, as well as a program that blends the two, sort of, called DevonThink. The challenge is to write something clever enough to make all that programming firepower worth the while.

More on the Mac side later. In the interim, if there's anyone listening out there, let me recommend a great "life-hacking" site called 43 Folders, which regularly praises one of my favorite pieces of technology: the Moleskine notebook.

Tools for Readers 2

To be shortlisted is a good thing, particularly if you’re after a partnership down at the brokerage or a Golden Globe. To be blacklisted is not. Neither is it good to list too much, not if you’re a ship. And to be on a Listserv, Erin Jansen’s handy NetLingo: The Internet Dictionary will tell you, is to have access to messages that are transmitted via email “and are therefore available only to individuals on the list,” which ought to make the recipient feel very special indeed. (The printed—or “forestware”—edition of NetLingo sells for $19.95 paper and is available through most online booksellers, as well as through, where you can take the lexicon out for a spin.)

I’ve been thinking about lists, a strategy that has taken time away from the actual making of them—which, as compulsive listmakers know, sustains the illusion that by getting organized on paper you’re actually getting something accomplished. I have so many to-do, to-buy, to-go-to, and to-ask-for lists that one day soon I’ll have to start keeping a master list of lists, fully indexed and dumped into an electronic database for instant consultation so that I’ll never forget an obligation or deadline again.

Provided, of course, that I can remember to look at the file, which is another problem altogether.

Back in the day, to-do listmakers relied on sticky notes, those little glued flags of paper sired by the good gnomes at 3M and shamelessly copied by any number of manufacturers ever since. I still use (and lose) those sticky notes by the gross, but lately I’ve been replacing them with their electronic equivalent—little tabs of virtual paper virtually tacked to every available surface on my desktop display, only now under the glass, not stuck all over the monitor itself, waving in the wind like an aspen forest.

A great many sticky-note programs are now available for Windows users (as is so often true, Mac heads have had them all along). Of the ones I’ve tried, the easiest to use and most visually pleasing is StickyPad 2001, a small executable that sits quietly in the system tray for quick access. The product of a thoughtful English software designer named Travis Spomer, StickyPad is available at It’s free, though Spomer is glad to accept donations.

A more versatile, less visible note-taking and list-making program is Golden Section Notes, which also resides in the system tray. The program uses the visual metaphor of a three-ring binder, with individual, user-set tabs (“to do,” “notes on current projects”) organized in a tree structure to the left of the screen; these tabs can be nested in ever deeper layers, though the deeper you go, the harder it’ll be to find anything, which may be a solution in itself.

Made in Germany, GSN offers multiple language support and allows global searching through native and imported documents. The parent company no longer offers or supports the freeware version (1.3), though you may be able to turn up a copy through user groups on the Web. Otherwise, the current version (2.6) costs $29.95 and can be downloaded at Given GSN’s clean design and all-around usefulness, it’s a bargain.

If your notes are on the order of volumes of data in many forms—spreadsheets, let’s say, mixed up with word-processor files and jotted scribblings—then you’ll need something more powerful to get every bit of data under one virtual roof. Ancient by computer standards, with the granddaddy version first released in 1985, the freeform database program AskSam has recently undergone a major retooling for use with Windows XP. Because it is truly freeform, AskSam 5.0 can be put to any number of uses, from building bibliographies to constructing legal case files. One that I’ve found indispensable is its ability to import a virtually unlimited number of email messages in most major formats (among them Outlook, Netscape, and Eudora) into a single database that allows nearly instantaneous keyword, date, or author searches through, in my case, more than a decade’s worth of correspondence in a single pass.

Similarly, AskSam can port in documents in most major word-processing formats (as well as Adobe PDFs); though the resulting database will be in the scores of megabytes for any sizeable collection of, say, Word documents, the snap-of-the-fingers searching and gathering of files containing a single word or phrase—say, “ruby-studded slippers”— or even multiple phrases, to say nothing of fuzzy-logic word matching, is a sheer relief for anyone used to the slow shudder that Word makes as it crawls through even a couple of files at a time.

AskSam comes with a steep learning curve, and it’s not cheap: the single-user edition checks in at $149.95 list, and the professional edition, with a still faster search engine, costs $395.00. (Go to for more information and downloads.) Still, if you have more than a few lists to collate while avoiding your real work, there’s no handier tool.

The Bloomsbury Review
March–April 2003