The Brain Attic

by Micah Dubinko

"Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work..." - Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet

I have trouble remembering stuff.

I'm not alone, because whenever I look at a computer workspace, I see scribbled on paper and sticky-notes. Why, oh why, can't computers keep track of this stuff better?

Right now, my brain looks more like my grandparents' cluttered attic than the lean Holmesian ideal quoted above.

What we really need is a better way for our computers to be our brain-attics, freeing us up to do whatever it is that we do best.

So, we need to be able to enter text, and shuffle existing content into the system. We also need to be able to store email and web pages and integrate with browser bookmarks. Contacts. Todo lists. Calendars. Anything that we're currently scribbling on yellow notes stuck on our monitors. And it needs to be searchable. Really quickly searchable, as in keystroke-at-a-time results.

Personal Information Managers (PIMs) have already been invented, right? Well, technically true, the late Lotus Agenda, Outlook, and Evolution being the top contenders. But something's still missing: despite these programs, people still have sticky notes, or worse, a physical desktop that looks like mine.

Zoot goes a long way towards a solution, as I have written about earlier. But it doesn't go far enough. It's text only, and there's a limit to maximum text size that I run into regularly. It's also tied to a single platform, which I don't run natively (or at all, so far with Red Hat 8)

ZOň goes quite far in this direction too, but is too focused on email. If you are, say, writing a book, your own personal notes will dominate email for the scope of the project.

Other close-but-no-cigar awards go to DTSearch, The Brain, and 4Suite, all of which are great projects, but with different goals than what I'm describing here.

If we store everything in the attic in various shades of XML, such as the current and proposed formats for XHTML, VCard, RFC822, RSS, plain text, etc., we open new avenues for use and re-use. For instance, we can uniformly display the data with XSLT and edit it with XForms. We can over time develop a desktop semantic web with rich metadata associations connecting all different kinds of pieces of our own data. The Google idea scales inward, and we will find that the links between our data are at least as important as the data itself.

So, does anyone know of such a project underway? Does anyone want to start one? -m

What do you use to keep track of stuff you'd otherwise forget? Talk Back now.


2002-10-24 02:27:18
Thought about emacs?
I find that a combination of gnus, planner-mode.el, wiki-mode.el and rememberance agent are a good combination.

I can write all of my software, documentation in latex or docbook or plain text, read email or news and keep a wiki and a day planner all together and cross linked.

Adding rememberance agent into the mix means that I get reminded about ideas I've written in other places. All of these things work on any unix. I haven't tried rememberance agent on windows yet.

All of this goodness and more can be found at

2002-10-24 10:38:30
Does your ideal system need to work simply for yourself or for a group?

The emacs idea's sound very intriguing, especially the use of a Remembrance Agent . An O'Reilly artice on the agent would be appreciated.

I think Groove may also consider itself a contender in your request.

2002-10-24 12:29:13
Key Note
I am constantly looking for a better way to keep my lists, and to-do things, ideas, etc. (ADHD!!!) The latest gadget I have found usefull is KeyNote...

Maybe that is the shape that a wholistic PIM should take?

2002-10-24 12:40:11
Time to "switch"
For years, Apple has had Sticky Notes. Little Post-it notes that you place on your desktop. Simple, but that's why it's great.
2002-10-24 18:29:36
You'll definitely want to check out Tinderbox, . It's amazing! It lets you capture your notes easily, arrange them in multiple ways (maps, outlines, etc.), and add attributes to each note. Powerful agents can sort, order, and categorize via multiple criteria. Plus with your data stored in XML and the ability to export to any text format via templates, your data is certainly "future compatible."

Currently, Tinderbox is available for Mac OS X, with a Windows version in the works. It has definitely changed the way I work. My attic is finally starting to be cleaned.

-Matt Barger

2002-10-24 23:04:19
it ain't the computer's issue
the computers don't have a problem keeping track of this stuff - there's boatloads of ways to do it. Humans have the trouble. And paper & pen is the killer UI interface.

Here's the essence: which is faster? which feels easier?

scribble a note on a postit and slap it on the monitor next to you *or* access your todo list in /name your PIM here/ and add an item?

2002-10-25 05:06:19
Fusion and remote access...
Beyond notes there is a need to fuse multiple data sources (email, html, rss, blog, news, file system, ...), annotate them, and finally get at all of this from anywhere. Essentially a personal dashboard.

It seems that with a bit of browser magic, a "personal" web server, and an xml database most of this could be accomplished.

If anyone is interested in working on this let's talk. (

2002-10-25 05:45:21
project started...
I'm in the design stages of such a piece of software... it takes its inspiration from zoe, but is geared towards all types of content, from calendaring to rss to keyword-targeted google searches. Initially i'm just getting mail up and running, but the architecture will allow for easily added modules to cover the areas i mentioned and more.

2002-10-25 21:28:49
Has to work on a PDA too
Since I don't always sit in front of a computer, there also needs to be a way to bundle up the information and take it with in a PDA. Quick-search abilities count double in that case. :-)


2002-10-27 03:38:34
Adaptive, associative search
And to perform an adaptive associative search of your personal and other's shared public notes, bookmarks etc. check out the marvellous open source Neurogrid...
2002-11-06 11:07:13
RDF-backed, and coming on a treat ;-)

2002-11-14 05:24:53
attic for the brain
InfoSelect 7

Started as Tornado in DOS but has matured over the years. I have years of knowledge stored here and only need to remember a few words to find it fast.