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The ultimate outliner

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Posted by Cassius
Jan 17, 2013 at 08:46 PM


Gee,... I did everything [that was possible] in GrandView.  Of course, I couldn’t evaluate mathematical functions in it, but I did create some keyboard macros that allowed me to include some mathematical expressions.  The “Document View” allowed one to add extra notes, text snippets, etc. and display or hide them.  I even created a keyboard macro to reverse an outline or suboutline.

My dissertation was written long before PCs, Apples, Commodores, etc.  I wrote it on a small portable Olivetti Lettera 22, with some replaceable math symbol keys.  It was done mostly lying almost horizontal in bed…my favorite location for thought and otherwise.


Posted by Alexander Deliyannis
Jan 18, 2013 at 06:41 PM


OK then, I will succumb; I will let my imagination go wild; I will let it fly beyond the mountains of flatland, dive into the valley of outlining, land atop the tree of the million branches and engage in a discussion of endless possibilities.

An outliner is for me above all a tool to build order out of chaos; so, starting from chaos, my ideal outliner would help me gather my building elements from a variety of sources, so it should:
- autopaste content from the clipboard, ideally with an option to strip formatting and keep the text only
- be available via a global hotkey to rapidly create a new note or view the full material
- be able to read and import data from a variety of databases, text formats and hierarchical tools
- work in multiple platforms (Windows, Linux, Android at least) and be Dropbox-friendly
- be able to read an email address so that I can mail it material from anywhere

and moving on to order, it should be able to reorganise the elements in a variety of ways, such as
- multi-select / mark and gather
- drag and drop
- buckets / throw / retrieve
- split or join information entities
- hierarchical tags
- columns for metadata fields of different kinds, including dates, boolean, numbers / support calculations on the hierarchy
- clones
- search and highlight / find-replace
- sort / rearrange
- footnotes / endnotes
- regular expressions and macros for all of the above
- multiple views, including flat, tag hierarchy, hoist, 1- or 2-pane (detail text inline or in second pane), mind map, 3-D mind map (with rotate and the like), show from point of view of entity x, minimal full screen view, etc.
- zoomable view / auto-expand to specific level
- multiple document interface

all this in a convenient way, i.e.
- keyboard shortcuts for everything
- boilerplate / saved hierarchies

I am contemplating whether my ideal outliner would support rich text formatting; in truth I find it distracting; on the other hands plain text is lousy for tables and other complex information elements… What the heck, since I can ask for anything, I would want
- full rich text formatting capabilities, including auto-styling of different levels, with several preformatted and customisable templates
- a simplified plain text view
- real-time hierarchical word count

Last but not least, it should be able to export its outcomes, ideally syncing with a tool which is more powerful in terms of formatting for publishing.

Interestingly, I believe I have access to just about every one of the above features in some tool that I own, but of course very few combine a good number of them. It is as if developers often believe that the one useful feature they provide should be enough for everyone.


Posted by Dr Andus
Jan 18, 2013 at 07:03 PM


Alexander Deliyannis wrote:
>Interestingly, I believe I have access to just about every one of the
>above features in some tool that I own, but of course very few combine a
>good number of them. It is as if developers often believe that the one
>useful feature they provide should be enough for everyone.

Great list, Alexander!

Yes, and it is not always that easy to integrate them into a system, either. I’ve seen some neat tricks with AutoHotkey recently, which makes me want to learn it, so I can fill in the gaps in my workflow, while waiting for the ultimate outliner…


Posted by Dr Andus
Jan 19, 2013 at 12:03 AM


In terms of academic process flow, what I’ve been finding challenging is to a) to be able to annotate a reading, b) have the annotations organised thematically into a a hierarchy (outline) while preserving the integrity of the original text, c) be able to make a selection of these annotated sections (quotes and my comments) and integrate them into another (overall) outline for the developing draft as inline notes.

Usually I end up with too many quotes and notes but only a selection will be important later on. However, I don’t know upfront, which one of e.g. 10 equally interesting and relevant quotes will I select to be included in the final text. So there needs to be some separation between an initial hierarchical organisation of the quotes and notes and a second outline for the final draft.

I have just about figured out a workflow process for this, as I’ve described it in the previously mentioned blog post on CT+Freeplane+Outline 4D with some AutoHotkey, but haven’t had a chance to fully trial it yet. My problem so far has been that I’ve been reluctant to break up large readings into small textual fragments, for the fear of generating too many items that might overwhelm me and also I didn’t want to lose the context of the original text.

Thanks to Manfred Kuehn’s neat AHK script, I am now able to “copy to new topic with link”, which means that the original text will remain intact but there will be a new topic created with the fragment that has a hyperlink to its source. So I can use these fragments for constructing the first outline, and then make a selection out of them for the second outline. At one point this CT outline will be exported into a Freeplane mind map, with links back to the fragments in CT, thus constructing a virtual two-pane outliner with a mind map in one window and corresponding notes in CT in another window.

I hope this description wasn’t too obscure. I haven’t spent enough time with Piggydb but I have a feeling that it is looking for some kind of a solution to this problem of dealing with textual fragments. Anyway, I would expect from my ultimate tool to allow me to carry out this process fairly easily. I think I’ve cracked it with my current system, but it took a lot of messing about and it wouldn’t have come about if Manfred wasn’t so kind to fix that script for me.


Posted by Dr Andus
Jan 19, 2013 at 11:37 AM


Just to distill what I was getting at in the previous post: I think the ultimate outliner needs to have a very easy (drag-n-drop, hotkey, markup) internal and external linking capability, so that all items and notes can be linked to each other, can link to items and notes in other applications, and they can be linked to from other apps too.

Currently this is most fully implemented in wikis and mind maps (which is why I like the CT+Freeplane combo), though there are other outliners/note-takers with limited linking capabilities (Surfulater, WhizFolders, Bonsai).


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