Evolving Notes

Published Friday, March 6, 2020 by Bryan

In a decade where it was hard to escape news about how fast technology was advancing, I experienced stability. Wherever I went I carried a laptop. Emacs was always open on that laptop.

This stability led to me finally adopting a journaling system that I could stick with. I just kept a file open in an Emacs buffer, and dropped notes about what I was doing in there as I went about my day. Exact details changed as years past, but mainly:

  1. Plain text, mostly Markdown-ish in syntax.
  2. One file per month.
  3. Start the day by typing day name and date on the next empty line.
  4. Commit the file and push to a remote git repo to backup.

Yes, there are a hundred other tools I could have used. These were the low-energy entry points that meant I kept using it.

That stability has ended, though, and Mac-plus-Emacs is no longer ever-present for me. Now I'm as likely to have only my iPhone or iPad at hand. I still depend too much on digital media and communications to move to a paper notebook, as my father has always carried, no matter how nice Moleskines look.

I've tried a new solution for a month now, and I think it's going to stick: Bear. Other apps came close, but Bear pulled a few important things together in one place: export, sync, price, and usability.

Almost every note-taking application supports note export in some form. Even Apple's Notes exports to PDF. Bear exports to many formats, and documents doing so in a way to leads me to believe this is a feature they care about. Export to Markdown means that I can maintain my git-repo backup habit for now, and will make it easy to fall back on Emacs if necessary.

Syncing is equally ubiquitous. Bear syncs via iCloud. (CloudKit in particular, which is a bonus point of pride for me.) I love that this means I don't have to sign up for yet another service, that this service isn't going to go away if the Bear team does, and I don't have to think about what data Bear could mine from my notes.

The features I need in Bear are not free. Gaining access to them is $15 per year. But, that price covers Bear on all of my devices. Separate charges for desktop and mobile apps, I understand, helps teams justify the development of each. From my consumer perspective though, I bought access to Bear and now get to use it everywhere, and that's great.

There are many nice touches in Bear's usability (two-finger swipe to go to the top or bottom of a note, or automatically pulling a URL from the clipboard when adding a link to a note, to name a couple). But the most important to me is that it doesn't replace the standard Mac keybindings. My Emacs muscle memory appreciates the basic cursor movement shortcuts supported by all standard Mac text fields.

Bear is working great for me. So much so that I've begun to expand usage beyond my journal. The last two blog posts here were written in Bear - the export to Wordpress on iOS is smooth. I'm experimenting with archiving recipes, using nested tags.

There are a few places I think Bear has an opportunity to improve, including a bug or two. But they’ve done such a nice job with the fundamentals, and sprinkled just enough extras on top, that it’s already app I’m happy to use. Here’s hoping I get another period of tech stability out of it.

Categories: Recommendations