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Stuck on StickyBrain: Info-Clutter Organizer Extraordinaire

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In 1999, when my son Tristan was born, I began having trouble with to-do lists. The problem was twofold: on one hand, there were so many things to remember to do, or that I might want to do someday; on the other hand, even though I often made to-do lists, I often lost them beneath piles of papers or - worse - forgot about them altogether.

As the years went by, I tried to organize my piles of papers and to-do lists, but I was continually confounded by the many ways information arrives, both physical and virtual, and the necessity of sharing contact and calendar databases with Adam and our array of Macs (we use Now Software's Now Up-to-Date & Contact). I receive stuff in email. I see stuff on the Web. Our local library, for which I am a volunteer board member (and which requires some serious funding to move more solidly into the Internet era), sends me reams of paper via regular mail. Tristan brings home notes crumpled under wet mittens in his backpack. The Internal Revenue Service sends inscrutable forms requiring telephone calls to our accountant. Add more than four years of sleep deprivation to the mix, and, truly, it had become a huge jumble.


Given that my life as a TidBITS person keeps me well supplied with software aimed at organizing personal information, it's surprising that it took so long for me to chance upon a program that works for me. Developed by a company called Chronos, it takes the concept of Apple's Stickies (virtual Post-it Notes) to a new level, with a good mix of simplicity (which makes it easy to learn) and power (which makes it easy to love). The software is called StickyBrain 2.0, and I'm stuck on it.

Matt Neuburg reviewed StickyBrain 1.2.1 along with two similar utilities, EZNote 2.01 and Z-Write 1.2.1, in TidBITS-593. This article updates his review of StickyBrain, but does not look at EZNote, Z-Write, or any of the many competing snippet keepers.


Sticking Your Stuff -- Within moments of launching StickyBrain for the first time, you can create a new sticky note using the big Store Anything button on the Control palette, type or paste text into the note, categorize the note (helpful, though not essential, for finding it later), and even give it a background color or pattern. Note windows look much like Post-it Notes, though in version 2.0 a note window may have scroll bars, and it may also display a horizontal ruler containing controls for simple word processing.

I found that just typing or pasting into a StickyBrain note requires almost no learning whatsoever, and for several weeks I was content not to learn anything new. However, as I used the software more and more, I discovered features that made adding information more interesting or that helped me customize note contents in special ways. Three of these additional features (buttons, privacy, and text grabbing) moved me from casual user to complete convert.

I'm particularly fond of the button feature, which lets you add a button for an email address, Web address, or file to a sticky note. I don't use the email address button, but the note on which I list stuff I ought to buy for Tristan has buttons for my favorite online kid-related shopping sites, and the note for my current copyediting project has buttons for the FTP, Web, and wiki sites the project is using. My money-related to-do lists have buttons that open appropriate spreadsheets. If only I could customize the appearance and size of these buttons!

The second feature I especially like is that any note can be made private, which causes StickyBrain to encrypt and password-protect the contents. I used this feature to keep Adam from accidentally seeing his gift list last December, and I use it to protect stored userids and passwords for some Web sites. StickyBrain has a feature, which works in Internet Explorer 5.2.2 and the current beta of Safari - but not Netscape 6.2.2 or 7.0 - that makes it easy to call up a sticky note containing the userid and password for the Web page you are viewing.

StickyBrain is not PGP, however. When I asked how secure it was, Chronos described the encryption to me as follows: "It's not 128-bit encryption. It's simply meant to conceal private information from casual observers. However, if someone wants bullet-proof protection, we recommend placing the entire StickyBrain file in a protected location." (If you are looking for an application devoted to storing and tracking userids and passwords, check out Alco Blom's Web Confidential, which Adam reviewed in TidBITS-441, or Selznick Scientific Software's PasswordWallet).


The third feature that especially appeals to me is the Grab Text option, which (via a contextual menu) helps you grab text from various applications and place it on a new, categorized sticky note. If you grab text from Internet Explorer, the note also contains a button linking to the original Web page. The contextual menu doesn't work everywhere - on my Mac OS X system it doesn't work in Classic applications, nor in Netscape. It does work in a variety of programs, though, including Eudora, Microsoft Word X, and Help Viewer. Grab Text works partially in the beta version of Safari; the URL isn't automatically imported into StickyBrain. Chronos is working on an update to fix that problem.

Features that I don't much use, but that you might also like, include notes with timed reminders and notes with tiny calendar pages. Then there are notes that behave like simple word processing documents, with options for setting page and margin dimensions, a spell checker (complete with an optional inline spell checking feature that colors unknown spellings), a find-and-replace feature, and a ruler that offers basic formatting such as tabs and indents.

You may also find it handy that StickyBrain can import straight text files; Chronos's online help suggests you'd use this feature to fill a Contacts category with a note for each entry in a contact database. StickyBrain can also import classic Stickies files, but not Mac OS X Stickies files.

Sticking Stuff in Categories -- StickyBrain's categorizing capability is key because it lets you quickly view only the notes in that category. StickyBrain offers a handful of sensible default categories, and you can create your own. Each category has its own default settings for text, background color or pattern, window size, and so on.

I went wild with categories and set up about nine of them. One was for projects related to Tristan (shopping lists, art projects, nursery school forms to fill out, and so on), and another helped me organize all the reminders I have related to various books (kids books, grown-up books, books to buy for other people). I also set up a Money category where I made to-do lists for a myriad of financial tasks. Because the categories made it possible for me to reliably locate these lists, I found myself refining them regularly over the ensuing weeks. I've found that these detailed to-do lists increase my efficiency dramatically.

More professionally, I have set up categories for each book I copyedit, keeping style guides (usage and spelling notes, such as the difference between "login" and "log-in"), as well as notes about each project.

Everything about adding a sticky note to a category works smoothly - if you've used a computer much at all, you can do it with no special thought. And, if you are having a non-linear day, you can just whack stuff in and set the category later. It's worth thinking about your categories in advance, though, because changing a category's default formats requires diving into a series of nested dialog boxes, after which you must still manually apply the new default to each existing note.

UnSticking Your Stuff -- Once you put data into StickyBrain, you'll want to retrieve it. If you can't find it quickly by browsing an appropriate category, you can try StickyBrain's two searching options: either a simple Find dialog or through the Sticky Browser. The Sticky Browser works much like a Web search engine interface overlaid on your sticky note collection, and makes it easy to find matching notes. If you have limited screen space, or like a more orderly view, you might prefer to keep your note windows closed and just view them in the Sticky Browser.

Given that I've entrusted StickyBrain with so much important information, it's nice to know that it makes automatic backups. These backups are user-configurable; you can set the when and where of backing up. It also automatically saves your changes as you work. Further, in an improvement from earlier versions, StickyBrain can export to text, just in case I ever want to extract my info.

Sticky Wishlist -- Despite StickyBrain's multifarious features, a number of them don't go far enough. Although StickyBrain's word processing features let you indent text, it doesn't offer outlining features where headings can be expanded and collapsed, moved around en masse, and so on. Since it's handy to take notes in a sticky note, it would also be useful to turn those notes into an outline. And, going further, it would be great if that outline could be exported as RTF for later import into Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or other RTF-savvy applications for further use.

In addition to within-note outlines, StickyBrain needs a feature for subordinating some sticky notes to others. It would also be nice to use buttons for note-to-note linking. That way, my to-do list that has an item for filling out 1099s (federal income reporting forms) for TidBITS staffers could link directly to the note where I've placed instructions for filling out the forms.

A few features feel as though they are still working their way under the StickyBrain umbrella, such as the calculator whose connection with the rest of the program is only that it can create a note that records your calculations. Also, StickyBrain can operate as a system-wide glossary, making it possible to store and insert commonly used bits of text either via a keyboard shortcut or contextual menu. Unfortunately for me, the fact that it doesn't work in Classic applications under Mac OS X limits its utility. Also, though the contextual menu works in a reasonably wide range of applications, on my system the keyboard shortcuts fail in Eudora and Safari.

Other utilities, like QuicKeys X and Keyboard Maestro, can insert bits of boilerplate text in a wider range of applications in Mac OS X, though even they can have problems with Classic applications. Matt Neuburg reviewed QuicKeys X in TidBITS-602; Adam looked at it and Keyboard Maestro, along with other similar utilities, in TidBITS-628.


Will It Stick for You? StickyBrain is fun: you can color sticky notes and even give them scenic backgrounds; you can put them wherever you like and rearrange them as often as you wish. StickyBrain has an organic, imprecise feeling that should appeal to people who don't want to work with orderly fields and grids or whose personal data doesn't fit neatly into a linear set up. I see StickyBrain as a tool for those of us (particularly those who shy away from scripting) who want to customize the way we interact with our data, but who need a free-flowing environment that requires minimal setup, that respects our short attention spans, and that doesn't spit up all over when we make mistakes.

These needs aren't new, and many attempts have been made to meet them over the years. Of course, no one program can hope to solve these problems for everyone.

You can give StickyBrain a whirl by downloading the 4.3 MB, fully functional, 30-day evaluation version. StickyBrain costs $40 for just a registration number for a downloaded copy, or $45 for a version on CD-ROM. Upgrades from the previous version cost $25. Whether you use Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, StickyBrain will run on your system, so long as it's a PowerPC G3- or G4-based machine with 10 MB of free disk space.

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