Developer: Copernican Technologies
Requirements: Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X (with caveats for 10.4)
Trial: Feature-limited (200 entries)
If you pressed me for a good metaphor for Boswell, I would say, “Boswell is like Spotlight, for everything you write.”
I believe it.
Unfortunately, Boswell’s gigantic learning curve often scares potential users away, even in its target demographic: anyone who writes. It’s really the perfect concept, and this is speaking as someone who is currently churning out 400–600 words a day as an intern, because it gives you something far, far better than Word and a directory structure to keep track of your writing. Boswell does it with metadata, “keywords,” that keep everything organized, filed away, and easily located. If ol’ Ben F. is burning a hole in your pocket and you don’t want to read any more, then take away this: “Then I saw [Boswell]! Now I’m a believer! Without a trace of doubt in my mind!” Yes. I really, really liked it.
A brief digression into metadata should help me explain why it is that a directory structure doesn’t go quite far enough. John Siracusa at Ars Technica is forever harping on the topic, as far as OS X is concerned with file metadata, so I will merely say, he is one of the most definitive sources; don’t take my word for any of this. Metadata is data about data; in a nutshell, it’s bits of information that describe or classify any chunk of data. The Spotlight Comments field in Tiger’s Get Info window is an obvious example of metadata, but so are the filename extension (.txt or .doc), the created and modified timestamps, and the label. You can use all of that information to classify your files: You could run a search on your filesystem, time-consuming though it might be, for all files modified in 2005. Directory structure is a certain kind of metadata, too. I keep all my ATPM reviews in ~/Documents/ATPM/Reviews/, and if I’m ever confused about a file’s content, that path tells me it’s a document, it’s for ATPM, and it’s a review.
Now, stretch the example further. I have another folder, ~/Documents/Articles/, where I keep all my [non-ATPM, non-weblog] journalism. What if I wanted to put my ATPM and weblog articles there, too? You can do this, but it’s not easy; you could make an alias in the Finder, or you could make a symbolic link. (Unix hard links would be the most Boswell-like solution.)
Here’s where Boswell gets really revolutionary. Every piece of text in Boswell is an entry, the most completely irreducible particle in the Boswell universe; each can be as long as 32K, or about 15 printed pages. Each. An entry has five basic kinds of metadata: the title, the tag, comments/filters, the notebooks, and (almost too obvious) the library. In reality, it’s a little less clean-cut than this, but it’ll work.
The metadata for each entry. No more, no less.
Boswell’s primary unit of organization is the library, not like the public library downtown but more like the kind of library 18th-century aristocratic savants kept in their own homes. Everything you enter into Boswell stays in a library. Of course, for the purposes of this review, I segregated my writing into three separate libraries, for varying kinds of tests and so my screenshots wouldn’t reveal pre-publication material for the magazine where I work; but in practice, you should be able to put everything in just one. Each library can hold 4,000 notebooks and 1,000,000 entries, which would be about 30.5 GB. To give you a sense of how large that is, Charles Moore, in his Boswell review, says Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream would require three entries, or 96K.
All entries begin life in the journal, an unfiled, editable part of the library. When something is still in the journal, it is not archived in any notebooks, and you can continue changing it. Essentially, the journal is like my completely unsorted mess of writing that I described in issue 11.05. At some point, I will presumably want to file away those entries, though—and there’s a 30-day limitation on how long something can sit in the journal.
The Journal, where all entries are born, completely uncategorized. Sort of like people, really.
Once you get to that vortex of cruciality, the method of organization is notebooks. A good analogue for how Boswell’s notebooks work is Apple Mail’s Smart Folders. What I mean by that is that, based on the metadata you give it—more on that in a moment—it will sift your entries into as many notebooks as fit, and without prompting you, if you prefer. When you do that, these entries become permanent members of the archive, uneditable and filed away in notebooks.
This is surprisingly, weirdly useful. Let’s return for a moment to my earlier example: I can now have those articles be in ‘ATPM,’ ’Reviews,’ and ‘Articles’ without any trouble. All I have to do is make sure it gets flagged that way. For my super top-secret project, I have a notebook that contains all entries, and individual notebooks for individual articles. Compare finding a particular item by selecting the most general notebook it might be in to drilling down through folders. The architecture isn’t as flat as Spotlight makes your hard drive, but it is much flatter than the traditional hierarchical file system.
Copernican Technologies, Boswell’s creators, suggest that you import your e-mail, too. I was unable to try this, due to a mysterious Tiger bug that makes it impossible to import text from files; it has been fixed, and a version 4.0.1 should be available by the time you read this. That means that, unlike me, you can import your e-mail, and have a notebook All_Email; you could also have a John_Email, an Elaine_Email, etc., too. (Note: Unfortunately, the fix only allows you to import any file, even non-text ones. Be careful only to import text. Copernican Tech says it’s due to substantial changes in underlying OS X code.)
Now, how does it know where to put these files? That’s where the filters come in. In each entry’s strangely named Comments field, you may type in hints to help Boswell sort all of the entries into the appropriate notebooks. Implicitly, all folder names are filters, and their names are draggable into the Comments box. In addition, when you create a notebook, or using the Filters window, you can specify any other text as a hint for Boswell’s archiving.
The Filters window. Much more than you think. Pity the name is so confusing.
By using filters, Boswell can automatically put away the entries for you. Just click Auto-Archive and, poof! the entry is filed away. Ta-da! You can also do things the hard way, by clicking Archive, and you will get a dialog, auto-filled with your hints, as to where you want the entry archived.
Before I proceed any further, I want to add a caveat to my analogy to Smart Folders. As you can see, Boswell is not dynamic, like Mail or Spotlight. Something is either in the archive, and uneditable, or it is in the journal. You can “versionize” an entry in the journal to save it in the archive—Will Volnak, the lead programmer, says that way you never have to lose text in the editing process—and you can “clone” an entry in the archive to bring it back up to the journal for editing. But, in both cases, what you get is a new version, and when you next archive the entry, you will find that there are now two entries with the same titles.
The other important metadata about an entry are its timestamp, which is not editable, and its tag. The timestamp, of course, is the date this particular version was created. A tag is any string of 16 characters that, by default, indicate status (‘UNTAGGED,’ or ‘IMPORTED’), but can be used to indicate versioning—I use ‘01’, ‘02’, ‘03’—or sort order, which shows in the window and is respected during notebook export. The tag is always editable, even in archived entries; this is more useful than you imagine when you decide to reorganize an article at the last minute. If you write a lot, this will sound familiar.
Whew! I think we’re done explaining all of Boswell’s complex structure and technology. What does this all mean in practice? I’ll describe a few scenarios for you.
You may have read about my [insanely sloppy] writing process in May. You may not have. Suffice it to say, as I put together one of my monthly columns, I accumulate anywhere from 20 to 50 links, which usually work out to 10–15 bullet points, sections, and paragraphs. Using Boswell, I’m able to put each bullet point in an entry and auto-archive it when I’m ready to use it. Then, I reorganize the whole notebook once I’m ready to export, at the end of the month, and voila! I export. The trick to exporting is that the format resembles an mbox file somewhat, so you’ll have to edit it with a text editor before, say, sending your column to your editor. But it was a piece of cake. How great is that? I like pieces of cake. They taste good. They make a mess on my keyboard, though. Oh, and don’t forget that I like the pain of keeping a stack of sticky notes, a Moleskine, and Drop Drawers drawers just to put together a column. Imagine how you will feel.
My Bloggable library.
I imported almost everything I’ve ever written, except my e-mail, through a (slow) copy-and-paste process. Then, I filed it away in a large variety of notebooks, many of which overlapped: ‘ATPM,’ ’Reviews,’ ‘The Daily Northwestern,’ ‘My Weblog,’ ‘Lecture Notes,’ ’Paper Notes,’ etc. I tested what would seem to be a logical way to write a paper with Boswell, by creating a journal for all book notes, and then creating some sample entries distilled from that to go in a separate journal with just notes for the paper, and drilling down until I had a notebook just for the final draft. (I don’t have a screenshot of this, because that journal, too, contains sensitive information.) That last notebook, ‘Sample_Paper_Final_Draft,’ contained five entries, one for each section, demonstrating the correct structure to pass the SAT essay writing. Exporting it, I just had to strip out a few lines of metadata for each section, as well as the divider, and I had a paper. In a magazine article, this would have been even simpler, and allowed me easy reorganization when, not if, I decided to change the order of the paragraphs.
My Double-Super-Secret-Background Project
As I mentioned, in my current capacity I’m writing 400–600 words a day for a gigantic project. I have notebooks set up for each section of the project, each separate article, and for the entire project. That gives me a really good, really fast index of everything I’ve done so far, and where I have to go. I use the page number as the tag, to keep things neatly filed away. When the time comes, I’ll start exporting. It has several hundred entries right now, and shows no signs of slowing down. I know I’ll be in the inside of the various limits.
• • •
The challenge of using Boswell is, of course, the learning curve. It took me about two weeks to figure out just how to leverage Auto- Archive to my advantage; I hardly ever used Versionize; and I never once touched the Archive dialog window, though I suspect that’s because Auto-Archive makes more sense. I’m sure I’m still not using Boswell to its full potential, because it’s capable of storing everything I’ve ever written, indexing it, and helping me glue it together. After two months as a Boswell user—I lost the original database, which contained July’s Bloggable and all the material for this review, in a hard drive failure in mid-June—I feel proficient enough that I could probably write a book using just Boswell. And it’s getting easier. Keyboard bindings helped. (More on that in a moment.)
Boswell has its flaws outside of the learning curve, too. In order to select the label you wish to drag, you have to click on it first, which, for whatever reason, is a behavior completely counterintuitive to me. There is not yet, though there will be in 4.1, a way to strip/reset formatting from text pasted in, which is also a new option in Word 2004. Keyboard shortcuts are virtually non-existent; I went through and assigned them myself using System Preferences, but it’s awkward to have virtually no shortcuts, especially for something as smooth as Auto-Archive (Command-Shift-A, in my configuration). Occasionally, if I choose Undo the application crashes, for reasons completely beyond my understanding. Boswell can auto-save, and after a crash it warns you to check up on your entries, but that’s not the same as not crashing, now, is it?
Other recurrent frustrations? No, you still can’t delete an entry; this is supposed to be a feature, but what if I accidentally click New Entry instead of Archive? Also, the interface is ugly, the bastard child of a complicated user interface and Carbon. These are minor flaws, but they all make it harder to use Boswell, and it’s already hard enough.
Lastly, and most frustrating of all, the documentation itself is contained as a Boswell file; this is creative as a proof of concept, and reinforces Copernican Tech’s thinking that teaching Boswell doesn’t let people use it however they want. I just know I would have learned the basics a lot faster from a traditional manual. It’s how I learned OmniGraffle, no slouch of an application, and MORE and Word came with the most comprehensive manuals I’ve ever seen in the days when their paradigms were still new. The best tool I found, to learn Boswell, is Damien Gallop’s three-part review/tutorial at MacWrite (part one, part two, and part three).
I found Boswell to be quite powerful, and quite useful in organizing my writing. I’ve got it holding most everything I’ve ever written, often in multiple versions, and it’s quite easy to find what I’m looking for. Better still, it easily and quickly exports notebooks into a useful format. I’m sold on its flexibility, on its TMTOWTDI (“there’s more than one way to do it”) philosophy. I just wish it were a little less complex, in the end.