Arkanis Development


The plains project


Who doesn't know this situation: You made a note and some time later you need it again. And then it happens: "Where did I put that?!". And the search begins…

Having some stacks of notes flying around my desk I'm very prone to that problem. I've tried some software solutions to this over the last few years: offline wikis, address books (Thunderbird, Opera, etc.), some desktop notes (Tomboy, Opera), files sorted into different directory structurs, tagging, deskop search engines, etc. Nothing really helped me much. It's often quite easy to store data but finding it… well, it didn't work quite well for me.

Please, don't get me wrong. It's not that I can not find something I put into a directory 10 minutes ago. It's just the sheer amount of data that makes it difficult to organize. Many project, many ideas, notes and bookmarks. A small library of sorts, but well, everyone has that today I suppose.

Anyway, I finally took the time to write a little tool to help me organize my stuff:

The plain project

The core idea is the map metaphor. Put everything on a 2D space so it forms some recognizable patterns. Then your spatial sense of direction will help you to get around.

This works very well with classical maps. You know, these things on paper we all used before google maps and navigation systems were around. Once you've found a place on a map it's very easy to find it again. The same principle has been partially used in graphical user interfaces since 1968 (or maybe even earlier, don't know), albeit for other purposes. Well, usability principles is something for another post. Lets just say I've tested out one extreme end of the design space: put everything on a map.

The plain project is a small web application that allows you to put notes and ideas on a 2D space. You can group related stuff into new areas I somehow started to call "plains". Don't ask me why, the name just stuck. Basically it's just a different representation of files (notes and ideas) and directories (plains). However the content is shown directly and the user can move it around on the plains. Even if it sounds stupid, that is the important part: after a little while you build your own map. And since you know every spot it's pretty easy to find something. In an afterthought this reminds me of some memorization methods.

You can give it a try on the sample installation. The code is hosted on GitHub, but be aware: It's a tool for personal usage and therefore not very clean.

A part of my personal plains

How well this map metaphor will scale with large amounts of information I don't know. Right now I've only moved the stuff of the last year or so into my personal plains. Over the next few weeks I'll move over my contacts and complete bookmarks. Especially the bookmarks contain some tricky to sort stuff but only time will tell how well that works. Maybe I can use symlinks in some cases to sort something into multiple categories.

Everything is stored in text files and directories right now. This is primary to keep the data "free" of any application. If the plain project should not work out I don't want to have a big SQLite file laying around. There's also the benefit that I can use the file manager to organize stuff in case the web application doesn't work well (e.g. for large documents nothing beats your text editor of choice).

And this is one of the major problems right now: I used CSS transformation for the panning and zooming. This causes bugs in pretty much any browser I uses. Opera has redraw issues, Firefox jumps around when you click the edit button and Chromium does not allow to scroll in textareas that are off the center. The performance is abysmal in every browser. Right now I use Chromium most of the time.

Further ideas

While I have something I can work with now the map metaphor has massive potential. Not only for small text snippets but for files, pictures, etc. I want to explore that form of usability a bit more but browsers might become to much of a bottleneck. I don't want to store everything on my server either.

Therefore the next iteration will probably be done as a native Linux application based on X11 and OpenGL. This should allow much better controls and other very interesting stuff like organizing hundreds of pictures and files. Maybe its even possible to add normal applications as entries to plains. Well, only time will tell.

3 comments for this post

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#1 by
Ping Lu

Nice idea! Keep up the work, I share your believe that there is big potential in it! Like the file based approach, i use it for smaller projects too.

Will look into CSS zooming and panning, maybe I can help with some bugs… if you don't mind. If you can get this going in a browser, I think, it will be a massive hit!

#2 by

Nice work! I wonder if one could remove the need for a webserver. If it could run "stand alone" like Tiddlywiki ( ) it would be really awesome!

#3 by

Any help is appreciated, especially with browser bugs. I've tried some different techniques for panning (no translation, just relative and absolute positioning). For zooming hover I don't know any other way than translations (well, IE has the "zoom" property, but that's it).

The server dependency can be removed. One could use WebStorage or WebSQL to store the data in the browser. However that would leave the data pretty much inaccessible for normal users and programs. Tiddlywiki seems to use some browser and operating system dependent ways to store files.

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