Archive for November 2008

Using a personal wiki for bookmark organization

Bookmarks have been around since the earliest browsers. With years I’ve accumulated thousands of them, and I’ve heard of similar numbers from other people. As it grows, it becomes obvious some organization is needed.

The organization scheme that comes naturally, at first, is folders. Those have been there since the early beginnings with Adam and Eve when the Web was young and domain names were aplenty in the tree of TLDs. That’s what I relied on for about six thousand years, and it became a huge mess. I still have old folders from my antique “classification system” I never look at anymore except for quick-and-easy nostalgia.

Tags and multiple axis for classification

So it quickly becomes obvious more axis are needed to classify. The most self-evident case is when doing a project: you’ll quickly accumulate a bunch of links which are contextually related because of the project, but otherwise would end up in different categories.

For example, if you’re creating a web site on video games, you accumulate links on, say, Nintendo, HTML, marketing and Ramen noodles, but in the Grand Scheme of Things (ie. Dewey classification, or some directory like dmoz.org), these are not usually put together.

So you end up trying to set up some keyword/tag system, hack together for 20 hours some frail Firefox extension, and then Firefox 3 comes along and does it for you anyway. The end result is you can create a tag for your project, yet also tag with proper general categories.

With a personal wiki

But in my experience that still doesn’t work, based on the fact that I never look at the bookmarks again, except when I have a very precise idea of what I’m looking for. And then there’s Google anyway.

In fact, currently, I only use local bookmarks for

  1. Transition until I put them in my wiki;
  2. pages and sites I use all the time, so I need quick access (online tools etc.).

Why is it that my old bookmarks were still condemned to live unfullfillingly in the dark for eons? There are many reasons, but the main one, for me, was that bookmarks don’t offer any formatting options and their context is not rich enough, even with tags or folders.

When you write a blog post or wiki entry, you can use context, explanations, and the links make sense. They’re part of the text, and when you look back at the entry, you don’t just see a list of equally-created bookmarks, but each has its place and the content you summarize, the description you make create a whole, and of course it’s text so you can have sections, bullet points, images and whatnot.

So my current system is one where I put my bookmarks in wiki entries related to their topic, with some summary explaining why it’s there and what I extracted from it, if I read it. If I need more axis, I’ve developed a WikidPad extension to tag a part of a page.

It seems to work: I reuse the links much more often, and it actually creates value for me as the content slowly grows with the links and knowledge instead of just being an anonymous bunch of pointers.

Of course it requires a bit more work for each link, but in the end if you’re not willing to spend 30 seconds writing a quick note, perhaps it wasn’t worth bookmarking anyway.

Organizing code snippets and programming knowledge

(This post is geared towards programmers.)

This blog is about structuring your personal knowledge. Code snippets and, more generally, programming language information, are interesting in that everyone and their cubicle neighbor seem to have their own approach to organizing them. Here I survey some interesting software and approaches I’ve read about, their features, and present my own method based on my personal wiki.

UPDATE July 29, 2011: there’s a good discussion about the wide range of options people use over at StackOverflow.

This post is an example where wiki features come in handy (by opp. to a thorough survey of Code Snippet Management as, err, an academic field of study).

Software and approaches

A code snippet manager is a piece of software which allows you to organize short pieces of code to reuse later. Yet I’m also seeking the ability to integrate general information about the language (explanations, elements of theory, etc.): in my experience, snippets are often examples of a notion I’m learning.

In researching a bit on existing systems, I’ve found a few feature families:

  • Code features
    • Syntax highlighting
    • Management of multiple files (a plus if you want to add entire libs to your snippet database)
    • More specific:
      • automatic indentation on insertion
      • dependency management
      • IDE integration
      • (other noteworthy?)
  • Organization and retrieval features
    • Hierarchical: by language, by functionality/algorithm
    • Tags
      • Tags are particularly useful here (vs pure hierarchical) because I’ll often stumble on situations like:
        • I need a snippet in whatever language for a quick sort algorithm.
        • I need a C++ snippet with an iterator loop.
    • Full-text/regular expression search
      • Regular expressions are especially useful since you often seek specific constructs and regular text indexing won’t cut it.
    • Hyperlinks (well, hallmark of wikis here)
    • Date and other general fields
  • Sharing

There are lots of different approaches and systems. Specialized software exists that allows you to organize your snippet library in a standalone and dedicated manner. Google Snippely is an example:


Screenshot of Google Snippely

A whole bunch of sharewares exist that do similar jobs. Some IDEs come with a snippet manager integrated, as is the case with Visual Studio. Most of these local programs offer a basic outline for organization with more or less search capabilities. If you’re looking for an online version with tagging, check out Snipplr, which, being online, also allows you to share and search others’ submissions.


Snipplr homepage screenshot

In the homebrew solution department, this thread is interesting. Some people talk of filesystem based solutions. A few even use a custom database. Personal wikis (as I use, see bellow) and general outliner software clearly need mention too. For example, this blogger says she uses Microsoft OneNote to organize her snippets.

Getting a bit less personal, it should be noted a quite a few bloggers describe their blog as being a “repository for them to search later”. Therefore blogs and websites somehow count as personal snippet libraries (I did a bit of this with my old me-me-me blog over yonder). These score high on integrating other information (ie. free-form formatted text) with the snippets, and of course on the sharing aspect. Community wikis (ie. not personal) are also a great way to organize and share snippets and knowledge (examples here, here).

As a side note, it’s pretty clear we won’t only rely on our own snippets when coding. “The Web + Google” describes my most often used “system” when searching for coding solutions. Yet there are specialized search engines for this job: Google Code Search (you can use regexps on the whole DB!), Koders, and quite a few more.

My approach

Given earlier posts, this doesn’t need a drum roll introduction: I use my personal wiki to organize my snippets and my programming language learning. Of course, this solution allows for inclusion of formatted text. I admit I have a strong tendency to use my snippets for learning more than for reuse, so that factor might weight more than usual in my choice.

A wiki will allow for many different types of retrieval. For example, using the right combination of plugins, with WikidPad I have hierarchical organization, tags/keywords, full text and regular expression search, and, of course, linking. Most popular wiki systems will have plugins to allow for syntax highlighting, and WikidPad is no exception.


Code snippet screenshot in WikidPad
(using the PrettyCode extension)

Where that solution might be lacking is in the IDE integration department, and in the management of multiple files. In the last case, I have a separate personal code (file system) directory to which I may refer using file:// links.