Technomancer Tools: Note taking with Joplin.

02 November 2018

Some time ago I began a search for a decent note-taking tool that I could carry around with me.  For many years I was a devotee of the notes.txt file on my desktop, constantly open in a text editor so I could add and refer to it as necessary.  When that ceased to scale I turned to software that replicated the legions of sticky notes on my desks at work and home, such as Tomboy.  And that worked well enough for a while, but when I started relying upon my mobile more and more for things it too stopped being as useful as I wanted it to be.  For about a year I turned to Simplenote, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: It's a note-taking system with a nice web interface, applications on all of the platforms that I use regularly, and even a command line utility which I used to back up my notes a couple of times a day.  However, Simplenote is a centralized service and there is always a risk that it could go away at any time.  At the very least, the switchover to the Simperium API could have caused problems in the near term for me, and I have enough on my plate these days that I didn't feel like fighting that particular war.  So, the search for a replacement that relied more upon my own infrastructure than someone else's began.

What I eventually migrated to was an application called Joplin, which seems to work much better with my system architecture.  Desktop apps?  Available on all of the platforms I use regularly.  End to end encryption?  Done in the app, verifiable by poking around in what gets written to disk so nothing gets written to storage without being encrypted first.  Web application for when I'm stuck using someone else's gear?  Available as a third party software package, which I admittedly haven't had time to try out yet.  Data storage?  It syncs with any compliant WebDAV server out there, from the one that comes with Apache to the more exotic implementations that come with personal cloud systems like Nextcloud.  It can also synch with a half-dozen other cloud services, from OneNote to Dropbox.  There's even a browser plugin that lets you dump whatever you're reading in a tab into a new Joplin note, which then gets synched to your cloud storage.

After installing Joplin on my fleet of personal devices (five and counting, though my Batman factor remains at one because I'm getting too old for that kind of thing) I created a WebDAV datastore in my account at Dreamhost (referral link, which you are not obligated to use) and set up dedicated login credentials for joplin.  I logged in with one Joplin client only at first and set about copying all of the stuff in my Simplenote account over with an hour's worth of copy-and-pasting into new entries.  I finished importing the rest of my Tomboy notes while I was at it the same way.  Once I'd finished this I enabled end-to-end encryption in Joplin per instructions and let the application encrypt everything, which took about half an hour due to the amount of stuff I have (about a megabyte of text across a couple of hundred documents in all).

Now to configure Joplin to sync with my WebDAV server.  I opened up Joplin's settings panel (Tools -> General Options), set the Synchronization Target to "WebDAV," configured a full sync with the back-end every five minutes, and entered the full URL of my WebDAV server.  That done, I entered the username and password set up for WebDAV, tested the settings, and used the back button to get back to my notes.  Your settings will look something like this.  I then started a manual synch, which took another half hour or so (I'm not entirely sure because I went to get a cup of coffee and came back later).

The acid test: Did Joplin synch correctly?  Yes.  Yes, it did.  Is everything encrypted?  Damn skippy.  Let's proceed.

Getting the rest of my devices on the same page required logging into WebDAV from each one again, letting that device synch, and then entering my encryption passphrase again to ensure that it could both encrypt and decrypt my stuff.  While this took a while to finish it wasn't particularly difficult and really only has to be done once per device.  Testing complete, I then set up daily backups of that WebDAV directory with my usual process.

In the couple of months since I started using Joplin it's more or less become my go-to note taking application in life.  I've started using it for everything but work-related notes, including recipes that I keep telling myself I'll write down later.  Between Joplin on my laptop and the browser plugin, I can quickly and easily stash data away and have access to it from another device.  Granted, I have to let every device synch at least once a day, but that is a background job for all intents and purposes because it happens while I'm checking my e-mail or sending messages.  I've yet to set up that web version of Joplin I linked to earlier, and when I get around to it I'll probably write another post about it.  I can't recommend this application enough, and if you use a data storage service like Dropbox or OneDrive (Joplin supports more than just WebDAV) and need a note-taking application, I strongly recommend giving it a try.  I think you'll get a lot of mileage out of it.