Annotation software that doesn’t suck

Since as far as I can remember I underline and annotate my books, over the years I have developed a notation of symbols and underlining styles that allow me to highlight the passages and know the reason why that was important to me at the time by simply just browsing the book quickly. It has worked for me for texts on paper carriers for years and never had a problem with it.

For the last years a lot of the reading I do happens in front of a digital device and I have yet to find a good way of keeping notes in them. By keeping I mean, not only collecting them temporarily but keeping them across devices for a very long long time, notes that go with me and my collection of texts as my devices age and get replaced by new ones. The lack of a good way to do this is my deepest frustration with reading in digital devices.

I generally read for two reasons: research and leisure, about 80% of my reading is research of some kind and the ability to take notes is absolutely crucial to this kind of reading. If a device or reader software doesn’t include a decent annotation feature I will not even consider buying it.

I read ePUB books, PDFs, scanned documents (generally in PDF), articles on the web (html) and my annotations include a chunk of the material I am reading and a brief note, or simply just a highlight. I also like to include images in my annotations when I am researching more visual topics. Oh, and code too.

One would assume that with the Cambrian explosion of digital readers, tablets, smartphones, phablets, etc. Someone, somewhere would have come up with a decent software to annotate digital texts, but I have yet to find one that satisfies my requirements.

Here’s what I need:

  • Highlight text (with precision [you heard that touchscreen Kobo?])
  • Be able to quickly enter an annotation on the section highlighted
  • Be able to search through my notes AND through the annotated text, hopefully with the option to exclude the rest of the non-annotated text
  • I need to create my own taxonomy of annotations by means other than the document that first inspired the annotation. Tags could work for this. When researching a topic you often need to read multiple documents in various formats and I would like to be able to browse my notes by topic. Sometimes a single annotation can belong to different topics.
  • I mostly use a macbook, an Android phone and a Kobo e-reader. I have to be able to use the annotation software seamlessly across devices, and if a text exists in duplicate in more than one device I should be able to summon the same set of notes
  • I need to be able to “clip” sections that might possibly contain images and annotate those too
  • If I read a paper from its original author in PDF format and annotate that text and then it turns out that the same article gets published somewhere else in a web magazine I want to be able to summon my notes from the original and match the republished version in as far as it is computationally possible to do so
  • Every note that I take must be immediately backed up in a non-proprietary human-readable format that I can extract from the device, download or copy for free at any time. Non-compliance with this is a deal-breaker for me. I’m am tired of having my annotations locked up in some undocumented file somewhere in the application partition of some Android device, or worse yet in some SQLite database somewhere My annotations are not “application data” they are “my data”.
  • I must be able to tell the software where to store my notes remotely. I don’t want the company behind Kobo, or Google, or Dropbox or any other of these companies to have access to my thoughts under any circumstance. My notes should be dissociated from any account on any service. The only two selectors I should ever need to look up my notes on anything are, my email address and the annotated document (or some other element of my taxonomy).
  • Ideally it would be great to be able to share individual annotations with others as long as it is entirely within my agency to specify what, where and when is shared.
  • I have about eight digital devices and I have tested dozens of reader softwares through the years and I still have to find one that implements four or more of these features. Anything short of what is listed above will not cut it for reading anything that is not just holiday novels.

    Here’s a list of traumatic experiences I have had with digital readers:

    In 2013 Samsung decided to stop supporting the default e-book reader on their tablets, which was quite good actually. I learned about it after a system update wiped the reader application from my tablet along with years of annotations. Nobody in the support team could tell me where the annotations had been stored.

    The Kobo touch that I do a lot of my ePUB reading with is an excellent reading device but it sucks to take notes with. The touchscreen is not very precise so letters, words and sometimes even lines are missing from an annotation because finger-fiddling with the thing drives me nuts. The annotations are stored on a SQlite database in the device that I backup automatically every time I plug to my laptop. I had to write my own script for this. I also have another script that reads that SQLite database and extracts the annotations to HTML. For this whole workflow I had to install SSH on my Kobo, write a good bunch of scripts and hack my way through every step of it. The average consumer cannot do this.

20Hz by Semiconductor

20 Hz from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

20 Hz is a 5 minute video which uses data collected by the CARISMA radio array. CARISMA (Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity) is an array of magnetometers which study the Earth’s magnetosphere. 20 Hz is an interpretation of a magnetic storm occurring in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The CARISMA data – captured at the frequency of 20 Hertz – is interpreted as audio, allowing us to hear the “tweets” and “rumbles” caused by the interaction of solar wind with the Earth’s magnetosphere. The visual element of the film is generated directly by the sound. Tangible and sculptural forms emerge suggestive of scientific visualisations. As different frequencies interact both visually and aurally, complex patterns emerge to create interference phenomena that probe the limits of our perception.


Contestants from across the world living with reduced mobility, gathered at ETH Zurich to compete using the latest in assistive technologies such as prosthetic arms, robotic exoskeletons and powered wheelchairs.


Adam Curtis on Why Self-Expression Is Tearing Society Apart

Great interview to Adam Curtis in ArtSpace online magazine.

“The problem with individualism is that, whilst it is liberating and exciting and beautiful, when things get difficult you are very weak. If you go into the woods at night, by yourself, it’s frightening, isn’t it? You get scared by the slightest noise, the slightest snap of a twig. If you go into the woods with your friends in a group, it’s incredibly exciting and thrilling because you somehow feel stronger. It’s as simple as that. That’s one point.”

On Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe in Just Kids: “the very idea of self-expression might not have had the radical potential they thought”

[…] “the other essential component in that wave of consumerism was the idea of self-expression. People were encouraged to buy all kinds of stuff, not to be like each other as they had in the past, but instead to express themselves as individuals. In this way the very idea of self-expression became central to the modern structure of power.”

[…] “I sometimes wonder whether the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is, that have little to do with our present day fetishization of the self. The problem with today’s art is that far from revealing those new ideas to us, it may be actually stopping us from seeing them.

This might be quite a difficult one to get over, but I think this is really important: however radical your message is as an artist, you are doing it through self-expression—the central dominant ideology of modern capitalism. And by doing that, you’re actually far from questioning the monster and pulling the monster down. You’re feeding the monster. Because the more people come to believe that self-expression is the end of everything, is the ultimate goal, the more the modern system of power becomes stronger, not weaker.”

“How can I make art without feeding the monster?

I was trying to say in the film that the way to question power is to stand up against it. And to do that, you have to go into the woods at night together. You have to be powerful and confident as a group. And you have to do this thing that I think a lot of modern artists and modern people in general would find very difficult to do: give yourself up to something that is bigger than yourself.
There are other forgotten ideas of freedom. For instance, the religious idea of freedom—I think the phrase is “in His service is perfect freedom.” An example I always give is from the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s in America. A lot of young white activists in the middle classes went down to the South, joined with the young black activists, and for years worked anonymously, giving themselves up to what they believed in. Many of them were beaten up, some of them were killed, but they actually changed the world and they did it by giving themselves up to something.

I’m sorry I’m being rude here, but at this point radical art involves going off on one demonstration, or doing an installation that says something angry, and then going home. And that’s it. You’ve felt you’ve expressed yourself, but if you do want to change the world you have to give yourself up to it.
In my country, the classic example of this was the march against the Iraq invasion in 2003. Three million people marched through London. It was a really impressive march. And they had this slogan that I thought was very much of its time: “Not in my name.” That is the ultimate individual protest. So what then happened is they all went home feeling that they had all protested against the war and it was no longer their war, and then they did nothing else.
They really did nothing else. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and American and British soldiers were killed. For what? You could have stopped it, but to do it you would have had to have given up the next three years of your life, to marching every day, to working against it, to try and change the mood. You’d have had to give yourself up to it. That doesn’t fit with the idea of the self, or of self-expression.”


“What I was trying to suggest was that by focusing on the rights of individuals—and the groups of which they are a part—the radicals possibly lost sight of something: that the only way to really challenge deeply entrenched power is through mass collective action, not through a radicalism that is rooted in individualism.”