Further ruminations on the spark file

Editing a spark note in Daedalus Touch for the iPad.

Editing a spark note in Daedalus Touch for the iPad.

I wrote about creating a spark file system the other day. As is usually the case with new information management processes that interest me, I put the cart before the horse, working on a software solution before actually thinking through what the results should be. I took a breath after composing that article to consider what I want to actually DO with a spark file. How do the contents of such a file differ from what I would keep in other note-taking systems I use?

I came up with the following concepts for my spark file, some of which were already percolating while writing the previous article:

  • I do not need or want any categorization beyond keeping the notes in chronological order. Any other categorization might influence how I express the idea. For example, if I start out a note regarding the early days of Yellowstone National Park and classify it non-fiction, it may be less likely that I would consider a novel on the same topic. This would be true as I was writing the note, and months later as I review the note.
  • This is a file just for ideas and guesses (what Steven Johnson calls hunches). I’m not putting any data in this file, no addresses or passwords or order confirmation numbers. What goes in the file comes from my brain only, with the exception of quotations, which might help illuminate an idea.
  • I can refer to other sources. For example, if an article about how we all have Neanderthal DNA in our genes gives me the idea of a new dating service called PrimeMates.Com, which matches people with ideal dates based on their inner cavemen (kind of like Meyers-Briggs but with clubs and hairy chests), then it is okay to put a link to that article in the note.
  • I must not be critical of the ideas I put into this file at the time I create them. Critical notes upon future review will be good practice, I think.

Having crystallized the concept of the spark file a little more solidly, I was then able to return to finding a solution for managing this file with the confidence that I have a better notion of what I’m doing. If you recall from the previous article, the software system had four requirements:

  1. Universal access for editing, reviewing and creating.
  2. Capturing ideas must be quick and easy.
  3. Ability to read the entire set of ideas from start to finish in one scrolling document.
  4. Writing in the editor must be as close to a full word-processor experience as possible.

With those requirements in mind, I have decided to use the Ulysses III-Daedalus combination from The Soulmen. Ulysses is a terrific plain text editor for the Mac that uses Markdown language for formatting text. With Ulysses, you create groups of sheets, which correlates to folders and documents in an app like Scrivener. You can save these groups of sheets in one of three places: locally on your Mac, on iCloud (Apple’s version of Dropbox), or on your iPad in the companion app Daedalus (which is also synch’d via iCloud). In the navigator pane to the left, which Ulysses calls the Library, your groups are sorted by where they are located, so you have a section for your Daedalus materials. (In Daedalus, a group is called a stack, so I’m switching nomenclature — yes, yes, I know it is confusing.) So you have a local copy of your Daedalus stacks in Ulysses on your Mac, which synchronizes beautifully between the two apps.

Ulysses III with my Spark Notes stack selected.

Ulysses III with my Spark Notes stack selected.

I’ve created a stack called Spark Notes, which I can access equally well on either of my two MacBooks and my iPad. I create a new sheet for each idea I want to record. This atomization of my spark file may seem to go against my requirements, but it works fine with Ulysses, because I can see all the sheets concatenated into one view just by selecting all of them (see the screenshot below).

Four spark notes selected and view-able as "one" document in Ulysses.

Four spark notes selected and view-able as “one” document in Ulysses.

You can also easily export all the sheets in one stack to a single document in many formats, so there is no lock-in to this system. Daedalus on the iPad provides a little different user experience than this, but one that works well for a tablet. When you select a stack, you drill down to the sheet level, and you can leaf through your sheets like flipping through pages of a book.

An open sheet, part of a stack in Daedalus for iPad.

An open sheet, part of a stack in Daedalus for iPad.

There is one hole in this system, which is how to incorporate my Windows PC at work? I can’t access my spark file from the PC, but I can easily write any brainstorms I may have in my favorite text editor for PC, Notetab. I save the .txt file to Dropbox, and when I get the chance I can just drag it into the Spark Notes stack in Ulysses where it seamlessly becomes just another sheet.

A few comments: There are limitations on the sheets you create in Ulysses for use on Daedalus. These mostly relate to the markup you can use with your text, as the iPad app doesn’t have the powerful features of the Mac app. But I don’t need those features for my Spark Notes stack, so it isn’t a big deal. And The Soulmen are working on a Ulysses app for the iPad, which should make this system even more graceful and efficient.




  1. Hi Steve! I’m not sure if you’re an iPhone user but there’s a bunch of Drafts actions to quickly append/prepend to a txt file in Dropbox (or Google Drive/Evernote) with automatically inserting current date and time. This seems to be the most seamless and fastest way to add you ideas to a spark file on the go.
    There’s also a handy web app called TextDrop which allows to edit text files in your Dropbox using a web browser. This should mitigate your PC dependency at work.
    I’m pretty sure you may have heard about these apps but others might also find it useful. Thanks for your interesting blog!

  2. Thank you, Alexey. I am aware of Drafts, but I hadn’t considered it for this purpose. But you’re right about its ability to append text to a single file. That would be a good way to keep a spark file. I don’t think it will fit with my current system using Ulysses and Daedalus, as I’m creating a single file for each idea, not one document for them all. But for others who want to use a single file, this is a great suggestion. Thank you!

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