Lotus Agenda reviewed (81)

Mon, 24 Apr 89 21:29:33 EDT

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 885. Monday, 24 Apr 1989.

Date: Mon, 24 Apr 89 09:58 EST

DRAFT Agenda Review by R Jensen; COMMENTS WELCOME

Agenda 1.0 Lotus Development Corp., 1988, $395.
The historian's research file cabinet is a vast trove of dross
and gold, of vital documents and irrelevant glosses. Whole
nations, whole centuries are squirreled away, stored for that
moment in chapter 17 when decisive evidence is needed, or at least
an apt quotation. There is no art to the management of this
materRecall, that find
specific information by searching all the files on a hard disk.
Boolean criteria (all files with words A and (B or C) but not D)
allow for complicated searches of the original texts. Outliners,
like GrandView and PC-Outline, allow an author to write a chapter
section by section, collapsing and expanding an overarching
outline that keeps the larger structure in view at all times.
While data base programs, like dBASE and Paradox, are ideal for
handling large bibliographies, they are too limited and too
structured to handle free-form textual information like notes and
Agenda (for IBM compatible personal computers with 640K RAM
and a hard disk) is the most ingenious of the new PIMs.
Essentially it is a free-form database system. Agenda'a basic
unit is the item, which may be up to 50 words long. A much longer
note, up to 1400 words, can be attached to each item. The user
assigns each item to multiple categories. The categories are
relationships, so that if a particular item abstracts a longer
note, the item and therefore the note can be categorized by dates,
by topics covered, author, actors, places, events, etc.
Additional categories can always be added later, and more
important items can be assigned higher priorities. Artificial
intelligence features allow the use of synonyms and automatic
assignment of notes into categories. Assign "Brest-Litovsk" to
the category "treaty" once, and each subsequent item that mentions
Brest-Litovsk will automatically be categorized under "treaty."
Like the outliners, Agenda allows easy manipulation of the
categories, and thus of the underlying items and notes. The
result of the manipulation is a view, which is essentially a
report on a Boolean selection of categories. The views are much
more flexible than the text excerpts that are found by the
search/index programs. They are live reports because as items and
categories are edited, the view immediately changes. Agenda would
be superfluous for dealing with a few hundred note cards. Deal
with a few thousand, or better, tens of thousands, and the
computer's ability to keep track simultaneously of large numbers
of simple relationships becomes apparent.

Agenda has multiple problems. Its power, flexibility and
customizability make it hard to learn despite the tutorial and
third-party guides (like Mary Campbell, Using Agenda [Berkeley,
1988]). Agenda gobbles up 450K of available RAM, crowding out
useful memory resident programs. It will run with Sidekick, so it
is possible to overlay the Agenda screen with Sidekick's notebook.
No one wants to rekey a disk full of documents, so Agenda's
appeal will depend on how well it handles files already created
by a word processor or other program. Unfortunately, it is
exceedingly difficult to coax Agenda into importing information
from structured databases like 1-2-3 or dBASE, or, for that
matter, from the plain text files it prefers. An adequate
import/export routine would make it a much more useful program.
Agenda can deal with one data base at a time, so a document that
touches on three different research interests has to be three
times entered as notes to items in three separate Agenda data
bases. Agenda 1.0 and History 2.0 are not quite ready for each
other. For the moment, access to the world of PIMs should be
through simpler programs.

Richard J. Jensen
University of Illinois, Chicago