Exploring organised chaos: Andrew Brown battles with a blizzard of paper and discovers Captain Oates on his hard disk

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The Independent Online
AT ONE stage of technophilia I had three telephone books going simultaneously on three different computers. The system worked well because I wrote down the numbers I really needed on odd scraps of paper and carried them around with me. Providing there was always someone handy to loan me a biro, there was no real problem.

The proper, grown-up solution is to use only one program, a so-called Personal Information Manager. These are programs which combine at the least a telephone book, a diary and some way of combining the two and attaching notes to them. One of the simplest, and most popular, is the Lotus Organiser.

It looks like a Filofax on screen and seems to work like one, too. You click on the coloured tabs on the edge of sections to move from the address book to the notepad, for example. The program will dial the telephone for you if connected through a modem, as all computers ought to be.

Organiser has drawbacks, though, which become more and more irritating. This is really because it is a personal information manager and what you end up wanting is a small business information manager: one which will allow overlapping appointments in the diary, as the organiser will not; and which can more easily sort and organise the inmates of an address book in however many ways are necessary.

These heavy-duty programs are expensive, though Wordperfect, which produces the leading word processor, is about to release one called Infocentral which will be affordable and may be useful too. Until then, the best of the bunch on PCs is generally conceded to be an American program called Ecco. It is about three-quarters right, which means that I keep using it while I grow ever more conscious of its limitations. It is one of those maddening programs which will not quite do things which you never realised needed doing at all until you start to use them.

The drawbacks first. It looks like a computer program, not like anything familiar. The powerful things it will do are concealed in a jargon unique to the program of 'folders' and 'outlines'. The simple things, like telephone numbers and calendars are nothing special. I still, after months, have not worked out how to get 'To do' lists functioning properly: some early and apparently irretrievable wrong decision means that everything I want to tell myself to do is filed under 'Asked for Xmas Copy'.

With all these drawbacks, it is still almost indispensable for organising work. I find it invaluable for planning and recording a telephone campaign: at the beginning of a story I can flip through the contacts list or any sorted group thereof ('Catholics', or 'PR people', for instance) and select all the people I want to talk to. They are then collected into an ad-hoc group or 'folder' and can be displayed on a new screen, this time with columns next to their names in which to record whether and when I spoke to them. All this is no more than I would do with paper and pen, though with practice it is quicker on the machine.

The real power comes later. If I am scrupulous and type my notes into the program as we talk, they will be preserved for ever in a place where I can always find them. I know who I have talked to on a story and what was said; I know what I have talked about and when to any particular contact. In normal working conditions, there is such a blizzard of paper on my desk that Captain Oates could be lying dead somewhere underneath it and no one would never know. At least, with Ecco, I can find him on my hard disk.

Dedicated users have found more elaborate uses. Lawyers keep billing information in it. Used on a network of computers, it could be the perfect present for big brother, who could see what each of his employees had been up to at any time. And there are a number of other expensive programs which will accomplish similar things, such as Act] and Commence. For the Mac, Arrange is highly spoken of; so is Full Control.

Such islands of order within the chaos are comforting and some help. But they will always be insufficient. It is well known that data always expands to fill any hard disk. Information, it seems, obeys a similar law: you will always have slightly more than you can organise or find. Ecco has some links with the ouside world: but they do not quite work as it should.

I really need a complete database that will sort and store and link all the information on my hard disks so that - for example - the story which I finally wrote with a word processor could be linked to the notes I made while researching it in Ecco. In the mean time, all this progress has left me with three new telephone books: one in Ecco; one in WinFax for the fax modem; and a third in the database that ought to be organising this page.

Ecco has not yet obtained a UK distributor. In the meantime it can be bought direct from Arabesque Software, at 0101-206-885-4272 (voice) and 0101-206-885-0127 fax. Demonstration versions of all three programs can be downloaded from Compuserve. They are large: between 1 and 2 MB each.

(Photograph omitted)

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