heywoodlh thoughts

My Vim Notes Setup

Why I am writing this: #

There are a ton of super fancy note apps out there. I’ve tried a small handful of them and while I haven’t hated them I also haven’t loved them. I don’t think it’s a problem with any of the apps themselves, rather it’s a problem with me: I want to just use vim as my text editor for notes.

Here are the requirements I’ve wanted to meet with my workflow:

  • Use vim as my editor

  • Encrypted and private synchronization across devices

  • Ease of use on any platform – including mobile

All of the other apps I have used aren’t vim and require use of some centralized service that are often invasive when it comes to privacy (Google, Dropbox, etc.). And I don’t want to run Nextcloud just for notes (although, I do have lots of love Nextcloud).

Syncronization: #

I use Syncthing to keep my files in sync across devices. One big issue for my setup is that I have an iPad Pro and an iPhone and there is no Syncthing i[Pad]OS app but I will address how I deal with that later.

I like Syncthing because it’s simple, open source, decentralized and files are end-to-end encrypted in transit. In theory, my files are not readable by anyone but my own trusted devices.

I won’t get into how to setup Syncthing but once it is running, I have a notes directory that I sync with Syncthing between all my devices (except for iOS devices). My basic workflow for creating a new note is this:

cd ~/Sync/notes
vim new-note.md

That’s it.

For reading notes I use less if I don’t need to edit anything.

iOS devices: #

Since there is no Syncthing iOS app I have a FreeBSD VPS that I use and I access my notes on that server using SSH. Since this is a command-line focused workflow it’s not really a huge inconvenience for me to have the added step of SSH-ing into a server.

My preferred iOS SSH/Mosh client is Blink as it is open source and looks/feels premium.

Networks are fast enough that I don’t really notice any latency since standard SSH connections are usually low on bandwidth usage. As an added measure to keep my SSH connections extra reliable I use mosh to gracefully survive disconnects or generally unreliable connectivity. I use Wireguard to keep my server always available to my mobile devices but restrict access to my server from anywhere else.

To make these workflows extremely convenient on my phone, I use shell scripts and aliases to speed up repetitive tasks. For example, I use a BASH alias on my server named journal to execute the following shell script to write in my journal:

One relevant thing that I am watching for would be a way to run Syncthing on my iPad/iPhone directly through iSH. However, Syncthing on iSH crashes due to lack of iNotify support in iSH. And as I stated earlier, SSH-ing into a remote server to access my notes is not really an inconvenient added step for me.

Encryption at rest: #

Syncthing encrypts everything in transit. Normally for notes, I don’t write anything super sensitive and don’t need additional encryption for files at rest on my machines. However, for when I do want my files on my machines to be encrypted I use gpg to encrypt stuff.

You can use vim to edit gpg encrypted files. Throw the following into ~/.vimrc:

" Don't save backups of *.gpg files
set backupskip+=*.gpg
" To avoid that parts of the file is saved to .viminfo when yanking or
" deleting, empty the 'viminfo' option.
set viminfo=

augroup encrypted
  " Disable swap files, and set binary file format before reading the file
  autocmd BufReadPre,FileReadPre *.gpg
    \ setlocal noswapfile bin
  " Decrypt the contents after reading the file, reset binary file format
  " and run any BufReadPost autocmds matching the file name without the .gpg
  " extension
  autocmd BufReadPost,FileReadPost *.gpg
    \ execute "'[,']!gpg --decrypt --default-recipient-self" |
    \ setlocal nobin |
    \ execute "doautocmd BufReadPost " . expand("%:r")
  " Set binary file format and encrypt the contents before writing the file
  autocmd BufWritePre,FileWritePre *.gpg
    \ setlocal bin |
    \ '[,']!gpg --encrypt --default-recipient-self
  " After writing the file, do an :undo to revert the encryption in the
  " buffer, and reset binary file format
  autocmd BufWritePost,FileWritePost *.gpg
    \ silent u |
    \ setlocal nobin
augroup END

The general workflow for creating and editing a file encrypted with gpg could follow like so:

cd ~/Sync/notes

# Create an empty file, encrypt it and then remove the original empty file 
touch super-secret.txt &&\
    gpg -r l.spencer.heywood@protonmail.com --encrypt super-secret.txt &&\
    rm super-secret.txt

Now, if you’ve added the above .vimrc snippet to edit .gpg files in vim you can edit the newly created super-secret.txt.gpg:

vim super-secret.txt.gpg

I should probably write a shell script to do this all for me automatically but I haven’t yet since it’s really not that often that I need encryption for my (usually) non-sensitive notes on my machines.

Written on April 9, 2021

vim syncthing notes