Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Henry James on Notebooks

Henry James writes about the pleasures connected with re-reading old notebooks: "One notes, as all writers remember, sometimes explicitly mention, sometimes indirectly reveal, and sometimes wholly dissimulate such clues and such obligations, The search for these last, indeed, through faded or pencilled pages is perhaps one of the sweetest of our more pensive pleasures.
  1. Then we chance upon some idea we have afterward treated;
  2. then, greeting it with tenderness, we wonder at the first form of a motive that was to lead us so far and to show, no doubt, to eyes not our own, for so other;
  3. then we have heave a sigh of relief over all that is never, thank goodness to be done again. Would we have embarked on that stream had we known?—and what mightn't we have made of this one //hadn't// we known!
But more generally notebooks are for him also a means of capturing "a record of passing impressions, of all that comes, that goes, that I see, and feel, and observe. To catch and keep something of life ..."

In other words, they serve at least two functions, one having to do with art or theory, the other having to do with life. For him these two functions were starkly separated. "Life is being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection, the latter in search of the hard latent value with which one is concerned, sniffs around the mass as instinctively and unerringly as a dog suspicious of some buried bone." Needless to say, theory and life do not have to be viewed this way.[1] But not matter how their relation is viewed, notebooks or other ways of record-keeping, are essential for both.

I have never aspired to creating "art" or "fiction."

Saturday, July 12, 2014


There is a new cross-platform wiki software called Scribbleton, The Little Personal Wiki. It's in alpha, that is, not even beta. The developer claims that he is making the program available early to bring us "a top-quality cross-platform product." It is a personal wiki that saves a document to the hard drive. I found it irresistible, downloaded it, and played around with it. Scribbleton seems to allow for common formatting and linking of entries.

I say "seems," as I immediately encountered problems with making a word bold, could not delete a page that was created by accident, and could not find any keyboard shortcuts. But more importantly, in my view, when I tried to fix this problem, I encountered a message to the effect that the trial version allows only for a maximum of three, yes ... 3, links. You have to buy the alpha product for $10.00 in order to "support" further development.

This approach is not just a bit cheeky. It also seems to be counter-productive for the developer. You just cannot get a sense of the program with three links. And I wonder how many people are willing to pay $10.00 (per user) on something that may never even see beta. Nor does it inspire confidence in the developer who seems to have little or no interest in his possible customers.

The program looks good, but I have already removed it from my computer. Nor is it likely that I will ever take another look at it. Perhaps some readers of this blog can inform me of how it progresses.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

How Many Clicks to Create a Link?

I recently tried out Cherrytree It's available on Linux and Windows and is described as follows:
Cherrytree is what's referred to as an "hierarchal" note taking application, meaning it's designed to store your entries in containers, which some programs call "notes" or "pages" and Cherrytree calls "nodes". If you envision the Cherrytree document as the root of a tree, and each "node" as a branch in that tree, sub-nodes as branches off that branch, you will start to get the idea. If you have ever used outlining programs like OmniNote, Kjots, Keepnote and others, then Cherrytree will feel very familiar. However, Cherrytree is not just about having a place to write notes and to-do items and keeping them organized, it's also a place you can store links, pictures, tables, even entire documents. It can be your one program for all the miscellaneous information you have and want to keep. All those little bits of information you have scattered around your hard drive can be conveniently placed into a Cherrytree document where you can easily find it.

It is quite capable as a two-pane outliner that does rtf, plain text, and automatic syntax highlighting in each node, but I was interested mostly in its capabilities of inter-linking notes in its own database, and I found it seriously lacking in this respect. It takes five clicks or operations to get a link:
  1. Ctrl_L or Edit|Insert or Edit Link
  2. this brings up a dialogue, in which you sepcify a link name, and click O.K.
  3. another dialogue comes up in which you have to select what kind of link you want, you select "To Node"
  4. a list of all the available nodes comes and you must scroll to and click on the one you want (and this can be tedious, if you have many nodes)
  5. you click the OK button
Only then do you have a functioning link.

I was interested in this software because I had seen it described on the Web as a wiki-like application. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Five clicks is four too many.

I might have been interested, if it included the ability to create [[free links]]. Your demands may be different, however.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Handwritten Memories?

There is a meme making the rounds on the Internet which mainly consists of the claim that handwriting is superior to the keyboard in committing things to memory. Somehow, some people surmise there are possible links between the psychomotor action of handwriting and memory itself. This is what makes handwriting special. I am not a cognitive psychologist, but a skeptic. Such special links are possible, but I don't think they have been established. Furthermore, there is another explanation. In a recent article of the Boston Globe, Ruth Graham reports on research that purports to show that in memory tasks there is such a thing as "desirable difficulty." Taking verbatim notes by hand is more difficult in handwriting than it is with the keyboard. You just can't keep up as much as you can with the keyboard. So, you have to evaluate, select, and organize what you write down. In other words you have actively engage the material in a way that someone with a keyboard does not have to engage with it (and therefore usually does not). "'Because laptop users are better able to keep up with the pace of speech, it turns out, they are more susceptible to transcribing lectures verbatim, a style of note-taking that previous experiments has shown to be inferior. “If students are taking down notes on everything that’s said in class, they’re just functioning as a stenographer,' said Michael Friedman, a cognitive psychologist who is conducting note-taking research as a fellow at the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching."

This explanation does not appeal to "possible links" between psychomotor action and memory at all. It attributes the difference to conscious engagement with what is taken down. There is a difference between taking things down and taking note of things. And there is nothing inherently bad about the keyboard. You just have to learn not to use it like a stenographer. This should be possible. In fact, it is desirable that we all develop this skill. Students should just as little be encouraged to think that learning is equivalent to stenography as to believe that photocopying pages is equivalent to reading them.

Monday, June 9, 2014

D. H. Lawrence on "Ideal Conditions to Work"

In the most recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement D. H. Lawrence is reported to have recalled "several places that offered the ideal conditions to work." They were in Tuscany, the south of France, and Paris, for instance. "What they all had in common, these ideal places for working, was that I never got any work done in them." Gazing out of windows and taking walks were constant temptations. My experience exactly, though my places were Edinburgh (Scotland), and Marburg (Germany)—to name just two.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Storyist as a Personal Wiki

Don't ask me why, but I downloaded the trial version of Storyist for the Mac, a word processors "designed for writers of fiction" that does many of the same things Scrivener does. "Storyist provides the word processing tools you expect from a top-notch creative writing application, including spell checking; smart quotes processing; annotations; and support for headers, footers, and style sheets. And Storyist comes with manuscript and screenplay templates so you can focus on the writing, not the formatting." Yes, you probably can, and "the story development tools in Storyist let you sketch out a story using index cards and photographs and then refine it with customizable plot, character, and setting sheets. If you prefer a more traditional approach, Storyist provides an outliner for working with your story elements in outline form."

It just so happens that I do not write stories or novels. I am much more concerned with non-fiction, or perhaps better, academic writing. I need to be able to do footnotes, for instance. There is a way to emulate footnotes by assigning a bookmark to a paragraph and dragging the bookmark into the pace where you want the footnote reference. It works, but it's a pain (and does not allow automatic numbering). Nor does any of this export very well. There are other things that should discourage anyone from using it for what it was not designed for, namely writing non-fiction.

There is, however one way for which it clearly was not designed that works quite well. Storyist supports wiki-style links, ore better: free links. Enclosing a word or phrase in double brackets links, like [[so]] will create a link to that page. More precisely:
To create a Wiki link,
1. Place the insertion point at the location where you want to create a link.
2. Type two open brackets: "[["
3. Type the title of the element you want to create a link to.
4. Type two close brackets: "]]"
If the story element already exists, Storyist creates a link to it. If the element does not exist, Storyist assumes that you want to create a new notebook entry and takes care of that for you.

If you change the title of the story element elsewhere, Storyist updates your Wiki link title.
You can also specify a different title for the link by adding "|" before the desired title within the wiki link title.

Actually, the wiki link will create a note with the the title you have chosen. The notebook in Storyist is a free-form text editor. You cannot link different parts of the manuscript. Nor can you link to the manuscript (unless I am very mistaken). The great thing is that you can interlink different notes this way as well.

So Storyist could be used as a simple wiki. Perhaps you could also say that it is a not-so-simple wiki because you can view the wiki entries in outline view and as note cards. It also is a WYSIWYG wiki, as there wre no different views for editing and viewing. You can also add comments to the notes to add a further layer of complication.

I think this is an interesting, if perhaps somewhat perverse way, to use what is meant to be a word processor as a wiki-like note-taker. Will I pay the $59.00 for the OSX application to use it.[1] I am afraid not, as I already have the kind of personal wiki with which I am fully satisfied. But, if you are in the market for a word processor for writers, the wiki-capability may well be an added bonus.[2]

1. There is an iOS application which by all accounts integrates well with the desktop application.
2. Please do not consider this as a thorough review of all the features of Storyist. I have really only played with it to see whether it might be useful for my writing "projects."

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Inherent Advantages of Mead Three-Subject Notebooks?

Michael Leddy has an interesting post on Roger Angell's use of Mead Notebooks. I have never liked these. They are to big for my tastes, and I very much dislike that they are wirebound. All sorts of things get stuck in the wires and the pages fray easily in my experience. That being said, I think this just goes to show that note-taking is just as much a matter of habituation as eating. You tend to like what you grew up with, and their is not much else that can be said about this—as far as I am concerned. Growing up in Germany, i found wirebound notebooks weren't very common, if they existed at all. I think they offer no advantages over composition books.

No further comment!