Sunday, April 12, 2015

Making an Index for Your Notebook

Anyone who keeps notes both in paper notebooks and in a computer program should have a system integrating the two. I have described some ways of doing this before.

You need at least three conventions:
  • find a way two refer to refer to the paper notebook
  • find a way to refer to the particular entries in the paper noteboook
  • find a program in the computer, in which to store the reference
This post is about the second convention. Here is my experience: I have found over the years that the most important thing is to (a) paginate the notebooks, (b) create a table of contents at the end or the beginning of the notebook, and (c) create a page in ConnectedText for each notebook into which the table of contents is copied. (It may also contain other relevant information as to when you kept it, etc.)

As I review the contents of the notebooks over the years (some of them go back to the late eighties), I might decide to transcribe some of the entries into ConnectedText, putting a link into the content page for the notebook and putting a cancellation mark in the paper notebook itself. Not everything is deemed important enough for transcription, though this changes over time and many things end up in my ConnectedText over time. I have a category called "My paper notebooks."

Reviewing them (both the paper and the electronic) notes often is an important part of what I would call my "work flow," if I did not despise this phrase. I could, of course, use a digital camera for the transcription step, but I find transcription makes me remember the note better.

I recently came across a post in which a more fine-grained approach is suggested, namely that of keeping an index in every notebook: "The back of your notebook will act like a tag list or index. Every time you create a new entry at the front of the book you're going to 'tag' it." If you follow this approach, you could later transfer the index into your electronic note-taking application at your leisure. The marks on the pages would allow you to locate the information you look for quickly.

As I said, it is a more more fine-grained approach than including a Table of Contents in the notebook. I am not sure I need such a level of detail in accounting for my paper notes (because anything I deem really significant gets transcribed anyway), but others may find the approach described here more useful. Also, remember that most books have both a Table of Contents and an Index. So, you could do both, if you find it necessary or useful.

Ten Simple Rules for Lifelong Learning

This is an interesting article. I believe that anyone interested in note-taking will benefit from reading it. This endorsement does not mean, of course, that I would agree with everything said in it. But I do like the distinction between learning and training: "learning to learn depends on a certain style of thinking [4]. An important distinction here is between education and training: education is learning what you should do and when and why to do it, whereas training is learning how to do it. Obviously, to succeed you need to be both educated and trained." Universities used to be "into" education, but now are in the process of veering entirely into training.[1]

I am not so sure about rule 6 that emphasizes concentrating on the successes of others: "'As Hamming says, because “there are so many ways of being wrong and so few of being right, studying successes is more efficient, and furthermore, when your turn comes you will know how to succeed rather than how to fail.' In addition, he notes that 'vicarious learning from the experiences of others saves making errors yourself.'"[2] This may well be true in science, but it is certainly not true in other subjects. It's not a bad idea to eliminate some of the many ways of being wrong. I wish I had!

1. I know that this is an over-simplification or a bit of a caricature. But caricatures are important precisely because they exaggerate some features at the expense of others in order to make some(one) or something more recognisable.

2. I have referred to Richard Hamming before before.

Monday, April 6, 2015

ConnectedText and Zim

I have written about Zim a good many times before. It is a very light-weight personal wiki application that stores its pages as text files in a directory of your choice. Accordingly, it works well with Dropbox.

Zim's markup, as I observed before, is remarkably close to that of ConnectedText. What I did not not before is that it accepts ConnectedText's URLs without any problem. Something like "ct://Personal/Zim%20Files" works right out of the box. Zim does not have categories, but it does have tags.

Some people believe (or at least suggest) that you have to make a choice between ConnectedText and Zim. I am not sure that this is the right approach. In fact, I believe that they may well complement each other. My main reason for this approach is the following:
ConnectedText does pretty much all I want. Its only weakness, as far as I am concerned, is that you cannot edit the same file(s) from different computers in DropBox. I understand why this is so. ConnectedText keeps its topics in a database that would be corrupted, if this were allowed. Accordingly, I just back up my files to DropBox when I leave home (with Syncback SE), restore them at work, and then do the same when I leave the office, i.e. Back up the office files to Dropbox and restore them at home.

The only problem is that I sometimes forget to do this—and lately I forget it more often than I used to. I have, in the past, devised a variety of ways of using substitute applications or workarounds for allowing me to import or paste updated or new topics into ConnectedText when I have forgotten to back up. See here, for instance. Zim can fulfill this need as well. Having an application at home and at work, I can modify the text files at either place without worrying about corruption issues. I can also create references to ConnectedText, and I can store textual information in it that will never make it into ConnectedText.

In ConnectedText, I have created a topic called ""Zim files" that contains just this line: "[[$FILE:C:\Users\Manfred\Dropbox\*\Notes\*.*]]. It lists all the files created by Zim that I might need in ConnectedText. Since Zim saves its files in UTF-8, I could import them directly into ConnectedText, but that would mean the the header would also be imported. It's something like this: "Content-Type: text/x-zim-wiki Wiki-Format: zim 0.4 Creation-Date: 2015-04-05T15:06:57-04:00". It would not be a big deal, but it might be easier to open the text file manually from the Zim Files page and paste the contents of the files where I want to use them in ConnectedText.
In any case, I will give this a try and use ConnectedText and Zim side by side for a while. Zim is like a little brother or sister of ConnectedText.

Perhaps I should also mention that you could install Zim on the Mac, but it takes some doing and I have not tried it. See this page.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Sounds of the Bodleian

I have taken some of my best notes in libraries. I must say that I like the ambience. Now I can have the sounds of one of the best libraries at home. Here is the sound of the Radcliffe Camera Upper Reading Room, and here is the sound of the Old Library Upper Reading Room. This is going to make me sooo productive ...


Sunday, March 29, 2015

You Don't Need a Car—Being Content with Walking!

Some time ago I wrote a post about Note Connections, in which I criticized Christian Tietze's basic criteria for a Zettelkasten app. He has responded with You Don't Need a Wiki – Being Content with Your Software and others have chimed in. I used the occasion to clarify in a comment on his post what I meant in my original post and in a subsequent post on auto-links in DEVONthink. I reproduce this response here:

Since my views have been discussed, perhaps I should clarify them. Let me say this again, out of the four baseline criteria Christian Tietze gives, I do accept three and have problems only with one. I do believe that direct links are more important than he seems to think they are. In particular, I take issue with the claim that: "if full-text search works, manually linking notes will work, too: just put the target’s identifier somewhere, copy it, search for the identifier, and open the resulting note."

This claim is not false. Manually linking notes by identifiers is always possible. In fact, if you use a paper-based system, manual linking is the only possible way of connecting notes. You can, of course, restrict yourself to this way of linking in an electronic version of a Zettelkasten, but I have no idea why you would want or need to. In fact, I believe it is a mistake to do so.

Christian, if I may, finds that my view amounts to favoring "[[WikiLink]] note connections because they are so darn fast to create if you know the title of the note you want to link to." His reason is: "That’s a situation I don’t ever find myself in. Instead, I have to fish for the correct title of a note with a search anyway." The initial quickness of the free-link approach makes ls only one of my reasons. I admit that, subjectively speaking, it is important to me.

However, it is not the most important reason for preferring free links. More important is what I take to be an objective reason, namely that direct clickable links are more effective than indirect links, even if they involve note "identifiers." If your notes have names like this: "201105160958" (as I gather they do from some your claims), then you could actually directly link to this note like this [[201105160958]] in an application that allows free links (and it dos not have to be a ConnectedText nor even a Wiki). So you would not need to think of a descriptive name. If you have back-link capability, as in ConnectedText, it would be trivial to change the link title of the note "201105160958" to "201105160958 - plus something else", and that all the links to the notes update automatically; and this is where back links are extremely helpful.[1] This is also why the decision of how to name a link is always provisional. Nothing commits you to a permanent title, unless you limit yourself in this way. And that is one of the strengths of wiki: it does not break the link even if the name changes.

In any case, using unique IDs and links is not contradictory, and I never meant to suggest that they are. The two approaches can well be integrated, and my argument was not directed against unique IDs, but against the idea that indirect linking is just as good. It isn't. The free links make hard connections between topics that allow all kinds of other operations. We have not spoken of semantic links, categories, or other relations, and perhaps we should.

If indirect linking works for you, that is fine with me too, but I do think it is less than optimal. None of the arguments you present changes that fact: "just put the target’s identifier somewhere, copy it, search for the identifier, and open the resulting note." That is, you need at least three steps for something that takes one step with direct links. (I know that this introduces the notion of quickness again, but, again, I would say that quickness is not everything.)

Someone commented that I did not understand linking in Devonthink. I never claimed I did. In fact, I think I admitted limited acquaintance with the program. Still, the claim that Devonthink does not allow for free links remains true. Auto-linking does not substitute for direct linking based on a user's decision. One of the main troubles with auto-linking is that the link between a word or a phrase and the page to which it refers is broken, if the page is renamed. If a wiki page is renamed the referring link is also renamed and the link is retained.

Nor do you need a wiki for direct links. nValt and other applications (including Devonthink) do direct links. But they do so without backlinks, of course. Furthermore, links in these applications break, if the page to which the link referred is renamed or changed.

It is true, you don't need a car for some purposes. I walk as much as I can, and I hardly ever drive to go to the grocery store or anything that is within a mile radius. But when I visit my daughters who live more than 800 miles away it would be impractical to walk. In the same way, a text-based approach works for some purposes, but it is not sufficient for my note-taking needs.

Oh ... and to DutchPete: "sliced bread," in my view, was not really as good an invention as everyone seems to think it is.

I should perhaps also point out that I am grateful to Christian Tietze and those who responded for allowing me the opportunity to think further about these matters.

1. Corrected on Monday, March 30.

A Review of the Rotring Core

I think it might be good, if I could disagree with this review of the Rotring Core, but I cannot. I own one of these monsters, but I have never written with it. Nor do I ever intend to write with it. I also own a mechanical pencil of this model which was inflicted on the world after Sanford took over Rotring. I read somewhere the sarcastic but apt comment that they were probably designed by someone who was employed by a athletic shoe manufacturer before. If I were to use the pen (or pencil), I'd probably also "hold this one in a small brown paper bag. It’s either that or go blind with the horror of the thing."

Alan Turing's Notebook

Apparently, Alan Turing's Notebook from 1942 to 1954 was lost, but now is found and also worth a million. It's said that “[t]his notebook shines extra light on how, even when he was enmeshed in great world events, he remained committed to free-thinking work in pure mathematics.”[1]

No further comment!

1. In The Guardian.