Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Literary Machine


The Literary Machine is a piece of software with very ambitious goals. Its author describes it as a "dynamic archive and an idea management tool aimed at creative thinking—built especially with the writer in mind. It is packed with indexing and display techniques so general and potent that you will use it as an intelligence center. In a class by itself, it is virtually an extension of your brain. So, write in it. Collect and sort information and ideas in it. Make it your treasure chest of random notes and ideas for analysis and future reference. For, it will serve you well as the substance, catalyst, and processor for relating or reusing them in creative combinations."

So far, so promising. But then there is the claim that "LM is designed to fulfill needs, not fancy." This raises immediately the question as to what criteria are used to differentiate "needs" from "fancy." Yet, we are not told what the criteria are, but only told what the results of the application of these criteria are supposed to be: the application "does not 'fool around' with features that your conventional word processor and email client already do well and more efficiently than a database could. Instead, LM teams with your other programs to accomplish what, till now, was possible only in your dreams."

"Can LM help you think 'outside the box?' Answer: What box? LM's powerful 'fuzzy thinking' kernel does away with 'the box.'"

The reason is "LM's tremendous flexibility," which is said to stem "from its innovative, dual-classification system: one an optional, traditional data tree of well defined topics, the other a powerful underlying conceptual network that forms the keyword matrix of LM's revolutionary 'fuzzy thinking kernel.' It's where you discover relationships, where you find something you filed too long ago to remember what topic it's in, where you dredge up past bits of writing or thinking on a subject, where you go to get an idea."

If by now you are interested in what this "fuzzy thinking kernel" is, you are not alone. But the answer is ultimately rather disappointing. It has to do with what in the language of the program are called "words, concepts, and 'ideas."

  • "words" correspond to what are usually called "key words" that are collected in a "dictionary." Any kind of entry can be assigned such key word(s), and entries that have common key words can be retrieved by its means. In most programs this would be done by a search, LM is more visual: you drag the key word to the desktop and all connected entries appear. Nothing fancy, one might be tempted to say.

  • "Concepts" are explained as connections between words. Actually, they may also be represented as searches of two or more terms connected by the Boolean operator "AND." Nothing fancy here either.

  • "Ideas" are just the items or records in the database, to which a keyword or keywords are applied.

This is the fuzzy thinking kernel. Records connected by keywords they have in common.[1]

LM uses a simple flat keyword structure rather than an inheritance hierarchy, such as are used by Lotus Agenda and many other programs written after it.[2] In other words, there is no nesting of keywords. In this it is very similar to Personal Knowbase, which also bets on indexing "your notes, messages, and ideas using keywords for fast access" and, just as LM, makes exaggerated claims about how this makes it "a Unique Free-form Note Organizer." But at least, it is open about the concept of "Keywords" and does not pretend to have a "fuzzy thinking kernel."

It also has another advantage over the "Literary Machine," namely a clean, and very intuitive interface. In fact, LM's use of the visual metaphor of a card index only seems to get into the way—at least as far as I am concerned. Dragging "a concept to the LM desktop produces a deck of (note) cards. Each card is an item you connected to that concept, and the information it contains could be text, an image, a sound, or all three." The Website warns that if you are dragging "a Dictionary word to the desktop produces several word-combinations (e.g., concepts), you should review each before opening the connected items." The reason is that "otherwise the desktop could get so full [that] you couldn't sort the appropriate items from the inappropriate ones." But actually there seems to me already more than enough confusion when you have dragged just one word to the desktop. (See the screen shot, which also shows that the applications retains almost all the non-endearing features of Windows 3.1).

Why am I so negative on the "Literary Machine"? Well, I used index cards for a long time in the real world. This application promised a translation of this approach into software for research and writing. I spent about a week around 2000 trying to make it work, only to give up on it as being unworkable.

The many claims about how the program reproduces what the mind does, supported by appeals to supposed discoveries in cognitive science, did not help either. If you are interested in an application that works by means of flat list of keywords, Personal Knowbase is much to be preferred. But I would prefer an application that does not just rely on keywords. For one, given the power of today's computers, every word in a database can be a keyword, and a powerful search engine that includes "OR," NEARBY," and "NOT" should find many more connections than the Literary machine or Personal Knowbase.[3] Secondly, the ability easily to link different items to each other is absolutely essential—or so it seems to me. The Literary Machine does not offer either.

1. The whole thing is made even more confusing because in the language of the program "keywords are concepts, which are built by Dictionary words — singly or in combination. Since a concept may thus consist of several Dictionary words (without a designated header word), LM marks-up an item with an arbitrary word (a keyword) from the concept. At a first, this strategy might appear senseless, but your work in the program gradually shows you how useful it is." In my experience, it never made sense, but perhaps I never gave it enough of a chance.

2. See Taking Note on Agenda

3. Literary Machine 2000 is restricted to "AND" or "OR." Personal Knowbase just searches for strings. Keyword mode allows "AND" or "OR."

Relations



This application is billed as a "cross" between personal wiki and Zettelkasten or as a tool for knowledge management. It is a Rich Client Platform (RCP) application based on the Eclipse platform. Accordingly, it works on Windows, the Mac, and UNIX.

See Relations. Nice picture of Arno Schmidt!

There is a screen cast, explaining the details.

It will not replace ConnectedText for me, but it is an interesting variation of a common theme. I intend to follow its further development.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thinkertoys and the 'hypothetical writing machine'

An interesting paper about note-taking and hypertext (not necessarily in that order): The Magical Place of Literary Memory™: Xanadu:

"I was continually trying different systems for organizing ideas. File cards... were clearly hopeless. I tried index tabbing, needlesort cards, making multiple carbons and cutting them up. None of these solved the basic problem: an idea needed to be in several places at once... but then, in graduate school, I took a computer course" (Ted Nelson in 1992).

Without further comment!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bettina Heintz on Luhmann's Card Index

Here is a video interview of someone who saw the fabled object: Bettina Heintz. The interview is in German, and the relevant parts are in the second half of the interview.

No further comment!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Feeds

Given my experience with Feedbooks, I have decided to turn off the RSS feed from now on.

Their position seems to be that they can publish the contents of anyone's blog without so much as having a reference to the original blog and without having any reference to the person who wrote the blog entries.

In other words, their motto is "you can make anyone's work 'your book' and publish it simply by adding the feed to their site," thus making it in effect THEIR book.

If this inconveniences any of the people who regularly read my entries, I am sorry.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Feedbooks Rip Off

Searching the Internet I came across this today:

www.feedbooks.com/feed/6591.pdf?size=A4

No indication about who wrote it, no reference to this blog. This seems to be theft.

Six Impossible Things

One of my favorite quotes—not a very strong relation to note-taking, but not entirely unrelated either:

Lewis Carroll's White Queen, in response to Alice's "One can't believe impossible things'":

"I daresay you haven't had much practice... When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

As a historian of philosophy, I don't necessarily practice this, but I have a large collection of such things.

Idiosyncratic Reflections on Note-taking

Some people who read this blog may be interested in this essay just because it was written by the same person who writes this blog:

Reflections.

Without further comment!

Darwin on Collecting Notes "with the Determination not to Publish"

Charles Darwin, an inveterate note-taker with special systems of folders and notebooks, wrote in his Introduction to The Descent of Man: "The nature of the following work will be best understood by a brief account of how it came to be written. During many years I collected notes on the origin or descent of man, without any intention of publishing on the subject, but rather with the determination not to publish, as I thought that I should thus only add to the prejudices against my views. It seemed to me sufficient to indicate, in the first edition of my 'Origin of Species,' that by this work "light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history;" and this implies that man must be included with other organic beings in any general conclusion respecting his manner of appearance on this earth. Now the case wears a wholly different aspect." [1]

One might wonder whether collecting with the "determination not to publish" is different from collecting with an "intention of publishing" or whether there is no significant difference. Darwin could be taken as saying that there is, but I think that would be over-interpreting what he says. He is not focusing on note-taking but on why he is publishing the book at the time in which he published it—in 1871, that is.

Still, he demonstrates—at least indirectly—the value of just collecting notes without a definite purpose. See also Collecting. However, I should also point out that Darwin is collecting his notes with more focus than Klemperer. There would seem to be a continuum between "highly focused" and "completely unfocused," and there might be such "vices" as "too focused" and "too unfocused," with true virtue lying somewhere in the middle. But, as Aristotle, from whom I take this inspiration, pointed out, this cannot be an "absolute mean." It must be a mean relative to the person who takes the notes. It's not a science, but an art, even if it's an art that makes science possible.

1. Quoted in accordance with the Gutenberg e-text of The Descent of Man.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thinking on Paper

From James Gleick, Genius. Richard Feynman and Modern Physics: "Weiner remarked that Feynman's notes represented 'a record of day-to-day work,' and Feynman reacted sharply. 'I actually did the work on paper,' he said. 'Well, said Weiner, 'the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.' 'No, it's not a record, not really. It's working. You have to work on paper, and this is paper. Okay?'"

Actually, the quotation, which I have not checked yet, comes from Merlin Donald, A Mind so Rare: The Evolution of Consciousness (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), p. 301, a book I am reading at the moment. Donald uses this passage to illustrate his point that our memories do not just reside in our brains, but also in external artifacts, based on "symbolic technology." These artifacts "liberate consciousness from the limitations of the brain's biological memory systems. The new physical media of symbolic technology have enormous advantages over brain-based memory media. One of their chief advantages ... is that they are fully accessible by awareness. ... Because of the limitations of biological memory, conscious thought was enormously difficult when contained entirely within the brain box. External storage changed this and gave thinkers new strategic options" (305).

Paper has certain advantages as a medium of external memory storage, computer programs have others and more—or so I would think. But however that may be, the book is a fascinating read.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Footnotes on Footnotes (in Books on Footnotes), II

Having now read (or re-read) most of Grafton's book on The Footnote. A Curious History, I have three initial reactions:

(i) I do not really understand what Zerby means when he claims that he entirely disapproves of "what happened to the footnote in Ranke's hand" (90n), while Grafton approves of it. Grafton is not only highly critical of Ranke and his use of footnotes, but also of the power of footnotes and "scientific history" in general. Thus he claims that "Ranke, the founding father of the modern historian's craft, practiced it with no more discipline than his professional grandchildren and great-grandchildren ... he used a salt shaker to add references to an already completed stew. This seems to have been Ranke's consistent practice" (65). Hardly a ringing endorsement. In general, he observes that "to the inexpert, footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity" (9). Or: "Footnotes guarantee nothing, in themselves ... Yet footnotes form an indispensable if messy part of that indispensable, messy mixture of art and science: modern history" (235). It's hard (for me) to disagree with the last sentiment.

(ii) Grafton's book is hardly a history of "the" footnote. It is a history of the footnote as used by historians (with very short detours into other disciplines and genres). The role of footnotes in theology, philosophy, which, as I would argue, is at least as important, is not really treated. (One thing that makes Zerby's book interesting is that he also looks at literature and at the difficulties printers had with them from the beginning.)

(iii) The name of the philosopher "Kant" occurs once in the Index. He is discussed on p. 108, though "discussion" is probably not the proper word for the way he is treated: "Hegel wished to distance himself from Kant, the most oppressive and challenging of his predecessors, who had made masterly use of footnotes to give material form to his inner ambiguities. Kant, as Wolfert von Rahden has shown, deliberately confined all suggestions that reason might have had a historical origin or might undergo a further development to the murky region below the superstructure of the text." Well, "has shown" is always an occasion for doubt—at least for me. And "has shown that X deliberately did y" leads me to ask "Really, and how?" In this particular case, there are even bigger problems. Even though the accusation is old, going back to Johann Georg Hamann and his Metacritique, there is also a chapter in the Critique of Pure Reason entitled "The History of Pure Reason," which Kant strategically placed at the very end of his work. Since it mentions Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Locke, Leibniz, Wolff, and Hume by name, and alludes to a host of others as relevant for the history of reason, I beg to differ for that reason alone. At the very least, this shows that the universal claim about "all suggestions" is just false.[1] But I will have to take a closer look at the book by Wolfert von Rahden, which is the only thing cited in support of this claim—something that in philosophy (or perhaps better: in the history of philosophy) would hardly be sufficient.[2]

1. An example of why one should never rely on a secondary source alone?
2. See also point (ii).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Information Scraps

A study that should be of interest for anyone concerned with note-taking:

Information Scraps: How and Why Information Eludes our Personal Information Management Tools

No further comment!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Footnotes on Footnotes (in Books on Footnotes), I

Recently, there have been a number of books on the role of footnotes in scholarly and other kinds of literature. Most respected among these seems to be Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), which first appeared in German under title: Die tragischen Ursprünge der deutschen Fussnote (Berlin, 1995). But there are others, such as Peter Rieß, Stefan Fisch, and Peter Strohschneider Prolegomena zu einer Theorie der Fußnote (Reihe: *fußnote: anmerkungen zum wissenschaftsbetrieb vol. 1, Münster, Hamburg, LIT Verlag, 1995), a not entirely serious contibution to "Fußnotenforschung," "Fußnotenlehre," "Fußnotologie," "Fußnotentechnik," and the search after the "Urnote," and Chuck Zerby (2002) The Devil's Details, A History of Footnotes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), which is billed on the back cover as a "charming, witty history and exploration of the formal written aside."

It's the last contribution I am concerned with today. Zerby tells us in a footnote to page 90 that he has "borrowed a great number of facts and antidotes [sic]" from Grafton's book. But, he points out, "our interpretations of them differ dramatically." It's especially the interpretation of what Leopold von Ranke did to the footnote. Grafton "approves of what happened to the footnote in Ranke's hands, [he] entirely disapprove[s]. Indeed, it appears (to me) that Grafton's book occasioned Zerby's, as a footnote, one might say. But the cause of the book seems to be more remote. As he tells us on ppp. 8f., as "an inexperienced graduate student, he wrote an article, critical of an established historian, who, in "a barrage of of eighty-four notes," dismissed his young critic, saying "Zerby misquotes me, accidentally, I suspect by substituting 'which' for 'that.'" Zerby finds: "The wound inflicted should not be minimized ... The imputation that the error was an accident instead of a subtle tactical move seems to have been devastating: 'that' graduate student's name never appeared again in a scholarly journal." That's much to be regretted, I would say.

In any case, footnotes can be wielded like weapons. It is true that "a scholar's life is not for the timid." Zerby's conclusion is that footnotes "can be mistrusted precisely because they reveal the inner workings of scholarship."

While this is undoubtedly true, it does not provide the only reason for mistrust. Even when there is no animus at work, there are more than enough reasons for distrust, that is, for checking the scholarship and the facts of a scholar on whom one is relying. Thus, ideally, every quotation and every "fact" used in a publication should, if at all possible, be checked against the originals. A quote referenced with "quoted in x" or "quoted by" is to be avoided at all costs, but this is what is done by Zerby far too often: 80n: "Quoted in Anthony Grafton," 90n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton, 91n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton," 91n: "Quoted in Peter Gay," 92n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton," 93n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton ... in the English translation by Grafton," 101n: "Quoted in Peter Gay ... (Gay is responsible for the abbreviated citation to Webb)," 123n: "Quoted in ibid.," 125n: "Quoted in Michael Schmidt."

Zerby is honest in indicating that he quotes a quote—something that cannot be taken for granted in scholarship, but I'd wish he had gone the extra mile and checked the quote himself. He might have noticed not oly that "Tagebucher" (91n) are really "Tagebücher," that "Idas Brifwerk" (90n) is "Das Briefwerk" (though this title is also correctly spelled by Grafton), but also that Grafton's "facts and antidotes" are not as reliable as he thinks. I am not saying that they are definitely not, but scholarship (as expressed in footnotes) consists of seeing for yourself and "wie es eigentlich gewesen." The devil is in the details. I will check.

Monday, November 24, 2008

You and Your Research

This is the title of an inspiring talk by Richard Hamming (1915-1998), a mathematician, who "who discovered mathematical formulas that allow computers to correct their own errors, making possible such innovations as modems, compact disks and satellite communications" (New York Times Obituary).

It can be found here. It appears to me that his advice is sound not just for research in science, but also for research in the Liberal Arts, or indeed in any pursuit.

Some quotes:

"'Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.' Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don't want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime."

"If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully."

"Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say 'Well that bears on this problem.' They drop all the other things and get after it."

Perhaps the "important" is not so important in disciplines other than the natural sciences, if only because one might say that the criteria for the importance of problems are much more vague there, which may be taken as another way of saying that all the problems are important (and that would, of course, be another way of saying that none of them are). So, let's keep it at "much more vague."

What is important, however, is that one has problems that need solving, for without problems there is no real thought, or so I would argue.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ulysses, Scrivener and ConnedtedText

In a very thoughtful blog entry, called Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jake Seliger explains why he finds Scrivener less useful than James Fallow seems to do. Starting from an article discussing James Joyce's use of index cards in giving a shape to his "Ulysses" that is independent of any linear plot line and resembles more the unity of a mosaic, he explains
if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

This resonates with me, even though I am not so sure that Scrivener is essentailly designed to "help find a way to present formlessness." It has an outliner, after all, and it might better be characterized as providing a way out of formlessness to a linear plot or argument.

However, in doing so, it clearly pays more attention to the journey from the formless stuff than it does to the end result, i.e. the "linear plot." In fact, it does not even prescribe a linear plot or a sequential argument at all. This does not mean that it prevents one from reaching such an end or that one must "present formlessness" or that one is destined to place fragments in what appear to be "their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions."[1]

The makers of Ulysses, the model of Scrivener, point out correctly — it appears to me that no longer "text is written at once, in a single document. A story consisting of 200 pages results from fractions, starting points, discarded ideas and many more – all neatly distributed along a total of 800 pages, most likely with over 100 different documents, combined with notes, Post-Its, scribblings on the margins of numerous daily papers, beer covers, napkins and the back sides of photos." Ulysses, just as Scrivener, is designed to free the writer from the need to deliver and develop his text in predefined structures." Instead, it gives the writer the "ability to form his own preferred structures – both within the text and in organising things."[2]

Still, by blurring the distinction between research, "prewriting," preliminary drafts, rough drafts and final product — or, perhaps better, by allowing one to do all these things in one and the same application, it tempts the user to spend more time on the preliminaries than the production of the final product. It "distracts," which, in the day of "distraction-free" software might appear to be a bad thing. People end up spending more and more time on particular small passages rather than "the whole thing." To be sure this is only a distraction — and it might not be an issue for everyone — but it would be a mistake to deny that this temptation exists.

Seliger uses DevonThink to structure his research, just as I use ConnectedText. This puts a wall between the two activities. And I am beginning to think that such a wall is a good thing, even though I think it needs to be "porous." For the last book, I used to different projects in ConnectedText: one for research, the other for writing. In the end, I exported the writing project to rtf files. This worked, but I wish I had not spent as much time with "word processing." Perhaps Ulysses will work better as an intermediate stage between ConnectedText and the Word Processor. But I don't not know yet.




1. He quotes from a paper by Walton Litz: "It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity." The note-sheets seem to him as "notecards."
2. See Welcome to Ulysses. In the spirit of open disclosure I should perhaps add that I bought Ulysses yesterday (at the price of $9.99 in Mac Applications store and wasted spent yesterday working with it on a long overdue contribution to a collection of essays. This largely contributed to the need to make explicit these musings.

Annie Proulx on Yard Sales and the Internet

One more on the (almost entirely) mis-spent $14.00 on Writers [on Writing]:

I keep asking myself "Why do I keep buying such books new when you can get them at used book dealers for a fraction of the cost?" Someone else might suggest that I should really ask myself why I spend life-time on reading such stuff, which usually turns out to be about 98% useless. My answer would be that 2% of useful, entertaining, uplifting, and inspiring is a good percentage. And I did like everything but the title in Walter Mosley's "For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day" (161-164) and Susan Sontag's article.

Annie Proulx's "Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales" (185-190) praises the wonders of odd book finds at yard sales and other venues. I can relate to that, having spent more than enough times at book stores, whether they specialize in new or used books. What I cannot relate to is her sentiments about the Internet. She claims that she "rarely" uses it "for research" because she finds "the process cumbersome and detestable. The information gained is often untrustworthy and couched in execrable prose. It is unpleasant to sit in front of a twitching screen suffering assault by virus, power outage, sluggish searches, system crashes, the lack of direct human discourse, all in an atmosphere of scam and hustle" (188).

I would suggest a new monitor, a new CPU, and a different Internet connection for the "twitching screen" and the "sluggish searches," a new operating system for the "system crashes," a serious virus checker for "assault[s] by virus," and a change of place for "the lack of human discourse," the "atmosphere of scam and hustle," and the "power outage[s]."

As to the untrustworthiness and the execrable prose: This cannot be helped. But it is not that much worse than what you may find in many of the books that are likely to be found at yard sales.

I have nothing to say about the claim that the process is "cumbersome and detestable," as I have no clue what she might be talking about.

Mary Gordon on Handwriting and Notebooks

Here another reaction to one of the entries in Writers [on Writing, Collected Essays from New York Times], edited by John Darnton (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001). It's to Mary Gordon's "Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen or Just Any Paper" (78-83).

Gordon finds: "Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world" (79). She says she likes to write with her Waterman's "black enamel with a trim of gold" pen (whatever model that may be).

She also tells us that has a shelf in her closet "entirely devoted to notebooks," which she chooses "for the perfect relationship between container and the thing contained" and buys wherever she goes "in the world (80). Indeed, most of the essay is made up about descriptions of notebooks from France, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, and Vermont. Her thoughts on the daily reading of Proust go into a French notebook that "is robin's-egg blue on on the outside" (80).

Finally, she also talks about copying other writers in her own hand. "It is remarkably pleasant, before the failure [intended by her as a reference to her own writing] starts, to use one's hand and wrist , to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one's own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before. Those whom we cannot believe have ever thought of failing ..." She does not know "what people who work on computers do to get themselves started," but she hopes "never to learn firsthand."

I find all of this a bit too much. I also own fountain pens (even a Waterman), and I like to write with them. I also have written many notes in Notebooks (many of them Composition Books bought at the local CVS, but some of them nicely bound as well). And I have bought Notebooks in Spain, Germany, and Scotland. It's not like I don't understand that obsession. But I cannot say that I have ever noticed a "perfect relationship between container and the thing contained." The notes and drafts don't improve by being contained in a better notebook. This is sad, because if they were, I could spend my way to better notes and writing.

I also have problems with the idea that writing by is more "physical" and involves "flesh, blood, and thingness" more than a typewriter or even a computer. Perhaps it is because I grew up in post-Nazi Germany that I find the adulation "of flesh, blood, and thingness" a priori off-putting, but perhaps it also has to do with having read too much Kant.

It's not that I don't like to write by hand. In fact, I don't find it any more "laborious" than typing—perhaps even less so. But the advantages of finding my notes again after I wrote them outweigh for me any nostalgic attachment to pen and paper. Furthermore, rewriting is much easier on computers.

One thing that almost reconciled me with her sentiments was her fleeting reference to Auden's pronouncement on handwriting and farting, but she spoiled it by misspelling farts as "...". Perhaps a little too much "flesh and blood" in Auden?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Irony-Deficiency

An interesting link, calling attention to one of the signs of our time: Plagiarism-free dissertation.

No further comment!

Montaigne on Rewriting

Michel de Montaigne was opposed to rewriting. Thus he found in his Essais, "as far as I am concerned, I fear to lose by the change: my understanding does not always go forward, it goes backward too. I distrust my thoughts hardly any less for being second or third than for being first, or for being present than for being past. We often correct ourselves as stupidly as we correct others." In other words, writing (or rewriting) for him does not amount to sitting in judgment of ourselves, as Ibsen and Sontag thought. [1]

This makes sense, at least to some extent, because it's not a good idea if the judge and the accused are one and the same person, and it's not even clear what kind of crime is being committed (since writing is still going on).

But that is not Montaigne's point. There are several people involved. He thinks that "myself now and myself a while ago are indeed two, but when better, I simply cannot say. It would be fine to be old if we traveled only toward improvement. It is a drunkard's motion, staggering, dizzy, wobbling, or that of reeds that the wind stirs, haphazardly as it pleases." [2]

This is much too Heraclitean for me. I'd prefer to think that there is something like a (semi-permanent and roughly identical) self that sits in judgment of what it has wrought. In other words, I disagree with both Ibsen and Montaigne. I also think that Sontag was mistaken in thinking that she was following Ibsen.

1. This does not mean that Montaigne never changed his text, but only that the changes were mainly additions: "I add, but I do not correct" because "my book ... is only an ill-fitted patchwork" that isn't changed by "extra ornaments." Accordingly, there are clearly identifiable strata of text in the Essais.

2. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works. Essays, Travel Journals, Letters. Tr. Donald M. Frame. Intro. Stuart Hampshire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, pp. 894f.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sontag on Reading and Rewriting

There is a very perceptive essay by Susan Sontag, called "Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed." Apparently, it first appeared in the New York Times. [1] It is mainly concerned with the writing of novels, but it appears to me that what she says applies to almost all kinds of writing.

Most interesting (and true) is how she connects the acts of reading and writing. She thinks that "to write is to practice with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading. You write in order to read what you have written and see if it's OK and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it—once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to something you can bear to read" (223). This is probably the most important difference between a serious writer and a scribbler like myself: "as many times as it takes to get something that [I] can bear to read" usually does not go beyond twice. Clearly, Sontag was her "own first, maybe severest reader." She thought that she was actually following Ibsen's maxim that "to write is to sit in judgment of oneself," most of us don't, even though we all would find it "hard to imagine writing without rereading"—at least once (223).

Sontag is, of course, not the only writer who thought that revision is where it's at. Just three other examples: “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about” (Bernard Malamud). “There is no great writing, only great rewriting” (Louis Brandeis). “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it” (Michael Crichton). I do find, however, that Sontag's phenomenological description of the writing process is more precise, just because she calls attention to the activity of reading and rereading as central in revision.

"Reading usually precedes writing" (226). The reading for the writing of non-fiction includes note-taking, paraphrasing and summarizing. It's very different from the reading of novels she describes, in which there is a "complete elimination of the ego" (Virginia Woolf). Disembodied rapture is not what is needed here, but critical understanding and evaluation. Some would argue that the same holds for novels—at least sometimes. And I would suppose that Sontag would agree.

Furthermore, writing for me is similar to writing for her in that "what I write about is other than me. And what I write is [usually] smarter than I am. Because I rewrite it. My books know what I once knew—fitfully, intermittently" (228). But not always and not reliably, if only because I may not have reread and rewritten it sufficiently many times. [2] This also makes for the accumulation of "uncertainties and anxieties" she notes as essential in writing.

See also Husserl on Writing and Thinking

1. I read it in the version that appears in Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from New York Times. Introduction by John Darnton. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001 pp. 223-229. One of the annoying things about this "edition" is that it does not give any indication as to when the original essays appeared.

2. As a massive disclaimer let me point out that these blog entries should be viewed more as notes to myself than as finished products.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Verdichtend Reformulieren

"Verdichtend reformulieren" is German for paraphrasing and summarizing. There are those who believe that note-taking in the form of paraphrasing and summarizing difficult or long passages in one's own words, to make them clearer to oneself or to shorten them, has no place in note-taking any longer. Computers allow us to simply copy texts. Since this approach takes less time and even preserves formatting, it is considered superior to the relatively arduous processes of reformulating the information for oneself.

This is nonsense, of course. Simply copying a passages does nothing for one's intellectual engagement with the material. Nor is this approach all that new. Photocopying has served the same purposes for almost forty years. And before that there was always the possibility of copying out entire passages word for word, without attempting to understand them. Everyone who has collected reams of photocopies and thousands of quotes knows that such material is useful only in so far as it is re-read and paraphrased or summarized at a later date. Simply copying information is thus only postponing the inevitable, unless, of course, one takes the possession of the copy for the "real" thing. Paraphrase and summary (verdichtende Reformulierung) allows us to appropriates the information and make it our own, thus providing the starting point for our own reflections on the material. Indeed, it may only constitute the first reformulation in a long process of thinking or reformulating ideas that resulted from such note-taking. Copying and pasting per se does not start this process, just as photocopying and filing does not do so.

This is not to say that copying and pasting or photocopying and filing are never appropriate. It's just that it does not represent progress over the older strategies of paraphrasing and summarizing because they are entirely different things.

See also Note-taking versus Information Gathering.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Reading and (not) Thinking

He "had read much, and although he generally forgot what he read, there were left with him from his reading certain nebulous lights, begotten by other men's thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself—but he thought that he thought." From Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Overcoming the Inertia of Convention

On typewriters, the QWERTY keyboard, and the power of convention.

An interesting article: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Without further comment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Portable Documents in the Roman Empire

I am fascinated by the history of the history of writing implements. Here is one site that affords a glimpse at some of the materials Romans used for portable documents: Vindolanda Tablets.

From the Website:

"The Vindolanda writing tablets, written in ink on post-card sized sheets of wood, have been excavated at the fort of Vindolanda, immediately south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England ... They were written by and for soldiers, merchants, women and slaves."

"Until the discovery of the Vindolanda ink tablets" it had been assumed "that wooden tablets written with a stylus were the commonest type of portable document. The discovery of ink 'leaf tablets' at Vindolanda was an enormous surprise to scholars."

But wooden tablets were by no means the only medium: "Perhaps the most familiar writing material is papyrus. Far more papyri have survived than any other category of document: they have been found in their hundreds of thousands in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Another form of portable document was the ostrakon (plural ostraka), substantial fragments of pots which were re-used for writing in ink."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Long-Term Use of a Personal Electronic Notebook

Thomas Erickson reports in an article on The Design and Long-Term Use of a Personal Electronic Notebook: A Reflective Analysis about his experience with a HyperCard application he developed during the early nineties. It was called Proteus. The article provides "a useful data point for those interested in the issue of how to design highly customizable systems for managing personal information," even though it is by now twelve years old.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the one concerning Usage of Proteus versus Paper Notebooks. Erickson reports that "before Proteus I was a heavy user of paper notebooks. ... I used paper notebooks as a sort of work diary: I started each day on a new page, kept a To Do list, meeting notes, and used it as a repository for other information. However, there are couple of striking differences (besides the obvious one that I didn't use it for composing email). First, I find that I make many more notes in Proteus-in part this is because I find typing easier and faster than writing, and in part because of synergetic effects I describe in the next section. Second, I rarely looked back through my paper notebooks-and when I did, I only tended to look at recent entries. In contrast, I re-read entries in Proteus frequently. There are several reasons for this: it is easier to search and browse; the content is more legible; and when I find something useful it can be copied and re-used."

I use ConnectedText in the ways in which Erickson did not use Proteus. Actually, I use ConnectedText more in just the way he originally thought he would use Proteus, namely as a tool to facilitate thinking about quotations, notes, and reflections in an extensively interlinked way—something that would have been difficult in his application, I do find his account suggestive for organizing my own work even better.

Every Day, Computers Make People Easier to Use

Indeed! This phrase, which incisively formulates one of the real dangers of our time, appeals to my Kantian sensibilities.

Apparently it comes from David Tempkin, who used it as a motto for his journal In Formation.

Not just loosely related to note-taking.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Collecting

"Only collect life. Always collect. Impressions, knowledge, what I have read, what I have seen, everything. And don't ask what for and why. Whether it will become a book, or memoirs, or nothing, whether it will stick in my memory or spoil like a bad photographic plate. Don't ask, just collect." From Victor Klemperer, Leben sammeln. Nicht fragen wieso und warum. Tagebücher, 1918-1932. Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1996.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Case for Paper

An interesting article from some time ago: The Social Life of Paper

Without further comment!

Husserl on Thinking or Writing

Edmund Husserl called the phenomenological explorations or philosophical reflections he undertook on an almost daily basis "monological meditations." He thought with pen in hand, writing down his thoughts as they cam to him, using a stenographic notation.

Some of these reflections were short notes. Others are quite long, covering a dozen pages. But most of them cover between "three and four pages of stenographic writing," which according to Iso Kern, one of the editors of these manuscripts, represent a "day's work." Often, different texts go over the same problems. Husserl seems to have circled again and again around the same or similar problems, attempting to find a solution from different points of view. Often he just repeated himself (XIII, p. xviii). [1]

It appears to have been one of his maxims that one should "always go over his old manuscripts, to improve and copy them" (XXIV, p. 47).

The reason for Husserl's insistence on thinking with a pen was his belief that "the permanent fixation of acquired truth and its justification in literary form do not just make it possible for the person who discovered them to repeat the discovery with insight and happily to enjoy it again, but [they] also provide a helpful starting point [Prämisse] for the justification of new truths" (XXVI, p. 84). This does not exhaust the usefulness of "the permanent fixation of one's thoughts is not just important for the inquirer himself. One of the "important function[s] of documenting written expression" is that it overcomes subjectivity and makes the discovery intersubjectively accessible. It makes possible "communication without an immediate or mediate personal addressee, and it thus becomes a virtual communication" (VI, p. 371). This, ultimately, is how all of human knowledge progresses.

But Husserl did not think that all meditations led to the truth—at least not directly. Kern claims that what he "wrote thus in meditation was less about what he knew than about what he did not know. He did not write to record insights and ideas, but he tried gain insights in writing and thinking. In doing so, he often tried out dialectically different conceptions or possibilities of thinking, without committing to any one of them. His 'research manuscripts' offer therefore less results than possible routes, often also mistaken ones" (XIII, p. xix).

Husserl provided some of his manuscripts with marginal comments when he re-read them, like "that does not work," "bad," or "nota bene" or "to be expanded." But he also thought that any kind of written thinking involves different levels of reflection. There is, he found, an "inevitable sedimentation of the products of the mind in form of lasting linguistic acquisitions" (VI, p. 371). What might surprise some is that even Husserl's ideal objectivities are bound to their material expressions in the form of ink on paper.

One might thus argue that, for Husserl, no intellectual progress is possible without writing. This would mean that he agreed with Luhmann, who learned a lot from Husserl and said: "One cannot think without writing." Or at least one cannot write "in a precise way that makes connections possible." I would agree at least to this much.

1. All quotations are from Husserl's Gesammelte Werke. The Roman numerals indicate the volume, the Arabic numerals the page number.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adorno on Computerized Thinking

Theodor W. Adorno atttacked in 1964 a kind of thinking that he thought had deteriorated into an "independent apparatus," a "booty of reification," and a "tyrannical method."[1] Not surprisingly, perhaps, he thought that it was roughly revealed in cybernetic machines," or in what we would call "computers" today. "They make apparent to humans the nothingness of formalized thought that has been emptied of any substantial content," just because they can do better some of the things of which of thinking subjects were proud in their methodical and subjective reasoning. Indeed, he claims, thinking subjects who "passionately" make themselves into the organs of this kind of formalism virtually cease to be subjects. "They become closer to the machines as their imperfect image" (11).

Philosophical thinking, if we are to believe Adorno, "begins only where one is no longer satisfied with results that can be expected and that do not show more than one has put in" (11f.).

It might seem that Adorno is not just attacking the artificial intelligence of a computer, but all logical thinking. For, the logical definition of a valid argument amounts to the claim that the conclusion of an argument cannot contain more information than the premises upon which it is based. If taken as attacking the idea of valid arguments, his claim about philosophical thinking, is just nonsense.

But perhaps he just meant to say that philosophical thinking is a kind of inductive thinking, or the kind of thinking in which we make generalizations on the basis of particular experiences that are strictly speaking insufficient to yield the conclusion. To be sure, this could not be for him simply the kind of inductive and statistical reasoning employed in empirical sociological research. It would have to do with generalizations from ideal types or a certain version of "the abstract" (Abstraktheit). He uses Hegel and a thoroughly misunderstood Kant to illustrate this kind of thinking. He also uses "American" expression of "armchair thinking" to clarify what he has in mind (15). It is for him an example of the "spiteful rancor against the one who sits and thinks" (15).

Adorno thought that even this entirely negative American attitude against pure thinking captures something important, namely the idea that thinking needs to be "about" something, that it cannot be empty meditation. While the "meditative aspect" is essential for him, because otherwise praxis would become "a conceptless business" (begriffsloser Betrieb), it needs material. "Thinking happens in working on a subject matter and in [the activity] of formulating; they provide the passive material of thinking. ... An adequate symbol for this would be the pencil or the fountain pen, who is held by someone who thinks, like it is reported of Simmel or Husserl, who apparently could only think by writing. This is similar to some writers who get their best thought by writing. Such instruments, which one actually does not even have to use, show that one cannot think without a plan, but must think of something. Texts that are to be interpreted or to be criticized therefore inestimably support the objectivity of thinking" (19).

Such texts include those that one has written before, be they notes of what one has read or drafts of what has written before or first formulations of thoughts based on them. The material means of thinking represented by the fountain pen imply paper on which these are written. There is no reason why keyboard, hard drive, and computer screen can fulfill the same function (if perhaps in a slightly different way.

Adorno can perhaps be excused for his wholesale rejection of what he thought was instrumentalized thinking because he did not actually see how a personal computer can be used in this context. But in the end his reflections on formalism and "cybernetic thinking" are just as inappropriate and inapposite as his unreflected dismissal of jazz, or so I would argue.

1. It is the introductory essay to his last book Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2 of 1969, called "Comments on Philosophical Thinking" (Anmerkungen zum philosophischen Denken), 11-19, 11. And this would hold, even if one were to agree that his view of "philosophical thinking" is defensible.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Derrida on the Word Processor

Derrida's paper "The Word Processor" is really a paper about the computer as a writing tool.[1] There is no indication in the paper that Derrida had any other use for the computer than as a replacement for the pen. He says: "I began writing with a pen, and I remained faithful to the pen for a long time (faith is the right word here), only transcribing 'final versions on the machine, at the point of separating from them ... The ... I wrote more and more 'straight onto the machine: first the mechanical typewriter, then the electric typewriter in 1979, then finally the computer, around 1986 or 1987" (20). He admits that he can't do without his "little Mac" any more. Like many of us, he "can't even remember or understand how [he] was able to get on before without it."

Protesting against Heidegger, he finds that having recourse to the computer, just as the use of the typewriter, "doesn't bypass the hand" (21). "It engages another another hand, another 'command,' so to speak another induction, another injunction from the body to hand and from hand to writing" (21). Therefore, it is not handless writing, as dictating into a tape recorder might be.

This, Derrida seems to think, is a good thing for Heideggerian reasons. He seems to believe with Heidegger that "the work of thinking is a handiwork, a Handlung, an 'action,' prior to any opposition between practice and theory. Thought, in this sense, would be a Handlung, a 'maneuver,' a 'manner,' a 'manner'" (21). Thinking is acting, and acting is thinking. And both of them are writing, just as writing is both thinking and acting. "The hand" is thus indispensable in thinking.

Perhaps it is possible to make some coherent sense out of these obfuscations. But I doubt it. Das Handwerk does not further thinking. Nor is thinking a matter of Handwerk. Perhaps both Heidegger and Derrida may be excused for thinking that there was a deep connection because it is just a fact neither of them learned one. And some people would argue that neither learned to think consistently either.

Derrida did, however, learn how to use a word processor on a Mac, and we may therefore trust his observations on word processing more. He obviously liked the cut and paste, the search and replace function, as well as "the mechanical spell-check" (26). But he does not think that these functions fundamentally change writing. "The word processor saves us an amazing amount of time; we acquire a freedom that we perhaps wouldn't have acquired without it. But the transformation is economic, not structural. There are all these time-saving devices in the finishing off or polishing stages: playing with italics; separating paragraphs; intervenon directly in lexical statistics ..." (26). He is also doubting that writing with a word processor has changed "what is written, even if it does modify the way of writing" (25). And he does not feel "the interposition of the machine as a sort of progress in transparency, univocity, or easiness" (21).

Perhaps Derrida is right in his evaluation of word processing. But the importance of whether or not he is right on this fades in comparison to the question of whether he ever came to realize that there are other aspects to thinking that have to do with the kind of note-taking, reflection, and writing that is best not done without the use of a word processor (and that is the subject of this blog).

But, be that as it may, these sober observations are embedded in some more fanciful speculation, some of which seem strangely at odds with them:
  • the electric typewriter and the computer may not "make the text 'too readable' and 'too clear' for us. the volume, the unfolding of the operation, obeys another organigram, another organology" (21). Whatever ...
  • "the computer maintains the hallucination of an interlocutor (anonymous or otherwise), of another 'subject' (spontaneous and autonomous, automatic) who can occupy more than one place and play plenty of roles: face to face for one, but also withdrawn: in front of us, for another, but also invisible and faceless behind its screen. Like a hidden god who's half-asleep, clever at hiding himself even when right opposite you" (22). Never had any of these experience, and find especially the last one downright weird.
  • He knows how to make the machine work, but has no idea how it works, or "how the internal demon the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys." This is for him a "secret without mystery" (23).
  • he computer "seems to restore a quasi immediacy of the text, a desubstantialized sbstance, more fluid, lighter, and so closer to speech, and even to so-called interior speech." You "have the feeling that you are dealing with a soul—will, desire, plan—of a Demiurge-Other," etc., etc., and of "the "Other-Unconscious" to boot (23).
  • "the written text becomes both closer and more distant. In this, there is another distancing and remoteness. re-mote here meaning a distancing of the removed, but also a distancing that abolishes the remote." Etc., etc. (25).
  • "The computer installs a new place: there one is more easily projected toward the exterior, toward the spectacle, and toward the aspect of writing that is thereby wrested away from the presumed intimacy of writing, via a trajectory of making it alien. Inversely, because of the plastic fluidity of the forms, their continual flux, and their quasi immateriality, one is also increasingly sheltered in a sort of protective haven" (27).
  • "I'm always wondering what would have happened to Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, and even to Heidegger (who really knew without knowing the computer), if they had encountered this 'thing,' not only as an available tool but also as a subject for reflection" (30).

I don't understand any of this, but I have gotten clearer on why I don't understand Heidegger, "who really knew without knowing." If only I could manage to do this.

1. For the reference see previous post.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Derrida on Handwriting and Typewriters

Jacques Derrida, in an interview with La Quinzaine Littéraire in August 1996, was asked to comment on Heidegger's mystifaction of traditional trades, or what is called in German "das Handwerk." According to Heidegger, Handwerk is not concerned with public usefulness or making a profit.[1] In this way, it is similar to the work "of the thinker or the teacher who teaches thinking." He also thought that Handwerk qua work done by "the hand," is always in danger of being demeaned by the machine. And the danger for the thinker was in Heidegger's view the typewriter.[2]

Derrida is much more circumspect than Heidegger. He finds that "Heidegger's reaction was at once intelligible, traditional, and normative." It is understandable, but it is also too confidently dogmatic (19). Derrida correctly points out that "when we write 'by hand' we are not in the time before technology," as we are already using an instrument, a stylus, pen or pencil (20). He is also correct, when he points out that typing is "also 'manual.'" (20). "Having recourse to the typewriter or computer doesn't bypass the hand" (21). This is true of a manual just as much as it is of an electronic typewriter. And just as the use of an industrially manufactured plane does not make a carpenter less of a Handwerker, so the use of a typewriter does not diminish the thinker, or so one might argue.

So far so good, but Derrida cannot restrain himself in trying to out-Heidegger Heidegger. He actually goe on to argue that in typewriting our hand, or rather, our hands are even more engaged because "you do it more with the fingers—and with two hands rather than one" (21). Touch-typing engages our digits, and this leads him to make a terrible pun about all of this going down, "for some time to come, in a history of digitality" (21). Geez ...

More to come on Derrida on Word Processing.

1. See also Typewriters and Thinking and Adorno and Nietzsche on Thinking with a Typewriter.

2. I quote from Jacques Derrida, "The Word Processor," in Paper Machine, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 19-32

McLemee on Writing

Write on

"... juggling two legal pads of different sizes, plus anywhere from one to three notebooks ..."

Without further comment.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Interesting Links

Interesting links concerning note-taking

Without further comment.

Exercising Control over how and what you Think

In the highly interesting 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College David Foster Wallace made some very important observations about the benefits of a college education: "As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

Yes, "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think" and to become "conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to."

He goes on to claim that "if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master," finding that this cliché, like many others, "seems so lame and unexciting on the surface," but "actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger." I am not sure about the last point. But it does appear to me true that he is right in claiming that learning to exercise control over how and what we think is one of the (two or three) most important things a liberal education may provide one with.

Foster Wallace illustrates this point by describing a typical day of a typical adult with all the dreary and meaningless details of a daily commute home and the petty encounters during shopping for one's dinner. He explores several scenarios of usual thinking in such contests. First, our "natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way?" It's all about "number one."

Second, "if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers."

Third, "I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do." In other words, "if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer", etc.

While Foster Wallace does not want to moralize and tell us that we should or ought to think in the last way, he does suggest that a liberal education gives us a choice to think in this way—a way that ultimately leads to what he calls "worship." Because "in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly ... Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings."

The "real world" encourages you to run in the "default mode," but a liberal education frees you from this. In fact, the "really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

But do we need a liberal education for this? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Most religious instruction promises (and often provides) more or less the same "freedom," which in the end is a generalization of the "default mode." Let's not worry about me, let's worry about us. Let's not be self-centered, let's be centered on our neighbours just as much as on ourselves.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of thinking, but as the alternative way of the "default mode," and the way of choosing "how you construct meaning from experience," it seems to be rather more restrictive than necessary and, in spite of all assurances to the contrary, too moralistic. In the end, it's a loss of nerve ... or so it seems to me.

In any case, a liberal education should not just teach "how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think," it should also provide you with some other alternatives about what to think about, like the meaning of Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Kant's system of the categories, or Aristotle's view of happiness. To be sure, that might be difficult on the commute home or in the super market. But is possible. The retreat into the "inner citadel" presupposes not just discipline but also knowledge. Nor is this knowledge restricted to the liberal arts. Thinking about how to improve a proof in mathematics or improving a program or script may have some of the same benefits.

And that's how it is related to note-taking in a fundamental way.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Outlines and Meshes

Scott Rosenberg's 2006 post on Outliners then and now is still interesting. Just like Rosenberg, I have never understood why (single-pane) outliners never caught on "as a primary writing environment." After all, they do "allow[.] you to dump huge amounts of information into the outline efficiently, move big pieces around easily, and swoop quickly from a top-level overview to the finer details."

Nor have I ever understoo why outliners are considered harmful. The claim that "when you use a tool that encourages you to think in terms of hierarchies, everything looks like a hierarchy" is clearly an exaggeration. A tool that encourages you to think in terms of hierarchies may indeed encourage you to look at everything in terms of hierarchy, but it does not force you to do so. It's ultimately up to the user of outliners to determine whether to look at the world hierarchically or non-hierarchically. Furthermore, an outliner is a tool to structure the information one wants to get across to others in the most plausible way, and claims become arguments in virtue of their structure. This has nothing to do with viewing the world exclusively in hierarchical ways. As Rosenberg points out in Outliners, Trees, and Meshes , "what matters [in outlining] is that outlines give ... easy handles to move chunks of loosely structured information around, and they let [one] quickly zoom from a low-altitude view to a high-altitude overview and back." This is why he still uses Ecco. And this is why I also find outlining useful in writing and for presentation, but not in note-taking, where a meshes or a networked or linked structure seems more useful—at least at first. In my experience (two-pane) outliners, which basically present a fixed view of hierarchically arranged categories, create more problems than they solve within the context of note-taking. But this is more a practical issue than one that has to do with the nature of reality.

Perhaps it is true that "the world is much much messier than [hierarchical thinking suggests]. Almost everything is actually a mesh not a hierarchy." Perhaps it is even true that "when hierarchies do exist in the data, it's very likely that you will find 2 or more inherent hierarchies that are orthogonal and in most real world situations it's more like 10. Which leads you to all sorts of mess with regional divisions versus category divisions and the same item being placed in lots of different places in the parallel hierarchies you're forced into using."

Non-hierarchical "tagging" or networks, in all likelihood, are better at capturing some aspects of reality, but none of this means that "outliners are harmful. The trick is to use both outlines and networks, or so it seems to me. Each of them has an appropriate use, and the trick is to know when to use what. The (presumed) fact that "the world is actually mess(h)y and not structured into elegant trees," does not only not imply that our attempt to understand the world must slavishly copy this structure, but may actually be taken to suggest that elegant trees give a perspective on the world that goes beyond the naive grasp of the surface structure of phenomena.

Sleeping and Making Connections

Research on the the importance of sleep for creativity.

Without further comment.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Eco on Index Cards and Making Connections

Umberto Eco makes fun of working with index cards in Foucault’s Pendulum. Casaubon, the narrator in the novel, who is writing a dissertation on the medieval order of the Knights Templar, gets involved in a scheme based on the idea that the Templars have something to do with everything. He becomes “a kind of private eye of learning” and sets up a “cultural investigation agency.” When someone asks him to investigate, he goes to the library, flips through some catalogs, gives the “man in the reference office a cigarette, and picks up a clue” (224).

As he invents this job of cultural detective for himself, he muses: “I knew a lot of things, unconnected things, but I would be able to connect them after a few hours at a library. I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn't. But nowadays all you needed was information, especially if it was out of date” (223).

And, he tells us: “I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away. I kept files on everything. I didn't think to use a computer (they were coming on the market just then ... Instead, I had cross-referenced index cards. Nebulae, Laplace; Laplace, Kant; Kant, Königsberg, the seven bridges problem of Königsberg, theorems of topology ... It was a little like that game where you have to go from sausage to Plato in five steps, by association of ideas. Let's see: sausage, pig bristle, paintbrush, Mannerism, Idea, Plato. Easy. Even the sloppiest manuscript would bring twenty new cards for my hoard. I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them." [1]

In some sense, the whole book is about making connections by associations that might appear reckless to the contemporary reader, but which would have made a great deal of sense to many Renaissance thinkers. The book is strewn with references to such thinkers and the way they used analogies. One gets the distinct impression that the book owes much of its wild learnedness to the use of “cross-referenced index cards,” the idea that “no piece of information is superior to any other,” and the idea that “there are always connections.” So, the passage certainly may be read as poking fun at the novel itself.

The passage may also be read as a parody of Umberto Eco, the semiotician himself, who once thought he needed a theory, and who wrote in 1977 a book called Come si fa una tesi di laurea (How to make a doctoral thesis), in which he described in great detail for students how one should use index cards in writing a scholarly essay. [2]

I don’t know whether Eco knew Luhmann’s index card method. But whether or not he knew it, the principles he outlines have a great deal of affinity with those of Luhmann, i.e. (i) every card has not significance in isolation, but gets it from its connections with all the others, (ii) there is no privileged card (or place) in the system, that, (iii) the power of this system lies in having information on file that is retrievable, and that (iv) the finding of the connections might involve serendipity.

But perhaps it is just me who under the influence of the book begins to believe that everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else, which is the basic principle of all conspiratorial thought.

I recoil in horror!


1. I use the English translation by William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers). I am not sure how reliable it is, as I don’t have the Italian. But the German text sounds rather different, speaking of the card index as “a kind of artificial (independent) memory” and characterizing it as “cross-referenced and networked.”

See also p. 618: Where the rules of “the game” that’s played in the novel are explained: “In a crossword puzzle the words intersecting, have to have letters in common. In our game we crossed not only words but concepts, events, so the rules were different. Basically there were three rules.

Rule One: Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else. For example, potato crosses with apple, because both are vegetable and round in shape. From apple to snake, by Biblical association. From snake to doughnut, by formal likeness. From doughnut to life preserver, and from live preserver to bathing suit ... [etc. etc.] hole to ground, ground to potato.

Rule Two says that if tout se tient in the end, the connecting works. From potato to potato, tout se tient. So it’s right.

Rule Three: The connection must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better ..."

And here are many other passages about connections and association. Some of them are more historical and to be taken more seriously.

2. I have only consulted the German translation: Wie man eine wissenschaftliche Abschlussarbeit schreibt: Doktor-, Diplom- und Magisterarbeit in den Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften. 9. unveränd. Aufl. der dt. Ausg. Heidelberg: UTB Uni-Taschenbücher Verlag.

"How Could it be Otherwise?"

In a review of Niklas Luhmann's Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity. Edited, with an introduction by William Rasch (Stanford University Press, 2002) in the Canadian Journal of Sociology Online (November - December 2002 [Luhmann.pdf]) Marion Bute finds that "Luhmann is not for those who prefer an extended, linear, rational argument. Increasingly, his later work became (some might say degenerated into) an almost schizophrenic thought (albeit not word) salad." And then asks the rhetorical question: "How could it be otherwise, given his famous card-shuffling method of working?"

I would agree that (i) "Luhmann is not for those who prefer an extended, linear, rational argument." I might also agree that his non-linear and associative style "degenerated" in his later work into something like a "thought salad." But I would (ii) reject the description of his writing as "card-shuffling." Rather than simply "shuffling" his index cards before writing, he "selected" cards that seemed relevant to him and followed the leads he "found" in the notes he carefully (and in a highly controlled way) had taken during several decades, trying to "discover" connections between them. See Luhmann's Zettelkasten. This is something that he did during his entire life. I would also reject (iii) the suggestion of determinism in the claim. While the tools we use in note-taking and writing may indeed have some influence on our work, they certainly do not have to predetermine its outcome in every detail. In any case, before I would accept such a claim, I would like to see some proof.

Indeed, if it is true that Luhmann's writing did indeed degenerate or change in his later work, then this is sufficient proof that things "could be otherwise" simply because they were so before. The perceived change probably was not so much due to his method of note-taking, as it was due to a change in how he processed these notes in composing his articles and books.[1]

That being said, I should perhaps also point out that I believe that all writing benefits from "extended, linear, rational argument." This should be the distinguishing mark of the finished product, while it need not and probably cannot be a characteristic of the process of discovery. (See also Wittgenstein on Note-taking.)

When Bute finds that "in reading Luhmann, before long one inevitably experiences a “clang” as a thought resonates with something pre-existing but only half-formed, evoking a “now that’s something worth thinking about”, and you put the book down gently for awhile lost in thought," she describes an effect good note-taking can produce in the process of discovery—even if there is no inevitability here either.

1. None of this means that Luhmann's method is without its problems. See also Critique of Zettelkästen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sentimental about Typewriters

Only loosely related to note-taking: Obituary of a man who loved typewriters

Without further comment.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Looking versus Reading

This is perhaps worth another look ... argh ... reading: McLuhan on Wikis?

Without further comment.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Frost's Notebooks

I recently bought Robert Frost, The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Ed. Robert Faggen (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2007). I found it interesting, but less so than I had anticipated. Robert Faggen argues in his introduction that Frost's Notebooks reveal him as an aphoristic thinker, comparable to Francis Bacon, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and Friedrich Nietzsche. "in keeping with modern revivals of the aphoristic philosophical tradition, Frost's Notebooks have the probing quality of Pascal's Pensées and the wit of Lichtenberg's 'Waste Books.' Frost's notebooks, like Pascal's and Lichtenberg's, refuse easy editorial arrangement as extended, logical arguments, but that does little to diminish their inspired intensity or the focus of their thought" (x).

I beg to differ. I t is true that Frost's notebooks, like Lichtenberg's notes and Pascal's thoughts, are difficult to edit and do not offer extended logical arguments. It is also true that some of the entries have an aphoristic quality. But the difference between Pascal and Lichtenberg on the one hand, and Frost on the other could not be more striking. Frost's notes consist of an unordered "mixture of phrases, sayings, meditations, stories, topical lists, dialogues, teaching notes, and drafts of poems" (ix), Pascal's and Lichtenberg's entries have a much more finished look. The notes of Pascal and Lichtenberg are ends in themselves, while Frost's are means, perhaps even "mere means" towards another end, most notably his poems.[1]

As Faggen himself points out, "Frost drafted the poems in the same or similar notebooks to the ones presented here, tore out pages he wanted transcribed, and then destroyed early drafts. But trial lines and early drafts of a number of poems can be found in the surviving notebooks" (xi). The notebooks were working instruments, no more and no less. "A visitor to Frost during his later years, either in his study on Brewster Street, in Cambridge, or at the cabin on the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, Vermont, might find him stretched out in his armchair, homemade lapboard on his knee, his feet surrounded by a clutter of notebooks. Nearby on the floor would lie a small, well-worn, brown leather satchel half-opened, showing more notebooks and many sheets of paper covered by handwriting ... They [the notebooks] were his constant companions such that he tool one with him wherever he traveled" (xiii).

What you find in them are some of the raw materials of his poems and speeches, together with some experiments and trials. None of this means that we cannot learn from them. It just means that the 688 pages of notes yield far less to the reader who is only casually acquainted with Frost's poetry than the Introduction promises. Faggen also calls the notebooks Frost's "laboratory," and I believe that this is closer to the truth.

Frost's notebooks may provide "insight into the ... ideas that became poems." He recorded ideas and expressions with a view to later use. But much of what may have made sense to him, will makes no sense to us. His notes for himself are to a large extent inscrutable. To a lesser extent this must be true of all notes someone takes in pursuing a project or simply taking note. Some may even become inscrutable to the note-taker himself, which may or may not be a good thing.

1. This, of course, does not preclude the possibility that some of these fragments would later become the means to some other end.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Should Go into Notebooks

I am not sure whether I agree with everything (or even most) of this post at 43 Folders, but I certainly agree with this:
A notebook is basically the creative equivalent of the NFL jersey you picked up at Macy’s; unless you fill it with a lot of hard work and sacrifices, you’re just a dilettante with poor spending patterns. An aspiring something. A fan of the game. An existential cosplayer.

Nor does it matter whether the notebook is made of paper or whether it is electronic. It's what goes into it that counts. And that has to be work.

There are, of course, some applications that support work better than others.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Jarte

Jarte is a free rich text editor, based on the wordpad editing engine. Nothing really fancy, but it's fast. Their line: "Does your word processor handle like an ocean liner?" Well ... this one doesn't.

I paid the $19.00 to use the plus version, which adds some features I like. Footnotes have been promised, and I am waiting.

One of its really interesting features, available in the free and the plus version, is "Hot Connect." It "connects Jarte to any other program's text window allowing instant transfer of text between the two windows. The connection makes it easy and convenient to use Jarte to write and spell check text for the other program. Hot Connect can be used for writing and spell checking e-mails, blog entries, newsgroup posts, or any other writing task you normally do in another program or in your web browser." It "can also be used for reading articles from your web browser without any of the ads."

You just press "ALt-F7" in the other program (with Jarte running), and the text in the other program shows up in Jarte. Saving the text in Jarte will actually save it to the window of the other program.

I have tested it with ConnectedText, and it worked well. But it will probably be more useful as an editor for Thunderbird and this Blog.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bacon on Instruments of the Mind

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) felt that human beings could not accomplish very much without the proper instruments. "Neither the naked hand nor the understanding left to itself can effect much. It is by instruments and helps that the work is done, which are as much wanted for the understanding as for the hand. And as the instruments of the hand either give motion or guide it, so the instruments of the mind supply either suggestions for the understanding or cautions" (Francis Bacon, The New Organon. Ed. Fulton H. Anderson. Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs Merrill Co., 1960, p. 39). The mind, he thought, should in establishing reliable knowledge be "guided at every step; and the business be done as if by machinery" (34). The "naked forces of the understanding" don't get us very far. We do need "instruments and machinery, either for the strength of each to be exerted or the strength of all to be united" (35).

The "instrument and machinery" he had primarily in mind were logic and methodology. He rejected the syllogistic method and the Aristotelian categories in favor of a "methodical process," he called "interpretation of nature" (45).

This approach also led to some very practical ideas about note-taking. Thus he also rejected the "tricks" of artificial memory masters and their memory palaces. They are like "tricks and antics of clowns and rope-dancers." Instead, he argued for the use of commonplace books. As he found in the fifth chapter of Book 5 of Of the dignity and Advancement of Learning,
there can hardly be anything more useful even for the old and popular sciences, than a sound help for the memory; that is a good and learned Digest of common Places ... I hold diligence and labour in the entry of common places to be a matter of great use and support in studying; as that which supplies matter to invention, and contracts the sight of the judgment to a point. But yer it is true that of the methods and frameworks of commonplaces which I have hitherto seen, there is none of any worth, all of them carrying in their titles merely the face of a school and not of a world; and using vulgar and pedantical divisions, not such a pierce to the pith an heart of things.

And in a letter to o Fulke Greville, who was looking to hire assistants to help him in his research, he wrote around 1599:
He that shall out of his own Reading gather for the use of another must (as I think) do it be Epitome, or Abridgment, or under Heads and Common Places. Epitomes also may be of 2 sorts: of any one Art, or part of Knowledge out of many Books; or of one Book by itself. Of the first kind we have many Patterns; as for Civil Law, Justinian; Littleton for our own; Ramus Logick; Valerius Physicks; Lipsius Politicks, and Machivels [370] Art of War. some in every kind and diverse in som one. In matter of Story I will not cite Carion, Functius, Melanchthon, nor the French Bibliotheque Historien; because they are rather calendars to direct a man to Stories, than Abridgments of Story. But the reading of the best of these ... will no more make a Man a good ... Lawyer, Logician ...And if the Works of so excellent Men be so fruitless, what shall their Abridgements be?” [271]

General abridgments made by someone else may give us some vague ideas, but not solid knowledge. Instead, he argued:
I hold Collections under Heads & Common Places of far more profit, and use; because they have in them a kind of Observation; without the which neither long Life breeds Experience, nor great Reading great Knowledge: For id demum scimus, cujus causam scimus.(Quoted in accordance with Vernon Snow, "Francis Bacon’s Advice to Fulke Greville on Research Techniques," Huntington Library Quarterly 23 (1959-60), 369-78).

Bacon felt that commonplace books might be useful instruments of the mind, especially if the commonplaces are collected from the nature of the world, and not from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy. In fact, for Bacon the commonplace book is not a means of storing stock phrases and ideas in accordance with traditional "commonplaces," but a tool in the discovery of a new "interpretation of nature." It is for him not a "top-down," but a "bottom-up" approach that "arrives at the most general axioms last of all" (New Organon, 43). This is "the true way," which remained "untried," but which he recommended.

Some people still use commonplace books this way. Others are trying to adapt electronic note-taking tools to this traditional approach, even though there are much better ways to keep one's notes today.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ConnectedText on Linux

Apparently it's possible now.

See Connectedtext on Wine

A More Relaxed Style of Thinking

"When we are stuck on a particularly difficult problem, a good daydream isn't just an escape - it may be the most productive thing we can do."

Peripherally related to note-taking, but and very interesting:

Daydream Achiever

Without further comment.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Transactive Memory

An interesting take on memory and the internet:

How the Internet may change what we remember

Without further comment.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Stanislaw Lem on Note-taking

Stanislaw Lem reports in an autobiographical essay, translated as "Reflections on My Life" (in Stanislaw Lem, MicroWorld. Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanavich, 1982, pp. 1-44) that his "method of creating" or "behavior as a writer" slowly changed during his life. In his early years, he was motivated by "the spontaneity of the beginning." But later his approach shifted towars first "gaining a basic idea, a conception, an imaginative notion ... I started to produce an increasing number of notes, fictitious encyclopedias, and small additional ideas" (p. 23). He then wrote at first "only brief synopses or, again, critical reviews of sociological treatises, scientific papers, and technical reference works"--which often, but not always, had their context in the imaginary world he was developing. He describes the relation of his notes to the literary work in different ways. One of them is as follows:
A cow produces milk--that is certain--and the milk doesn't come from nothing. Just as a cow must eat grass in order to produce milk, I have to read large ammounts of genuine scientific literature of all kinds--i.e. literature not invented by me--and the final product, my writing, is as unlike the intellectual food as milk is unlike grass (p. 25).

I think that is the way it should be. Notes are fodder. If the final product of one's research retains the character of the notes upon which it is based, something has gone wrong.

So much is sure. The question that remains to be answered is how the material gets transformed into something new and original.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

External Memory

Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber's The Art of Time (New York: Addison Wesley, 1991) is in my view one of the best books on so-called "time management." It is better than the run of the mill simply because it is more thoughtful than most. [1] One thing I like, for instance, is that it is not just about "productivity" or "management." Life should not be run like a business.

He relates on pp. 113f. that he has "inherited three things from [his] father: a pair of gold cuff links, a love of dogs, and a habit of writing on small memo pads. I know that these little rectangles of white paper are much more precious than banknotes and I owe a large part of my effectiveness to them." He makes
for each passing idea, a memo; for each thing to do, a memo. And only one item per memo, which is thrown away when the idea has served its purpose or the thing has been done. What makes this system terrific is that one can put a pad in every room of one's home (and in one's pocket) and one can easily project each memo into the future. So there is no excuse for not immediately writing down what crosses your mind and, even if it concerns something six weeks away, for not remembering it when the day comes.

He also tells us that he has "a standard-size folder with thirty-two compartments (one for every day, plus one for what goes beyond the month)." He calls this his "cardboard Memory."

Long before David Allen and GTD, he found that this cardboard memory relieved his own memory "of all these details and frees it up for what is important, creative, or fun."

His use of rectangular memo pages reminds me of the method Richard Rhodes describes in his How To Write (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.: 1995):
We keep jars of pencils and three-by-five index cards in card holders everywhere in our house. Ideas come to you day and night when you're writing: a convenient stash of cards and pencils ... makes it easy to write them down. The cards are small and sturdy enough to slip into a shirt pocket or to organize on a desktop without blowing away. I have ten years of notes on three-by-fives toward a work of fiction I've been planning. It's a diligent mole; it seems to tunnel along tirelessly below consciousness, popping up at odd hours with treasures in its claws. For the first few years I simply threw the cards into a file. Then I happened to pull them out and read them. Worried that fire ... might destroy them, I spent the next day typing them into a computer file. Now I add them to that file within a day or so of writing them but keep the originals as well in a separate place" (32).[2]
This is pretty much the method I follow. I keep mechanical pencils and 3X5 cards in strategic places in our house. I also always carry a short pencil and note-paper, and everything gets eventually transferred into the computer (if not every day, then at least once a week).[3]



1. Those who find this book interesting, might also like Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber, The Return of Courage. New York: Addison Wesley, 1987 and L. Rust Hills, How To Do Things Right. The Relations of a Fussy Man. Boston: David Godine Publishers, 1993.
2. This, in turn, sounds very similar to Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor, 1995): "I have index cards and pens all over the house - by the bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, by the phones, and I have them in the glove compartment of my car. I carry one with me in my back pocket when I take my dog for a walk. In fact, I carry it folded lengthwise, if you need to know, so that, God forbid, I won't look bulky. You may want to consider doing the same. I don't even know you, but I bet you have enough on your mind without having to worry about whether or not you look bulky. So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse - in which there are actual notepads, let along index cards - I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, if I overhear or think of an exact line of dialogue or a transition, I write it down verbatim. I stick the card back in my pocket. I might be walking along the salt marsh, or out at Phoenix Lake, or in the express line at Safeway, and suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers--as if it has just come back to me--and I take out my index card and scribble it down."
3. I do prefer to take notes on my Alphasmart Neo or Dana, but this is not always convenient