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."

1 comment:

starpilot said...

From my experiences, Literary Machine as a random information tool (note taking, research) is not so good. But as a tool for writing, it works very well.

Literary Machine is meant to be a tool to help you organize your writing using a very strong notecard/index card metaphor. It does that very well. It allows you to create multiple outlines for a (literary) project, so you can see and compare how the variations compare against one another, and which makes a better structure or arrangement for your final product.

I find it isn't that good to do you final writing in it, since you'd have to write your project/piece out in its index cards. But it does support dumping (exporting) out a project, so you could certainly dump out your info and "card" information exactly as you want it, to work it in some more word processing friendly piece.

It also exports out to the open book standards.

I'd recommend to any writer taking a look at it as a tool to help them play around with their pieces--- if they are into any index card approach or really like (or need) to play with outlines.

For random information storage (and later recall), I favor other tools, such as TheBrain's Personal Brain, ConnectedText, WikidPad, Zoot , or just dumping a copy of the web page into a local directory, and then using the different desktop search tools (pick your favorite flavor).