Sunday, June 29, 2014

How Many Clicks to Create a Link?

I recently tried out Cherrytree 0.3.3.4. It's available on Linux and Windows and is described as follows:
Cherrytree is what's referred to as an "hierarchal" note taking application, meaning it's designed to store your entries in containers, which some programs call "notes" or "pages" and Cherrytree calls "nodes". If you envision the Cherrytree document as the root of a tree, and each "node" as a branch in that tree, sub-nodes as branches off that branch, you will start to get the idea. If you have ever used outlining programs like OmniNote, Kjots, Keepnote and others, then Cherrytree will feel very familiar. However, Cherrytree is not just about having a place to write notes and to-do items and keeping them organized, it's also a place you can store links, pictures, tables, even entire documents. It can be your one program for all the miscellaneous information you have and want to keep. All those little bits of information you have scattered around your hard drive can be conveniently placed into a Cherrytree document where you can easily find it.

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

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

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Handwritten Memories?

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

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

Monday, June 9, 2014

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

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Storyist as a Personal Wiki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Inherent Advantages of Mead Three-Subject Notebooks?

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

No further comment!

Xanadu?

Ted Nelson has finally released Xanadu—sort of. He thinks that the "Web trivialized this original Xanadu model, vastly but incorrectly simplifying these problems to a world of fragile ever-breaking one-way links, with no recognition of change or copyright, and no support for multiple versions or principled re-use. Fonts and glitz, rather than content connective structure, prevail." OpenXanadu is a working model of the system. You can try it out on that Website. I did, but I cannot say that it changed my life. It did not even seem that appealing to me. Yes, you can see the link, but ConnectedText's Graphs allow you to do the same thing, and they do not get in the way like the "connective structure" in the working model.

I hope I am not unfair. Perhaps what counts is "under the hood."

No further comment!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Leafnote versus Treepad Lite

Leafnote does something that Treepad cannot do: italics, bold and underline. This has to do with the fact that rtf is much better integrated into OSX than it is into Windows. But apart from that, all that separates Leafnote from Treepad Lite is that Leafnote has a more modern look. Treepad's surface has not really changed any since 1995. But "under the hood," there is a lot more hidden (which you can ignore or use, as you like). All things said and done, one may say that Leafnote is just a more simple Treepad for OSX.

Treepad Lite has much more refined search functions and even has the ability to link to other files via textual links. Come to think of it, the latter would be a great addition to Leafnote.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Leafnote

Leafnote is "a super-minimal text editor with a twist: that tree on the left lets you create and organize as many documents as you like within a single project." There is a good review here.

It does not do much. You can
  • Add a leaf next to the current selection
  • Add a child of the selected leaf
  • Duplicate the selected leaf (and its children)
  • Delete the selected leaf (and its children)
  • Underline, bold, and italicize text
To rearrange the tree, click and drag nodes to where you want them to go.

You can print or export an item (with or without children) or everything to rtf and odt. You can also import txt or odf files. You can save and open files as templates (which are just ordinary files that can be re-used). The files themselves are saved in human-readable XML format with the extension of "lfn".

That's it. You can call it an editor. You can also call it an outliner. There is no reason why you could not use Markdown or any other markup in the leaves.

It's not fancy, but it does what it does elegantly. I just had to buy it, though $9.99 is perhaps a bit steep.