Monday, December 28, 2015


I usually do not make decisions lightly; and I did reflect for a long time on whether to discontinue "Taking Note" before I posted my last post. I have an even harder time reversing decisions after I have made them. But, given the significant and thoroughly positive response I received during the last two days in the comment section of this blog, in some forums, and by private communication, I will give the matter some more thought. These reactions certainly outweigh the rude insults made by one pseudonymous individual. I will let you know whether I will continue within the next two weeks.

If I continue, I will either disable comments altogether, or, more likely, turn on verification.

Thank you very much for all the support.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The End

This will be the last post on this blog of mine. I enjoyed posting for the longest time, and I know that some of the more than 780,000 visitors over the last eight years have also enjoyed some of my posts. But the posting has become more burdensome of late. I never expected to be thanked for my efforts, as I mainly did them for my own benefit to figure out what I thought about some of the things important to me. But I did not expect to be accused and insulted by someone hiding behind a pseudonym either. It takes away from the pleasure of writing in this form. I don't need this.

But, as I said before, thanks to everyone who has been following this blog.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Maxthink, One More Time

I have written before about Maxthink, one of the early outline processors, well on the way towards hypertext. I really liked the program and regret I no longer have a copy. Somehow, I never took to the Windows version. In this, I am similar to the author of the blog "The Aware Writer," who, I was very sad to notice, passed away earlier this year. His posts on how to run the DOS version of MaxThink on a modern operating system did inspire me. See here.

I did not know the man, but I will miss his blog! I suppose that is a way of saying that I will miss him.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Is Hypertext an Abstract Painting?

It's precisely--well, I don't know whether "precisely" applies here. The post in some ways about Esperanto and in others about Hypertext. I am not sure I understand all or even most of what goes on, but it does seem interesting and it certainly is suggestive.

If you know what I mean: "Abstraction is the metaphor of the informal structure of hyperlinks that exists not only in the digital world but also enters in our imagination and influences and changes our way of thinking."

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Dianote advertises itself as "your personal hypertext." Furthermore, "traditional note taking applications allow you to search notes and organize them with tags and buckets. Dyanote solves this problem on a different level: instead of a bunch of messy notes you’ll have an organic document reflecting the connections your mind created."

Obviously, this appeals to me. It is (going to be) a personal wiki, but I actually like the expression "personal hypertext" better. I would also describe my favorite application, ConnectedText, as my "personal hypertext.[1]

Dyanote is said to have been inspired by Tomboy, but it seems to be designed as a Web application by a 23 year-old programmer located near Bologna, Italy. While Dyanote is still a bit rough around the edges, it seems to be worthwhile to follow. There have not been many developments in "personal hypertext" lately. In any case, I would like there to be more!

1. "PHP" actually means "Personal Hypertext Processor" or ""Personal Hypertext Processor," so the notion of "personal hypertext" is at least as old as PHP. But Berners-Lee et. alii reported in 1994 that there conception of the World Wide Web originated from the "positive experience of a small home-brew personal hypertext used to keep track of personal information ..." As everyone reading this blog knows, I am motivated by a similarly positive experience with "personal hypertext" for my academic note-taking.

Coleridge's Lapdesk

It's for sale.[1] See here. See also Analag Laptops and Writing Box.

No further comment!

1. Also interesting: Melville's Travel Desk.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Introduction to Luhmann's Zettelkasten?

I just came across Introduction to Luhmann's Zettelkasten-Thinking. I agree with the author, Daniel Luedecke, on many things, but there are also many things I find questionable. Most of these have to do with the parallels between his Luhmann's usage of his card index and the principles behind the software by Luedecke. I still believe that Luedecke over-emphasize the importance of keywords. Under "Luhmann‘s Principle of Organizing his Zettelkasten," he lists "no categories," Linkage/Reference," "Tagging and Register," and then "Arbitrary Branching of Note Sequencing." While Luhamann had a register and sometimes used tags, he used direct linking as the main connecting organizing principle, as Luedecke also admits. In fact, tags were not even of secondary or tertiary importance, as far as I can see. And the register served just as a point of entering the net of links. Furthermore, the arbitrary branching is a direct result of Luhmann's conception of the links. It has nothing to do with registers and tags.

I don't know why Ludecke thinks that ConnectedText, which he lists under "Principles of Managing Notes: Links / References," has two problems, namely "Selective or specific retrieval of notes difficult" and "Limited scope of linkage, or at least impractical workflow for “multiple storage” and connections. ConnectedText has a very powerful search engine that allows you to drill down easily from a set of more than 10,000 notes to just two or three. And there is no limitation as to how many links you can create in any one page or the totality of the notes. I can only say I am baffled by these claims, as his "problems" are actually strengths of the program.

But, perhaps more importantly, it appears that Luedecke's Zettelkasten slows down considerably after just 1200 notes. As the author of this blog post says: "I am here with over 1200 Zettel and I am captured in this software. ... I want to change the software because searching became very slow." Daniel Luedecke answered: "I must admit that searching the database (Zettelkasten) is not extreme fast. One
reason is that I don’t use an underlying SQL database. But even with plain text search, performance might be increased. I’ll dig into this when I find some time."

I wonder what the performance would be with more than 10,000 notes, or even with 90,000 (which is sometimes claimed was Luhmann's number of notes). I am too old to ever reach 90,000 notes, but some people who read this won't be. Whatever other strengths Daniel Luedecke's software has--and I must say I find it intriguing--it does not come even close to replacing Luhmann's partner of communication because 1,200 notes are not even enough for the "critical mass" needed for fortuitous discoveries. On the basis of this alone, I would disqualify it as a serious contender in the note-taking field.

It might be said that even the best applications of today won't be around in, say ten or twenty years. I agree that this is probably true. Therefore, the ability of exporting one's notes from any program is important. Luedecke's program can do that. It "includes several plain text formats like CSV, Markdown or plain Text (or even LaTex, XML and HTML)." There are other popular note-taking programs that are woefully inadequate in this regard.

I really hope that Luedecke will be able to implement a database solution. Oh ... and the set of slides is interesting, not just for some of the copies of Luhmann's slips.[1]

1. I have said nothing about the notion of "Zettelkasten-thinking," as I don't think there is such a thing. I have written before about "Zettelkasten-writing." It is not considered to be a good thing. See here. My thesis advisor used to criticize books and articles, in which he (you) could tell where one index card ended and another one started.

Der Bücherwurm or the Bookworm

Click on picture to enlarge.

The Bookworm by the German Painter Carl Spitzweg is one of my favorites. I know that Spitzweg is not one of the greatest painters and that some of his paintings, including this one, have risen to the high level of German Kitsch. Still, I like it. A reproduction of this picture hangs at the entrance to my collection of books at home. Note that the librarian is standing under the section called "Metaphysica."

Blumenberg's Zettelkästen

I have written about Blumenberg and his critiques of Luhmann before. Here is a picture of what his Zettelkästen--yes, he was German, even though he had every reason not to be--looked (look) like.

Click on picture to enlarge!

My Zettelkasten for the dissertation that I wrote between 1996 and 1999 looks somewhat similar, though I used a smaller format (DIN-A 7: 74mm x 105mm). I promise I will post a picture after the holidays. It's archived in the office.

Der Büchernarr or the Bibliomaniac

Is that really me in a previous incarnation?

Click on picture to enlarge!

Perhaps--though I'd really like to think I was always a Bibliophile!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Serendipities and Sudden Illuminations

Serendipity is an interesting concept I have discussed before. It has to do with fortuitous connections one discovers in one's notes or even in the stacks of libraries. It is also sometimes makes an appearance in studies of creativity, though usually under a different guise. Arthur Koestler argued in The Act of Creation of 1964 that this is best explained by "the bisociation of matrices" or the juxtaposition of formerly unrelated ideas. As he put it,
The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flashes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface of consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.
"The basic bisociative pattern of the creative synthesis [is] the sudden interlocking of two previously unrelated skills, or matrices of thought."

Koestler was obviously indebted to Poincaré's description of mathematical invention, even though he ultimately rejects the latter's account as too mechanistic. For Poincaré such mathematical inventions are based on conscious choices:
How to make this choice I have before explained; the mathematical facts worthy of being studied are those which by their analogy with other facts, are capable to lead us to the knowledge of mathematical law are just as experimental facts lead us to the knowledge of physical law. They are those which reveal reveal unsuspected kinship between other facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another. Among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements borrowed from domains which are far apart.
The "sudden illuminations" are not magic for Poincaré. Rather, they are the result and "manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work." He believed that "unconscious work is possible, and of a certainty it is only fruitful, if it is on the one hand preceded and on the other hand followed by a period of conscious work."

Luhmann, who was rather suspicious of psychological explanations, also would have disliked Poincaré's account and emphasized "communication between systems", but it would appear to me that the the two accounts are compatible, especially if you view your note-taking system as a non-conscious (not unconscious) extension of yourself. To abuse Koestler's somewhat pretentious formulation: "The basic bisociative pattern of the creative synthesis [can be based on] the sudden interlocking of two previously unrelated ... matrices of thought" that have been noted before in one's note-taking system (or, if you like, your Zettelkasten).[1]

I actually prefer Poincaré's description of the phenomenon, and not just because I think that one's note-taking tools are, at best, extensions of ourselves, not independent communicative systems. In other words, I do not communicate with my ConnectedText projects, but then I use "communicate" in a rather different sense from Luhmann.

1. As I said before, I increasingly dislike "Zettelkasten" in English, even though (or perhaps just because) it is a perfectly good German word for the perfectly good "slip box" in English. But that is probably just me.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Gessner Pencil

I am debating with myself whether I should buy one of these pencils as aChristmas present for myself. My scruples have more to do with the notion of "buying a present for yourself" than with the pencil per se.

It is a reproduction of one of the first pencils ever. The original dates from 1526 and mentioned by Gessner in a book about fossils. It takes 5.6 mm lead refills, weighs 0.5 oz, is 6 inches long, and an award winning pencil from Cleo Skribent of Germany. It is made in Germany.

The led is a lot better than that of the original was. Technology has advanced. So, it is usable.

It's available at Amazon: here

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Edward Gibbon on Reading

Here is the entire text of Gibbon's account of how he read, or "Abstract of My Readings, With Reflection":

Dover, March 14th, 1761 -- "Reading is to the mind," said the Duke of Vivonne to Lewis XIV., "what your partridges are to my chops." It is, in fact, the nourishment of the mind; for by reading, we know our Creator, his works, ourselves chiefly, and our fellow-creatures. But this nourishment is easily converted into poison. Salmasius had read as much as Grotius, perhaps more. But their different modes of reading made the one an enlightened philosopher; and the other, to speak plainly, a pedant puffed up with an useless erudition.

Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to which all our studies may point. Through neglect of this rule, gross ignorance often disgraces great readers; who, by skipping hastily and irregularly from one subject to another, render themselves incapable of combining their ideas. So many detached parcels of knowledge cannot form a whole. This inconstancy weakens the energies of the mind, creates in it a dislike to application, and even robs it of the advantages of natural good sense.

Yet, let us avoid the contrary extreme; and respect method, without rendering ourselves its slaves. While we propose an end in our reading, let not this end be too remote; and when once we have attained it, let our attention be directed to a different subject. Inconstancy weakens the understanding: a long and exclusive application to a single object hardens and contracts it. Our ideas no longer change easily into a different channel, and the course of reading to which we have too long accustomed ourselves, is the only one that we can pursue with pleasure.

We ought besides, to be careful, not to make the order of our thoughts subservient to that of our subjects; this would be to sacrifice the principal to the accessory. The use of our reading is to aid us in thinking. The perusal of a particular work gives birth, perhaps, to ideas unconnected with the subject of which it treats. I wish to pursue these ideas; they withdraw me from my proposed plan of leading, and throw me into a new track, and from thence, perhaps, into a second, and a third. At length I begin to perceive whither my researches tend. Their result, perhaps, may be profitable; it is worth while to try: whereas, had I followed the high road, I should not have been able, at the end of my long journey, to retrace the progress of my thoughts.

This plan of reading is not applicable to our early studies, since the severest method is scarcely sufficient to make us conceive objects altogether new. Neither can it be adopted by those who read in order to write; and who ought to dwell on their subject till they have sounded its depths. These reflections, Sections, however, I do not absolutely warrant. On the supposition that they are just, they may be so, perhaps, for myself only. The constitution of minds differs like that of bodies. The same regimen will not suit all. Each individual ought to study his own.

To read with attention, exactly to define the expressions of our author, never to admit a conclusion without comprehending its reason, often to pause, reflect, and interrogate ourselves; these are so many advices which it is easy to give, but difficult to follow. The same may be said of that almost evangelical maxim of forgetting friends, country, religion, of giving merit its due praise, and embracing truth wherever it is to be found.

But what ought we to read? Each individual must answer this question for himself, agreeably to the object of his studies. The only general precept that I would venture to give, is that of Pliny,[1] "to read much, rather than many things;" to make a careful selection of the best works, and to render them familiar to us by attentive and repeated perusals. Without expatiating on the authors so generally known and approved, I would simply observe, that in matters of reasoning, the best are those who have augmented the number of useful truths; who have discovered truths, of whatever nature they may be: in one word, those bold spirits, who quitting the beaten tract, prefer being in the wrong alone, to being in the right with the multitude. Such authors increase the number of our ideas, and even their mistakes arc useful to their successors. With all the respect due to Mr. Locke, I would not, however, neglect the works of those academicians, who destroy errors without hoping to substitute truth in their stead. In works of fancy, invention ought to bear away the palm; chiefly that invention which creates a new kind of writing; and next, that which displays the charms of novelty, in its subject, characters, situations, pictures, thoughts, and sentiments. Yet this invention will miss its effect, unless it be accompanied with a genius, capable of adapting itself to every variety of the subject; successively sublime, pathetic, flowery, majestic, and playful; and with a judgment which admits nothing indecorous, and a" style which expresses well whatever ought to be said. As to compilations, which are intended merely to treasure up the thoughts of others, I ask whether they are written with perspicuity, whether superfluities are lopped off, and dispersed observations skilfully collected; and agreeably to my answers to those questions, I estimate the merit of such performances.

When we have read with attention, there is nothing more useful to the memory than extracts. I speak not of those collections, or adversaria, which may be serviceable in their own way, but of extracts made with reflection, such as those of Photius, and of several of our modern journalists. I purpose in this manner to give an account to myself of my reading. My method will vary with the subject. In works of reasoning, I will trace their general plan, explain the principles established, and examine the consequences deduced from them. them. A philosopher is unworthy of the name, whose work is not most advantageously viewed as a whole. After carefully meditating my subject, the only liberty I shall take, is that of exhibiting it under an arrangement different perhaps from that of my author. Works of fancy contain beauties, both of plan and of execution: I shall be attentive to both. History, if little known, deserves an abridgment. I shall extract such particulars as are new. Throughout, I shall give my opinion with becoming modest)', but with the courage of a man unwilling to betray the rights of reason. In this compilement, I shall collect my scattered thoughts, with the reflections of every sort that occur in my search for truth. For I shall continue to search for the truth, though hitherto I have found nothing but probability.

No further comment!

1. Plinii Secundi Epist. lib. vii. epist. ix

Edward Gibbon on Commonplace Books

The famous historian of The Decline and Fall of the Roma Empire kept commonplace books early in his life, that is from 1755 until he decided to use a method of abstracting
The various readings which I now conducted with skill and discretion was digested according to the precept and model of Mr. Locke into a large Commonplace book, a practice however which I do not strenuously recommend. The action of the pen will doubtless imprint an idea on the mind as well on the paper; but I question whether the benefits of this laborious method are adequate to the waste of time, and must agree with Dr. Johnson, 'that twice read is commonly better remembered as what is transcribed.'[1]
Locke's commonplace books are discussed in these entries. One of the reasons why Gibbon felt mere excerpts are a "waste of time" is that he later opted for a method of abstracts or "extracts made with reflection":
When we have read with attention, there is nothing more useful to the memory than extracts. I speak not of those collections, or adversaria, which may be serviceable in their own way, but of extracts made with reflection, such as those of Photius, and of several of our modern journalists. I purpose in this manner to give an account to myself of my reading. My method will vary with the subject. In works of reasoning, I will trace their general plan, explain the principles established, and examine the consequences deduced from them. them. A philosopher is unworthy of the name, whose work is not most advantageously viewed as a whole. After carefully meditating my subject, the only liberty I shall take, is that of exhibiting it under an arrangement different perhaps from that of my author. Works of fancy contain beauties, both of plan and of execution: I shall be attentive to both. History, if little known, deserves an abridgment. I shall extract such particulars as are new. Throughout, I shall give my opinion with becoming modesty, but with the courage of a man unwilling to betray the rights of reason. In this compilement, I shall collect my scattered thoughts, with the reflections of every sort that occur in my search for truth. For I shall continue to search for the truth, though hitherto I have found nothing but probability.[2]
The language may be a bit quaint or outdated, the principles are still sound, or so I would argue. They more or less describe my method of summarizing (as inspired by Luhmann).

1. Memoirs of the Life and Writing of Edward Gibbon. Edited, with Introduction and Notes by Oliver Farrar Emerson (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1898), p. 81.
2. The Miscelleneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esqu., Memoirs of His Life and Writings, Composed by Himself. Illustrated from His Letters, with occasional Notes and Narrative by John, Lord Sheffield (London, 1837), p. 398. It's available on the Internet: here.

Metaphors We Live By

The Microsoft Whitepaper on the Benefits of OneNote states that
The user interface is specifically designed to look like a 3-ring binder, complete with tab dividers. Users can divide the notebook into multiple topics and subtopics for the various types of information they want to record and save. Workers have all the advantages of an old fashioned notebook binder with the additional advantages of being able to copy information from one section to another, to do full-text search, to find and share information easily, to annotate text, to grab information from other Office programs or from the Web, to flag key items, and even to record and play back audio notes.[1]
This describes the interface well. You do have "all the advantages" of a familiar look: a three-ring binder. Obviously, it goes beyond the physical notebook, allowing search, annotation, etc. But you also have some of the disadvantages of an old-fashioned technology. You have to put the information somewhere, i.e. into a specific "notebook," a specific "page" and somewhere on the specific page. But there is no "where" in the spatial sense in an electronic application. So, it would be better to do away with the notebook metaphor altogether.

What would that look like? I could point toward a wiki, but I don't have to. See Notational Velocity or nvAlt on the Mac:

You just type a name of the note (or the first line of the note), and away you go. You can also link files and assign categories. The interface does not get into the way, asking you "where" to store the information.

I recently talked about info-base which has the same affordances. See here

As everyone knows, I prefer the wiki approach which is just as simple. You just type some expression enclosed by double brackets, and away you go. Apparently, you can do this in OneNote as well, but I am not sure. In any case, if you can and if you could get rid of the notebook interface, I could perhaps be persuaded to use it.

Now, I agree that OneNote does not look as garish as this,

but it still gets in the way--especially when navigating from one note to another by its means.[2] And, as I claimed before, (for me) this might work with relatively few notes, but it becomes increasingly less workable the more notes you have. I understand that others might get a different mileage. Microsoft obviously thinks so, in any case.

1. White Paper

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Card Index, Kartei, Slip Box, or Zettelkasten: What are the Differences?

The short answer, there really are none, if you are looking at electronic implementations of them. Their physical implementations differ insofar as card indexes (Kartei, Karteikasten, etc.) use card stock, whereas slip boxes or Zettelkästen) employ lees durable paper. Luhmann, one of the people who used paper, chose it because it took up much less space than card stock and was much cheaper--especially since he used the backs of letters, bills, etc. cut in half to DinA 5 size for his Zettelkasten.

All that is irrelevant to an electronic version of card indexes. What is more relevant is how these applications categorize their contents. It could be alphabetical, numerical, a combination of the two, or systematic. Anyone of these will work, though, as most of the readers of my blog will know, I think the best way to implement such an electronic version is by dispensing with all such organization and use a hypertextual approach. But, however, that may be, there is nothing magical about "Zettelkasten." It just means slip box, no more, no less.

There are some applications that are not well designed to implement slip boxes (or whatever you want to call them), and those are applications that emulate notebooks (like Circus Ponies Notebook or OneNote, for instance). The note-book metaphor seems to go against the very nature of a slipbox.[1] I cannot imagine how you could easily navigate the different notes once you reach 10,000 or more. This is one of the reason why notebooks of ledgers were abandoned in favor of card catalogs in libraries, for instance. And this is why the metaphor of a card box (database) is superior to that of a notebook when you need to deal with huge amounts of data. (My imagination may, however be just too limited to see how organization by notebooks might be superior, though I do not think so.)

1. Added later: Since these might also be based on databases, they may be quite capable at performing searches, but the way "stuff" is organised gets in the way (at least for me).

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Writing Sheds

Talking about wasting time (or life--it comes to the same), here is a mildly interesting Website on Famous Writers' Small Writing Sheds and Off-the-Grid Huts.

They seem to be for people who need fewer books than I do when writing. I do wish some time that I never had to consult a book again after first reading it and taking notes of the salient points. But in writing and constructing arguments that change my point of view on the book, I find I have to consult it again (and again) ...

Be sure to read the comments as well!

Wasting Life and Taking Notes

Chuck Palahniuk has one of his characters in the novel Lullaby reflect that the "best way to waste your life is by taking notes." I would tend to agree, on the face of it. If life is to be wasted, and I have a feeling that most of it is going to be wasted anyway, then taking notes (and reflecting on this activity) is one of the better ways to accomplish the task.

Now, that is obviously not how the character considers it. This is clear from how he goes on identifying this approach with "the easiest way to avoid living": It "is to just watch. Look for the details. Report. Don't participate. Let Big Brother do the singing and dancing for you. Be a reporter. Be a good witness. A grateful member of the audience".[1]

A similar point is made by Bernard Williams, who disagreed with Socrates's claim that the unreflected life is not worth living and claimed that "the only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after reflection ... we have to live during it as well." Williams's point has the the same problem. From the claim that living is the only serious enterprise, it does not follow that reflection should not be a serious part of that enterprise as well.

In any case, the rejection of the latter claim would need more argument than he provides.[2] I think he is just as wrong as his Socrates. So, the unreflected life may well be worth living. Someone with Alzheimer's who lacks the ability to reflect still has a life worth living.[3] But reflection (aided by note-taking) certainly adds another dimension. In the same way, I do not think that "taking notes" and "living" are exclusive of each other. Rather, taking notes and life might serve to enhance one another.

One does not have to go as far as Hannah Arendt who claims that "nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator" in order to believe that "just watching" and "taking note" is an important part of life. This is not to say that it is always pleasant.

1. The character is Carl (see p. 216). The quote usually gets attributed to Palahniuk himself. But he does not offer it in his own voice, and it would be reasonable not to attribute it to him as his own view (even if this is customary).
2. He does not offer any argument, as far as I can see.
3. Quite apart from the unsavory connotations a life "unworthy of living."

Deleted Posts?

I just found out that the posts about the Zettelkasten on this blog by IainB were not deleted by him. There were two, one after the other, and they were deleted soon after having been posted.

I do not quite understand why or how. I know that Blogger is difficult. You have to prove that you are not a robot. Even I have to do this on my own blog. So, my only explanation is that the entry was submitted, but then not sufficiently authenticated.

I said clearly in my post about IanB's comment that I regretted that the post was deleted (assuming that it was done by him, as that was pretty much the only explanation for me): "The reason for this is that the contribution was first posted in a slightly different form as a comment on My Zettelkasten. Much to my regret, it was, however, deleted again by the author." I am therefore more than taken aback a bit (or surprised and disconcerted) by his suggestion "Maybe the objective is to get clicks or something."

I do not very much care how many clicks I get. I write the blog only because it allows me to clarify some things for myself. And it gratifies me, if other people find it useful or at the very least interesting. I would never have deleted the entry--and not just because he said some complimentary things at the beginning of his post or because I wanted to comment on it.[1] I am a professor of philosophy and encourage reasoned disagreement and spirited discussion. And I welcomed IainB's post for that very reason.

08:20: I have posted the original comment by IainB (Slartibartfast) in the comment section of this post.

1. I do delete spam and insults to me and especially to others.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Is OneNote Your 21st-Century Zettelkasten Pim?

I don't know, but that is what is argued in this interesting contribution to the Donation Coder Forum. You may have noticed that my previous post reacts to some of the requirements that are declared to be mandatory (even before it appeared in the Forum). The reason for this is that the contribution was first posted in a slightly different form as a comment on My Zettelkasten. Much to my regret, it was, however, deleted again by the author.

Since I receive an e-mail from Blogger with the contents of every comment (including those that are later deleted), I had the pleasure of reading this contribution a long time before anyone else.

Obviously we disagree, but perhaps the differences are worth discussing further.

Let me make two comments: (1) I am not sure whether integration with Windows and other Microsoft programs is really that important. I am not sure either how important this OS (or any of the other existing Operating Systems) will be in the next eighty years or so. Nor do I think that e-mail, sound files, and spreadsheets have any essential place in something that emulates index cards. But be that as it may, my orientation is obviously more academic, textual, and stodgy. (2) I am sure that the author is right in claiming that it is an important feature of OneNote that when you type a "[[reference term]], it will search for an existing Note page in any of the Notebooks (only opened ones, I think) with that exact title, and then link to it, but if there is none, then it will automatically create a new Note page with that title, at the bottom of the section you are currently in, so that you can put in any relevant text later, but meanwhile it leaves you in the text where you were currently writing. These hyperlinked (wiki-like) pages can be moved around and OneNote will keep track of them. If the user is unsure whether "reference term" is correct for an existing hyperlinked Note title, then a search within OneNote for all or some of the terms in "reference term", will find them, with any OneNote page titles bearing the terms being listed first in the search results, which makes it easy to find them." In fact, any good wiki will allow you to do this. And this is one of the main reasons why I do love ConnectedText, for instance.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Thoreau on Reading

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written." Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Couldn't agree more! The same thing holds of writing notes based on reading.

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What I don't Like about OneNote

OneNote is by all accounts a very capable application. I tried it and I don't like it. My dislike has to do, in part, with its skeumorphism which, as far as I concerned, goes both too far and not far enough. I dislike the way it aspires to look like a paper notebook with different pages. Even more do I dislike the fact that you have to "put" notes on "pages" the way you would paste a post-it notes on pages in notebooks (which you can then move around, etc., on that page). I find this disconcerting. I would prefer, if the notes were firmly on the page, like in a paper notebook. On the other hand, I think the organization according to "pages" (which really are not pages at all) should be eliminated. All this is, I grant you, very subjective. It's just me.

One thing that is not subjective is how OneNote forces you to use a OneDrive account to use it. (At the very least, this is true of the Mac version of it which I used last). See here:

Nor do I approve of the way in which OneNote is intended to integrate with the Microsoft Ecosystem. Apart from MS Windows, I don't have any other Microsoft application on my computer. It is, of course, a Microsoft application, and Microsoft has every right to enforce this approach, just as I have every right to reject it.

I should perhaps add that Wysiwyg editing that is available in OneNote leaves me completely cold. I know that it is important to many people who dislike the wki-approach. So be it.

Also, my notes don't have to be both client-based and web-based, I don't need formatting, images, links, etc. from web-page capture to be retained, OLE editing, OCR, Excel Spreadsheets, MS-Outlook exchange (the last two should be obvious after what I said before, but ...).

As I said at the beginning, OneNote is a very capable application, and I do understand why many people do like it. It's just not for me.

Should I say that this rant was occasioned by recent and not-so-recent comments? Yes, it was!

Should I point out that I do not consider this rant as a thorough review of the program? Probably not, as this is obvious.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

My Zettelkasten

I have written many times about Luhmann's Zettelkasten (see Luhmann on "Taking Note"). I have also written many times on ConnectedText and how I use it as a Zettelkasten (just click on ConnectedText or Zettelkasten in the word cloud). But I have never explicitly made clear how the approach I take in ConnectedText is related to that of Luhmann's. Here it is.

I believe the most central aspect of Luhmann's Zettelkasten was the radical rejection of hierarchical organization as you might find it today in outliners, for instance where the information is arranged under headings, like so:

   objective idealism
   subjective idealism
etc., etc. 

Instead, Luhmann opted for a non-hierarchical organization by giving every note (Zettel) a unique number that corresponded and indicated the physical place of the note (Zettel) in the boxes in which they were stored. This is in some ways like the call numbers according to which libraries organize their book collections, like the Dewey decimal system or, better, that of faceted classification by Ranganathan.

This approach allowed him both to refer to each of the notes by a fixed number and to find the physical piece of paper by its location in the Zettelkasten. So 1 was followed by 2, 3, 4, etc. His convention allowed him to have have several notes that continue any note. So 1/1 and 1/2 continue 1. Obviously, an electronic version of the Zettelkasten that has no built-in limitation on the length of notes can do without such continuations (but it does not have to do without continuations either).[1] Daniel Luedecke's Zettelkasten sports "Folgezettel" or "continuations." They seem to implement that feature.

Secondly, Luhmann's approach allowed him to branch off any topic that seemed necessary to him. So, a note on "objective idealism" could branch to both "idealism" or "transcendental idealism" or "subjective idealism." Luhmann indicated branches by letters (a, b, c etc.). Combinations of continuations, branches, and continuations of branches could lead to expressions that are just as forbidding as the call numbers of library books. There are no limits to the number of physical objects you can refer to by these scheme. Luhmann's system is a freely expandable collection of interlinked notes. It resembles a hypertext system for storing and modifying information where each page is easily reachable from any notes. It is as well as you could do in a paper-based system, I would say.

How Luhmann actually assigned numbers is not important, as far as I am concerned. It was important for his physical implementation of the Zettelkasten. It is far less important for an electronic version as a database in which every record automatically gets assigned a number already. If you decide to use a non-database version by implementing it in plain text, for instance, you need fixed numbers again. But the exact time and date of when the note was taken might be sufficient (see Christian Tietze's approach for this, i.e. search for him in this blog and follow the links).

I have decided for a database or a personal wiki which is "a freely expandable collection of interlinked ... 'pages,' a hypertext system for storing and modifying information — a database, where each page is easily" reachable from any other page.[2]Furthermore, the notes which are static in a paper system are freely editable.

You reach any note simply by enclosing the name of the note by double brackets, like so "[[objective idealism]]". In other words, you can directly link to any other page directly. And without the interference of numbers, as Tietze's system still seems to oblige you to do, or the interference of keywords or tags, as Luedecke's Zettelkasten and many other note-taking applications require you to do. Let my quote Caulfield again:
At the heart of wiki is a simple idea that names matter. Page names in wiki are not locations. They aren’t a place where a document lives. Names identify ideas, patterns, theories, and data in wiki that can be recombined with other ideas, patterns, theories, and data to make complex meaning not expressible in a normal text.

If you’ve ever had a good wiki experience, you know what this feels like in practice. Groping towards an idea on one page you realize its relation to another page and quickly make a [[Bracketed Link]] or CamelCaseAssociation to pull that idea into your web. But most non-wiki environments frustrate this fluidity. They don’t want to know the name of the page — they want to know its location, which is like asking someone to give up using variables in their code and start addressing memory directly. It can be done, but it is going to kill your flow.
The same holds for having to add reference numbers or key words. They break the flow, slow you down and get between you and the ideas, patterns and theories--or so I would hold.

I have nothing against tags or categories per se. ConnectedText, the personal wiki software I use, allows you to freely assign as many as you want. But they are not the primary way of organizing your stuff. The same could be said of numbering schemes. Nor do I have anything against search. ConnectedText has a very capable search engine. But, again, I would not want to have to have to rely on search alone to navigate a system of 10,000 notes, or more.

In any case, as I have said many times before, I believe a personal wiki, or, more generally, a personal hypertext system best captures the spirit of Luhmann's system because it allows names to "identify ideas, patterns, theories, and data in wiki that can be recombined with other ideas, patterns, theories, and data to make complex meaning not expressible in ... normal text." It is no accident that many people discussing Luhmann's Zettelkasten have characterized it as a precursor to hypertext.

I should perhaps add that I consider my approach in no way as the alleinseligmachende (or exclusively salvatory) approach to note-taking. It may, indeed, be just my highly idiosyncratic way of doing things. So, take my advice (just as the advice of anyone else) cum grano salis.

1. I do believe that if you write more than 500 words, you are usually not going on in the same way on the same subject, but are making different points that deserves a new note.
2. The quote is from Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham.