Monday, January 28, 2008

I want Livescribe

I saw this today: a new "Smart Pen." Even if it is $149.00, I want this -- badly. See:

Sneak Preview

It's supposed to be out in March.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Note-taking versus Information-gathering

Note taking is a fundamental skill. While it is possible to learn simple things without taking notes, any kind of more sophisticated learning, research, thinking, or writing is impossible without taking notes. Richard Altick's The Art of Literary Research (third edition, 1981), chapter 7, gives an interesting account of note-taking in scholarly contexts. While it was definitely written before computers became wide-spread, some of his advice is just as valid as it was when he wrote it. Thus he finds that
  • Verbatim quotations should be kept to an absolute minimum. "If you are simply extracting facts or ideas from your source, reproduce them in as small a compass as accuracy permits; it is substance, not wordage, that you want for your slips." paraphrase the point or argument in your own words, making sure you attribute source correctly.

  • Make different entries for bibliographical information and factual or substantial information.

  • If "you take a phrase or a sentence directly from your source, enclose it in quotation marks, to remind you, infallibly, that you have borrowed it and thus must retain the quotation marks if it appears, intact, in your finished product."

  • "When occasion requires you to transcribe verbatim, do so with clear head, patience, and devotion to absolute accuracy: not a comma omitted, not a phrase accidentally skipped." In fact, he gives the advice that you should make an explicit mark on the note itself, when you have checked the text; something like "'Text ?ed'—which will bear eternal, unequivocal witness to the fact that the passage as copied is, is, IS accurate."

  • Quotes, should, of course be made from the original text; and if it is not accessible and you have to quote from someone else, you should note that you quote in accordance with some other text.

  • Use a different entry (he advises that one should use slips) for every idea or fact, advice that goes back to Beatrice Webb's "one fact, one card" method, and is good advice that also holds for the computer age. You should use a database program that allows you to store small snippets or chunks of text that can easily be searched, connected, ordered, etc.

  • In addition to notes taken from other sources, such a program also provides a way of storing your own ideas. But "make plain to your future self that these are genuinely your own by initialing them."

  • Order and re-order your notes to get clearer on what they mean. Think and re-think about the material you have gathered and the ideas you have formulated as a result.

There is other advice that is less useful, unless you decide to use a paper-based method, which I will ignore here.

Note that this description of note-taking makes clear that it is active work. It is not a process that takes place largely independently of your engagement, but it is representative of your engagement with the material. Contrast this with the way that such programs as "Surfulator" approach note-taking: We need "better ways to collect and manage the worthwhile information we find." This means that we should "permanently save anything you find on the web." But simply "collecting," "managing" and "saving" what one has "found" is rather less than note-taking. There are many such applications that allow you to do just that, and I do not want to say that "Surfulator" is a bad application or does not do what it promises to do. All I want to say is that, by definition, it keeps primarily "verbatim" transcriptions, which keep your engagement with the material and the assimilation of the information to a minimum. It, and the host of other applications that follow this "paradigm," seem to lead in a direction rather different from that of traditional note-taking -- and this is not necessarily a good thing. At the very least, we should think some more about the differences between note-taking and information-gathering.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Note-taking and Flow

Flow, as conceived by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is an optimal experience that is supposed to characterize activities that are "fun" or bring us pleasure. There are supposed to be "some ... activities that consistently produce flow," namely sports, games, art, and hobbies." Indeed, he argued that "the more a job inherently resembles a game - with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback - the more enjoyable it will be."

Most importantly, “flow” is supposed to be a mental state of deep concentration that makes us more creative and more productive. But "flow" does not just happen. If we are talking about reading, studying or thinking, we need some time of uninterrupted activity to "get into" such a state of “flow.” Furthermore, interruptions or distractions are supposed to "break" this “flow” and make us less creative or productive, not to say anything about the pleasure brought by the state of flow. I think "concentration" is a more traditional word that covers a large part of the meaning of "flow."

Generally put, Csikszentmihalyi thinks that flow is a "state of inner experience in which there is order in consciousness." People who experience flow, also tend to say that their perception of time changes when they are in the state of flow. And we all would agree that "time flies when you are having fun." Klein (The Secret Pulse of Time. Making Sense of Life's Scarcest Commodity) argues that the "crucial element is not the activity per se, but the optimal density of information in the brain" (97). I don't know, whether this is correct nor even whether all that Csikszentmihalyi says about this "optimal experience" is correct. However, I would agree that there is certainly something to these observations.

There is an interesting Website that summarizes research into "flow" as it applies to note-taking. In particular, it talks about the kinds of notes we make to get things out of our minds so as to not to interrupt flow or to lose concentration. While it concentrates on a particular program, called "Notelens, it seems to me that the reflections apply also to other note-taking strategies that involve other means to minimize interruption. See

Flow and Notelens

In fact, you might say that the AutoHotKey Script I described in Self-Control is an attempt to achieve the same effect.

Note-taking Software Roundup

This thread is "an attempt to restrict the discussion to taking notes and storing them. Of course, over the course of the thread, the topic has been expanded to include things like content capturing from the web, plugin compatibility, etc. But the root of this thread has always been notetaking, and the reader should keep this in mind during this discussion, because it's very easy to complicate this subject and take it to wider and more complex topics."


I found it interesting, even though I found my perfect note-taking application some time ago: ConnectedText, that is.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Adorno and Nietzsche on Thinking with a Typewriter

I am on a roll here. So, one more entry on typewriters and thinking.

Theodor W. Adorno might appear to be more progressive on the relation of thinking and the typewriter (with the emphasis on appear, of course):

"Writers still object that because the typewriter does not obey the innervations of the hand it is supposedly incapable of producing a bodily sort of contact between thought and writing; writers for whom such contact is paramount should, it is said, keep with the fountain-pen. O romantic and inexperienced objection, that even maintains the mistrust of technology there where the thought long ago came to the rescue of technology! Nowhere is the contact between word and thought closer than on the typewriter. Not, admittedly, that between writing and thought. The hand that strikes into the material of the keys doesn’t bother itself with the written result that hovers way up there on the horizon of the machine. Rather it chisels word-bodies out of the keys, so clearly that it is as if they were held in the fingers under whose pressure they are sculpted out of the keyboard. On the machine, writing has been transformed back from a two-dimensional into a three-dimensional process. Words, across so many centuries merely read, can once again be felt; perhaps in this way we are getting them back within our grasp, whereas for so long we had been under the sway of their foreign power." (Translated from the German (c) by Marc Hiatt. (Last revised 5.08.2006.) This one comes to you via Excerpts from Words without Songs

Nietzsche who was one of the first philosophers actually to buy a typewriter seems to have been the first who felt that typewriters influence our thinking, saying that "Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts." In so far as he says the least about this, he is (almost by default) also the most subtle.

Strictly speaking it is just as much nonsense to say: "Nowhere is the contact between word and thought closer than on the typewriter" as it is to say that "in the typewriter we find the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word. ... The typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand" (Heidegger).

Words and thoughts are not the kinds of "things" that could, in any literal sense, make contact. And, if I take the claim in a metaphorical sense, I would argue that word and thought actually fail to make contact in Adorno and Heidegger. Put differently, they both talk nonsense. And it's not that I don't like nonsense in general. I appreciate Tristram Shandy and I find the "Jabberwocky" just as delightful. It's just that the nonsense of Adorno and Heidegger masquerades as sense.

There is no such a thing as "the essence of writing" into which the typewriter as a "mechanism" can "irrupt," or so I would like to believe. Perhaps it makes a little more sense to speak of writing as a "two-" or "three-dimensional process," but I am far from confident that it is.

Writing and Farting?

Another bit of idiocy - this time of the English sort:

"Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they enjoy the smell of their own farts. Much as I loathe the typewriter, I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Typescript is so impersonal and hideous to look at that, if I type out a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I looked through the manuscript. When it comes to a poem by somebody else, the severest test I know is to write it out in longhand. The physical tedium of doing this ensures that the slightest defect will reveal itself: the hand constantly looking for an excuse to stop." -- W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and other Essays . New York: Vintage, 1908, p. 17. (But it comes to you via Michael Heim (1987) Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing . New Haven & London: Yale University Press, p. 193.)

Perhaps I am perverse, but I can't say that I have ever particularly enjoyed the smell of farts -- be they my own or those of others. I could perhaps go so far as to say that I tolerate my own better than those of others. But that's it. As far as handwriting and typewriting is concerned, it's the reverse, i.e. I tolerate my own (or anyone else's) writing more when it is typed or on the screen rather than when it is hand-written. There is less to get in the way, and this is useful not just in self-criticism. In this case, just as with smells, less is more.

Typewriters and Thinking

Martin Heidegger found in his lectures on Parmenides that

"Writing, from its originating essence, is hand-writing. We call the disclosive taking up and perceiving of the written word "reading" or "lection" ["Lesen"], i.e., col-lection, gathering—("gleaning" ["Ähren lesen"]), in Greek legein—\logos and this latter, among the primordial thinkers, is the name for Being itself. Being, word, gathering, writing denote an original essential nexus, to which the indicating-writing hand belongs. In handwriting the relation of Being to man, namely the word, is inscribed in beings themselves. The origin and the way of dealing with writing is already in itself a decision about the relation of Being and of the word to man and consequently a decision about the comportment of man to beings and about the way both, man and thing, stand in unconcealedness or are withdrawn from it.

Therefore when writing was withdrawn from the origin of its essence, i.e., from the hand, and was transferred to the machine, a transformation occurred in the relation of Being to man. It is of little importance for this transformation how many people actually use the typewriter and whether there are some who shun it. It is no accident that the invention of the printing press coincides with the inception of the modern period. The word-signs become type, and the writing stroke disappears. The type is "set," the set becomes "pressed." This mechanism of setting and pressing and "printing" is the preliminary form of the typewriter. In the typewriter we find the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word. The typewriter leads again to the typesetting machine. The press becomes the rotary press. In rotation, the triumph of the machine comes to the fore. Indeed, at first, book printing and then machine type offer advantages and conveniences, and these then unwittingly steer preferences and needs to this kind of written communication. The typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man's experiencing this withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.

The typewriter is a sign-less cloud, i.e., a withdrawing concealment in the midst of its very obtrusiveness, and through it the relation of Being to man is transformed. It is in fact sign-less, not showing itself as to its essence; perhaps that is why most of you, as is proven to me by your reaction, though well-intended, have not grasped what I have been trying to say.--" etc., etc. (See Parmenides. Tr. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz, Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 85; see also 80f.)

This is, of course, nonsense of the highest order (or should I say: "nonsense in its most primitive form"?) One may well wonder what he would have said about gathering and "managing" information by electronic means. It is certainly nothing a "primordial thinker" should or could do, for it does not just remove writing from the "origin of its essence," and thus threatens thinking, but makes "col-lection, gathering ... 'gleaning' itself into a "sing-less cloud" -- at least if we believe the spineless pied piper of unconcealedness.

None of this means that writing, note-taking, or thinking with a computer as opposed with pen (pencil) or paper is without consequences for thinking, but they are bound to be much more subtle than Heidegger suggests.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


Concentration in writing and note-taking is essential. Often we are distracted by other (quite legitimate) concerns or ideas that don't belong into the present context. Klein recommends in his book On Time (see last post for more bibliographical details: "When an unrelated idea crosses your mind, write it down, then return to the original task without wasting any further thought on it. The next time you take a break, you will have time to consider that spur-of-the-moment thought."

I have always thought that this is a good idea. Therefore I wrote a little AutHotKey Script that, on pressing a Hotkey (F9 & r) opens an edit box in which I can write the thought and then save it to a file.

Here is the script:

F9 & r::
ScratchFile = C:\Users\...\scratch.txt
FormatTime, MyTime
Gui, Add, Text, x6 y67 w80 h80 , Entry:
Gui, Add, Edit, x66 y67 w380 h70 vContentText
Gui, Add, Button, x106 y187 w100 h30 , Enter
Gui, Add, Button, x296 y187 w100 h30
Gui, Show, x350 y182 h236 w461, New Entry


Gui, Submit
FileAppend, ----`n**%MyTime%**: %ContentText%`n`n, %ScratchFile%

It will work from any application, and it stores all those snippets, ideas, to do's in one convenient location until I can get to them later.

To look at the the text file I could use any kind of editor, but I prefer to do so in a ConnectedText Topic, in which I have the following information:

<% Python import sys import codecs r'C:\Users\...\Documents\Aktuell\Utilities\scratch.txt', 'r', encoding='ISO-8859-1') print text.encode('utf-8') %>



The reference to the file is there so that I can delete items I no longer need, etc.

It works perfectly, and it helps me in enforcing self-control.