Sunday, March 30, 2008

More Thinking about Information

Herbert Hrachovec engages in some interesting reflections on information and other topics concerning the relationship of philosophy and electronic media that are worth careful consideration.

In his article on "Irreconcilable Similarities: Man and Semantic Machines" (which is in English) he argues that "A highly suggestive current account of intelligence regards it as something that in principle can be generated by 'semantic machines.' Treating certain systems (computers, brains) as mechanisms working towards potentially meaningful results by purely formal procedures has proved to be a fruitful research program. Think of a jigsaw puzzle. The shape of its pieces contains no information about the content of the representation that has to be retrieved. Finding out how the pieces fit together is a syntactic activity that can be performed according to formal principles. All those pieces just fit together in the end; but, remarkably enough, a picture of something has been assembled by this process. Evidently it is possible, by appropriate construction, to integrate formal procedures and the more complex relationships between signs and their interpretation. A puzzle illustrates semantic machines insofar as it leads to representation of reality in the absence of any prior semantic information."

The article can be found here: Irreconcilable Similarities. Admittedly, it is rather remotely related to note-taking.

Warning: You need to know German to read the articles on his Website.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Single Place for all your Notes

Many note-taking applications tout that they provide "a single place for all your notes." Most of them provide you with the means to keep everything in one place. The only thing is that some do so more easily and provide you with better tools than others to "process," i.e. to categorize, order, connect, and summarize them. Which tool you chose, will depend, at least to some extent, on personal preferences.

But whichever tool you choose, it is best to keep all notes in one place. It's advisable not to fragment one's "external memory."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Gass on Information and Books

William H. Gass writes in "A Defense of the Book," found in A Temple of Texts. Essays By William H. Gass (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 170: "Of course libraries contain books, and books contain information, but information has always been of minor importance, except to minor minds. The information highway has not destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion. What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and two what uses it going to be put. In short, what matters is the book the data's in."

Gass makes essentially two claims in this passage:

(i) the Internet is essentially useless, and
(ii) information per se is of minor importance: "What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what uses it is going to be put. What matters is the book the data's in."

One can agree with (ii), while disagreeing with (i). Even if it is true that the information one can find on the Internet, understood as raw data, is of minor importance, in need to be checked, and often useless, this does not mean that the Internet is useless. It is a tool. And like all tools, it can be used the right way or the wrong way. So, I would reject the first claim.

The second claim may be analysed into three sub-claims that lead to the conclusion that it is books that really matter. They are:

(a) the arrangement of the information is what is most important
(b) the arrangement of the information has something to do with understanding (and usefulness)
(c) the arrangement or understanding of the data is found in books

I agree with all three claims to varying degrees. Yes, "it's not the data, it's the relationships." Building complex relationships between what at first glance appear unrelated bits and pieces is what research and writing is about. Only when one has a hypothesis about how apparently quite disparate information is related, do things become interesting. Research might be - and has been - described as the attempt to accumulate materials for a structure that does not yet exist. It also seems true to me that the way we arrange or connect disparate pieces is at least part of the process of discovery. Numerous notebooks of scientists and writers attest to this. Finally, it cannot be denied that this understanding and arrangement of information needs its own context.

But does this mean that where it's at is just bound volumes of paper? I don't think so. Mind you, I have nothing against books. My house is full of them and I love them. Furthermore, traditionally the arrangement and and understanding of data have been disseminated through books (and other paper products). But it would be a mistake to think that these were always printed books. Often they were first hand-written books. And Gass' article itself does start out with Ben Johnson's commonplace books.

The function of commonplace or note books can - and has been - taken over by electronic media like IdeaNotes and ConnectedText. I find especially the latter a great aid in the arrangement and understanding of information.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jefferson's Notebook

This is a picture of Jefferson's Notebook, made of ivory. He took notes on the plates, which he later transcribed into his paper Notebooks. The entries in the Notebook could be erased.

Such devices for note-taking go back far in the history of writing. Being much more expensive than wax tablets, they were the privilege of the rich (or relatively well-off.

In any case, the two-step process of first taking notes and then transcribing or further processing these notes must be relatively old. Paper added convenience, and thus incrementally changed this process, but it did not radically change it (or so it would seem).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Excerpts and Abstracts

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "excerpt" as "a passage or segment taken from a longer work, such as a literary or musical composition, a document, or a film," and excerpting as "to select or use (a passage or segment from a longer work)." Accordingly, an excerpt is an exact or mechanical copy of the original. It is quite different from "abstracting" or "summarizing," which does not refer to the literal copying of information from an original source. To abstract or summarize means to take note of some of the salient points of the source in one's own words, selecting what is appropriate and condensing and reformulating it. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century this was also called "epitomizing." It is interesting that in German, "exzerpieren" is not restricted in meaning to copying information verbatim. It also covers "abstracting" and "summarizing." Sometimes it is also called a "freie exzerpieren."

Abstracting, summarizing, or exzerpieren is not a merely mechanical activity, but a way of actively reading and digesting the material under consideration. The excerpts resulting from this methods are records of one's engagement with texts. They constitute first steps of one's own thinking and writing about the material in question.

Exact references to the sources are just as important for summaries and abstracts as they are for excerpts. To use them without attribution would constitute plagiarism. Even though they constitute the first steps of one's own thinking about the material in question, they are dependent on the material that has been summarized. There is nothing wrong with being indebted to someone else in scholarship. In fact no one who says anything of any interest to anyone should be expected not to be indebted to others who have thought about these matters before him or her.