Sunday, July 27, 2008

Another Plain Text Wiki

I discovered another plain text wiki. It is called HypEdit. Its author, Jerry Muelver, describes it as an "entry-level (simple) personal wiki authoring and distribution system," or as "just a basic Windows text editor... with an attitude." And it's freeware.

To make a hyperlink, put a phrase in brackets, like [Features and Functions].

To use a hyperlink, move your mouse cursor over the text inside the brackets, press CTRL and right-click the mouse to drop the cursor into the link and jump to the linked page.

The "wiki" is saved in a plain text file that can be edited by any text editor.

It can print. And it will split any text file into Wiki pages, when it finds a double-colon and a name on a line by itself in the file, like this:


That's it.

But you must manually save, either individually each page you created or edited, or the whole "wiki" on exit, otherwise all additions and modifications are gone.

See: HypEdit

It's nothing fancy, and it won't replace a real desktop wiki like ConnectedText. It is just a notepad with (very) basic wiki-capabilities. As such, I find it interesting. Since the application takes just 155 KB of disk space, you might use it for quick note-taking on the road, using a USB-drive.

Update on the Hundred Most-Used Words in English

I experimented for about a month with abbreviating the 100 most-used words in English to speed up typing. It did not work for me. The savings in touch-typing seem minuscule. So, I will stop.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Note-keeping in 1786 - Blumenbach's System of Maps

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a relatively famous eighteenth-century German anatomist and "anthropologist," published in 1786 in the second volume of his journal Medicinische Bibliothek (pp. 547-559) an essay "On the Best Methods to Collect Collectanea and Excerpts" ("Über die vorzüglichsten Methoden Collectaneen und Excerpte zu sammeln").[1] This essay was meant for medical practitioners, who, he felt, had a pressing need for keeping and consulting notes on medical matters in order to better treat their patients.

He finds (a priori) that a good note-taking method must have three characteristics:

1. it must allow excerpting without much loss of time
2. the excerpts must put in proper order so that one can be sure to find the excerpts or notes again
3. the excerpts or notes must be quickly retrievable when needed (548)

A posteriori, he observes that basically two methods have been followed that promise to achieve something of the sort, namely,

I. individual pieces of paper, "Zettel," or slips, and
II. indexed notebooks, or "Kollektaneenbücher" (also "Collectaneen-Bücher")

He claims that the method of making "excerpts, using scraps of paper is supported by the authority of two of the greatest scholars the world has ever seen: von Leibniz and von Haller" (549). He also claims that he has seen in the library of Hannover "perhaps a million" of such notes taken by Leibniz on scraps of paper. Both von Haller and von Leibniz carried at all times boxes of paper in order to be able to take notes.

According to Blumenbach, this method has the advantage that the slips can later be put in order at one's own leisure. It has the disadvantage, however, that the slips can easily be lost or fall into disarray. Thus he reports that a certain Stolle in Jena, who was working at his garden house on the river Saale, lost many of his notes when the wind blew the slips into the river. Therefore, a proper container is necessary. The kind of cabinet described by a certain Placcius and actually owned and used by Leibniz might be the best for such purposes. But Blumenbach finds this contraption to be fear-inspiring and "most inconvenient."

So the question arises whether one should not use a notebook instead. Again, some other famous scholars have used this method. He mentions von Boerhave and van Gorter, pointing out that the latter has described his method in a book called Methodus dirigendi studium medicum (a work I have not seen yet). According to this method, notes are taken unsystematically in the order in which one comes upon different subjects. To find things, one has therefore to create three registers: one alphabetical, one general and one special register of subject matters. Though this method secures the notes in one place, it is inconvenient as well. Blumenbach points out that the notebooks will soon become a "mess" or "Wust," and that ultimately it will be difficult to find anything in this chaos.

None of the modifications of the notebook-method solve the fundamental problems.

To record one's notes in alphabetical order is not a solution either. John Locke had described such a method in a "Lettre de Monsieur J: L. de la Societe Roiale d'Angeleterre a Monsieur N. T. contenant une methode nouvelle & facile de dresser des Recueuils, dont on peut faire un Indice exact en deux pages" in the Bibliothèque Universelle et Historique, vol. II (Amsterdam, 1686). Vincent Placcius had reported on this in his De arte excerpendi: Vom gelahrten Buchhalten liber singularis of 1689 (which also contained a description of the kind of cabinet Leibniz later used for his notes). This method is not ideal either, as things that might belong together will be separated and therefore require references to one another. Finding things thus will lead to thumbing through many pages back and forth.

Conrad Gessner's method that involves recording notes first on pieces of paper, which are then later glued into a book is also defective. Blumenbach reports that he has seen many of the numerous folio volumes with such notes in Zürich. Gluing is messy, and the resulting volumes are unshapely.

Blumenbach's alternative is not a spectacular departure from traditional methods, as he is the first to admit himself. It is rather a combination of other traditional methods. But it does meet the three a priori requirements of a good note-keeping system that formulated at the beginning of the essay, and it basically amounts to this:

1. For some of the less important subjects he recommends "durchschossene Handbücher" or textbooks with interleaved empty pages. The notes are to be placed on the pages close to the appropriate subjects of the textbook. [2]

2. For the main subjects Blumenbach recommends quarto pages that are folded in such a way that they form to columns. Blumenbach's advice is to write only on one side of these, and to use only one column at first. This leaves space for later additions. Every page should receive a heading that is not too general. The papers should be collected in maps or between two pages of heavy cardboard of the same format. The maps or cardboard volumes can easily be ordered and re-ordered. If a topic needs to be divided, it is easy, to separate them in one map by means of special paper, or, eventually to start a new map or cardboard folder.

The maps are placed horizontally into a small suite of pigeon holes (Fachwerk) on his writing desk. To differentiate between them, different colors for different maps or card boards should be used. (Different thickness of the maps might also do, but none of them should be thicker than a thumb.)

3. This system can be complemented with a card index and a notebook. The former can be used for preliminary notes, the latter for notes unrelated to the main subject.

In other words, Blumenbach recommends as an alternative to the slip box and the notebook, something that is the equivalent of file folders. Too bad he did not live to see the system of hanging folders, as this system may be seen as an improvement over his system of maps and files.

The article is interesting as it illustrates the different note-keeping system available to a scholar at the end of the eighteenth century.

1. It is available online here: Vorzüglichste Methode - go to page 551 of the electronic text.

2. The method of using interleaved copies of textbooks for notes and reflections was used by many scholars, including Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Roland Barthes on His "Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments"

In an interview, entitled "An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments" and published in The Grain of the Voice, pp. 177-182 (originally in Le Monde, September 27, 1974), Roland Barthes admitted that he was more or less obsessive about his writing instruments. "I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones. I have far too many pens ... and yet, as soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them."

"When felt-tipped pens first appeared in the stores, I bought a lot of them. (The fact that they were originally from Japan was not, I admit, displeasing to me.) Since then I've gotten tired of them, because the point flattens out too quickly. I've also used pen nibs -- not the 'Serjeant-Major,' which is too dry, but softer nibs, like the 'J.' In short, I've tried everything except Bics, with which I feel absolutely no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy, writing that merely transcribes thought."

"In the end I always return to fine fountain pens. The essential thing is that they can produce that soft, smooth writing I absolutely require."

Barthes also noted that his own writing went through two stages: “First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse.” This seems to have been the stage of copying “certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me,” and of working out “the rhythm of a sentence.” The second had to do with the preparation of his text “for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object” – he thought that at this point his writing was “already beginning its commercialization” (p. 178).

These two stages, "handwriting, typewriting," he said, were "sacred" for him during most of his life. But, after having made himself the present of an electric typewriter and having practiced for half an hour every day on it, he "found the hope of acquiring more 'typewriterly' writing. (See also the other entries on handwriting and typewriting in this blog.)

He took notes on index cards: "I have my index-card system, and the slips have an equally strict format: one quarter of the size of my usual sheet of paper. At least that that's how they were until the day standards were readjusted within the framework of European unification ... Luckily, I am not completely obsessive. Otherwise, I would have had to redo all my cards from the time I first started writing, twenty-five years ago. His Zettelkasten contained about 15,000 cards when he died.

Handwriting, while not just a nuisance, has no special aura for me. Nor do think that there is such a thing as "Bic style," but then I am neither French nor Roland Barthes.

For Those Who (Still) Use Paper Notebooks

Of course I still carry a pen and paper. Here are some interesting links:

Black Cover: This blog is dedicated to the search for the perfect little black notebook.

The Monster Collection of Moleskine Tips, Tricks and Hacks: ... well, just that.

Pencil Things ... but I like the mechanical kind ...

for someone else who does, see Dave's Mechanical Pencils

Pen Addiction ... I have kept it under control, having just five of them.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dana by Alphasmart

I earlier wrote about the Neo and how useful I find it for note-taking. I was always tempted by their other product, called "Dana," since it sports the Palm operating system and thus provides access to more sophisticated applications for scheduling, outlining, and writing rtf files. But I found it always too expensive to justify the added capability.

A few days ago, I bought a Dana on eBay at a fraction of the cost (less than $100.00, including shipping, instead of $350.00). It works well, though I had a bit of a problem getting the program for syncing installed on Vista. But everything works now.

I like the instant on/off convenience and the well-designed keyboard. It looks just like a Neo, except it has a larger screen. It also sports two slots for SD cards.

This does not mean that I will retire the Neo. It will still be useful on longer trips, as the Dana's battery life is only about 25 hours, whereas the Neo runs more than 700 hours on three ordinary AAA batteries. (The Dana uses a battery pack that needs to be re-charged with an AC adapter or per USB port on a computer. I have ordered a USB adapter that plugs right into an electrical outlet, however.)

Here is an interesting post by a writer on working with an Alphasmart (who actually convinced me that having both an Neo and a Dana is defensible): Tom Morrisey. Go to "First Drafts and Early Revisions" and "More on Writing a Novel with Alphasmart."

I will only take notes and write "0-drafts" on my machine.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Leopardi's "Zibaldone di pensieri"

Giacomo Leopardi kept between 1817 and 1832 notebooks. They are now usually referred to as "Zibaldone di pensieri" ("mixture," "unstructured collection" or "grab bag" of thoughts). In them, he recorded his ideas, notes, and excerpts about literary, moral, societal, and political matters. In 1832 he began to collect and revise some of these for a short book of aphorisms. But he died before they were published. The book was later published by his friend Ranieri under the title Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura. The entire set of notebooks with its 4523 entries were later published as well. There is a pdf file of the 1921 edition. An interesting Hypertext edition in Italian of part of this book is available at the following Website Zibaldone di pensieri. The Leopardi Centre at the University of Birmingham has started the Zibaldone Project , which promises the first complete English edition and translation of this work. It is to appear in 2010.

This is significant, even if the working hypothesis of the project seems to me somewhat too grand. I am not sure that "the Zibaldone represents a new kind of 'book of memory' which is not accounted for by models of the past." Nor do I believe that "the Zibaldone embodies a characteristically modern way of conducting philosophical argument through a non-hierarchical discourse, the typical form of which is the fragment." If "Romantic" were to be substituted for "modern," we might get somewhere, even if not to "philosophical argument" in any strict sense. (And this is not meant as a criticism of Leopardi's original "Mischmasch" or "Sammelsurium" either, which, so far, I have read only in German.)

There is a translation into English: Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri . Tr. W. S. Di Piero. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1981. This edition is said to contain English translations of all the pensieri , with the Italian text on facing pages.

Addendum: I got the book; and I found out that the translation actually does not contain the entire text of the Zibaldone, but only what Leopardi himself selected for publication shortly before he died (and what was published in the 1845 edition by Ranieri). It represents 111 of the 4526 notes.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Are Ontologies Overrated?

Clay Shirky thinks that ontology is overrated. See Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags. This is an interesting (and popular) take on classification. Though he is mainly interested in the Internet, his view also appears to have implications for personal note-taking.

His related post on The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview is also relevant in this context.

See also my earlier entry on Weinberger on Pepper on Topic Maps.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Notetab as a Plain Text Wiki

Desktop wikis are ideal for note-taking. At least that's the answer you would get, if you asked me! Some people believe that plain text is the best way to go in data storage. I am not one of them. Rather, I believe that a database is the best way to store information and that trying to replicate the functions of a database with a plain text setup will cost largely unrewarded effort.

On the other hand, there are situations where plain text is useful. It can be useful for short notes; it can also be useful for long-term storage in a non-proprietary format.

It appears to have been the latter possibility that has inspired The Plain Text Wiki for the Mac OS editor TextMate. This, in turn, inspired the PlainTextWiki Toolkit. Each is an interesting variation of an idea that I find theoretically interesting but practically not very useful.

Notetab Pro, my favorite text editor, can also be used as a primitive wiki-like application, a.k.a. plain text wiki. Notab Standard and Notetab Pro come with the outline view. The trial version also includes this capability for the first thirty days; and even after the evaluation period is up, it can still read outline files, but not write them (if I remember correctly).

In any case, in an outline document any outline item can include links to any other outline item. One simply has to include the name of the outline item in square brackets like "[so]". To create a new outline item is as easy as:

(i) Pressing "Shift+Ctrl+A" - You will then be prompted to enter the name for the new heading.
(ii) Selecting some text, and pressing "Shift+Ctrl+B". - This command automatically inserts square brackets around the selection, adds the heading to the list, and opens it for input. This is very close to linking in wikis.
(iii) Using the outline heading submenu to add a new heading.

To remove a heading, select it in outline view and press "Shift+Ctrl+R".

In Notetab Pro, the links can be colored, just like in Wiki. Since Notetab can be scripted, other behavior could be added. Autohotkey can be used as well.

The links are static, however. If you change the name of the outline item, the links to it in other items do not get updated automatically.

I find this fairly limited wiki capability interesting, even though I don't use it much because I use another much more capable desktop wiki in my daily work. But a Notetab Wiki appears to me at least as convenient as the other two "solutions", if not more so. Why? A Notetab outline file is just one file, not many.

Patterns in Unstructured Data

For an interesting post on this subject, see

Patterns in Unstructured Data.

Without further comment.