Sunday, September 28, 2008

Outlines and Meshes

Scott Rosenberg's 2006 post on Outliners then and now is still interesting. Just like Rosenberg, I have never understood why (single-pane) outliners never caught on "as a primary writing environment." After all, they do "allow[.] you to dump huge amounts of information into the outline efficiently, move big pieces around easily, and swoop quickly from a top-level overview to the finer details."

Nor have I ever understoo why outliners are considered harmful. The claim that "when you use a tool that encourages you to think in terms of hierarchies, everything looks like a hierarchy" is clearly an exaggeration. A tool that encourages you to think in terms of hierarchies may indeed encourage you to look at everything in terms of hierarchy, but it does not force you to do so. It's ultimately up to the user of outliners to determine whether to look at the world hierarchically or non-hierarchically. Furthermore, an outliner is a tool to structure the information one wants to get across to others in the most plausible way, and claims become arguments in virtue of their structure. This has nothing to do with viewing the world exclusively in hierarchical ways. As Rosenberg points out in Outliners, Trees, and Meshes , "what matters [in outlining] is that outlines give ... easy handles to move chunks of loosely structured information around, and they let [one] quickly zoom from a low-altitude view to a high-altitude overview and back." This is why he still uses Ecco. And this is why I also find outlining useful in writing and for presentation, but not in note-taking, where a meshes or a networked or linked structure seems more useful—at least at first. In my experience (two-pane) outliners, which basically present a fixed view of hierarchically arranged categories, create more problems than they solve within the context of note-taking. But this is more a practical issue than one that has to do with the nature of reality.

Perhaps it is true that "the world is much much messier than [hierarchical thinking suggests]. Almost everything is actually a mesh not a hierarchy." Perhaps it is even true that "when hierarchies do exist in the data, it's very likely that you will find 2 or more inherent hierarchies that are orthogonal and in most real world situations it's more like 10. Which leads you to all sorts of mess with regional divisions versus category divisions and the same item being placed in lots of different places in the parallel hierarchies you're forced into using."

Non-hierarchical "tagging" or networks, in all likelihood, are better at capturing some aspects of reality, but none of this means that "outliners are harmful. The trick is to use both outlines and networks, or so it seems to me. Each of them has an appropriate use, and the trick is to know when to use what. The (presumed) fact that "the world is actually mess(h)y and not structured into elegant trees," does not only not imply that our attempt to understand the world must slavishly copy this structure, but may actually be taken to suggest that elegant trees give a perspective on the world that goes beyond the naive grasp of the surface structure of phenomena.

Sleeping and Making Connections

Research on the the importance of sleep for creativity.

Without further comment.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Eco on Index Cards and Making Connections

Umberto Eco makes fun of working with index cards in Foucault’s Pendulum. Casaubon, the narrator in the novel, who is writing a dissertation on the medieval order of the Knights Templar, gets involved in a scheme based on the idea that the Templars have something to do with everything. He becomes “a kind of private eye of learning” and sets up a “cultural investigation agency.” When someone asks him to investigate, he goes to the library, flips through some catalogs, gives the “man in the reference office a cigarette, and picks up a clue” (224).

As he invents this job of cultural detective for himself, he muses: “I knew a lot of things, unconnected things, but I would be able to connect them after a few hours at a library. I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn't. But nowadays all you needed was information, especially if it was out of date” (223).

And, he tells us: “I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away. I kept files on everything. I didn't think to use a computer (they were coming on the market just then ... Instead, I had cross-referenced index cards. Nebulae, Laplace; Laplace, Kant; Kant, Königsberg, the seven bridges problem of Königsberg, theorems of topology ... It was a little like that game where you have to go from sausage to Plato in five steps, by association of ideas. Let's see: sausage, pig bristle, paintbrush, Mannerism, Idea, Plato. Easy. Even the sloppiest manuscript would bring twenty new cards for my hoard. I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them." [1]

In some sense, the whole book is about making connections by associations that might appear reckless to the contemporary reader, but which would have made a great deal of sense to many Renaissance thinkers. The book is strewn with references to such thinkers and the way they used analogies. One gets the distinct impression that the book owes much of its wild learnedness to the use of “cross-referenced index cards,” the idea that “no piece of information is superior to any other,” and the idea that “there are always connections.” So, the passage certainly may be read as poking fun at the novel itself.

The passage may also be read as a parody of Umberto Eco, the semiotician himself, who once thought he needed a theory, and who wrote in 1977 a book called Come si fa una tesi di laurea (How to make a doctoral thesis), in which he described in great detail for students how one should use index cards in writing a scholarly essay. [2]

I don’t know whether Eco knew Luhmann’s index card method. But whether or not he knew it, the principles he outlines have a great deal of affinity with those of Luhmann, i.e. (i) every card has not significance in isolation, but gets it from its connections with all the others, (ii) there is no privileged card (or place) in the system, that, (iii) the power of this system lies in having information on file that is retrievable, and that (iv) the finding of the connections might involve serendipity.

But perhaps it is just me who under the influence of the book begins to believe that everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else, which is the basic principle of all conspiratorial thought.

I recoil in horror!

1. I use the English translation by William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers). I am not sure how reliable it is, as I don’t have the Italian. But the German text sounds rather different, speaking of the card index as “a kind of artificial (independent) memory” and characterizing it as “cross-referenced and networked.”

See also p. 618: Where the rules of “the game” that’s played in the novel are explained: “In a crossword puzzle the words intersecting, have to have letters in common. In our game we crossed not only words but concepts, events, so the rules were different. Basically there were three rules.

Rule One: Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else. For example, potato crosses with apple, because both are vegetable and round in shape. From apple to snake, by Biblical association. From snake to doughnut, by formal likeness. From doughnut to life preserver, and from live preserver to bathing suit ... [etc. etc.] hole to ground, ground to potato.

Rule Two says that if tout se tient in the end, the connecting works. From potato to potato, tout se tient. So it’s right.

Rule Three: The connection must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better ..."

And here are many other passages about connections and association. Some of them are more historical and to be taken more seriously.

2. I have only consulted the German translation: Wie man eine wissenschaftliche Abschlussarbeit schreibt: Doktor-, Diplom- und Magisterarbeit in den Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften. 9. unveränd. Aufl. der dt. Ausg. Heidelberg: UTB Uni-Taschenbücher Verlag.

"How Could it be Otherwise?"

In a review of Niklas Luhmann's Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity. Edited, with an introduction by William Rasch (Stanford University Press, 2002) in the Canadian Journal of Sociology Online (November - December 2002 [Luhmann.pdf]) Marion Bute finds that "Luhmann is not for those who prefer an extended, linear, rational argument. Increasingly, his later work became (some might say degenerated into) an almost schizophrenic thought (albeit not word) salad." And then asks the rhetorical question: "How could it be otherwise, given his famous card-shuffling method of working?"

I would agree that (i) "Luhmann is not for those who prefer an extended, linear, rational argument." I might also agree that his non-linear and associative style "degenerated" in his later work into something like a "thought salad." But I would (ii) reject the description of his writing as "card-shuffling." Rather than simply "shuffling" his index cards before writing, he "selected" cards that seemed relevant to him and followed the leads he "found" in the notes he carefully (and in a highly controlled way) had taken during several decades, trying to "discover" connections between them. See Luhmann's Zettelkasten. This is something that he did during his entire life. I would also reject (iii) the suggestion of determinism in the claim. While the tools we use in note-taking and writing may indeed have some influence on our work, they certainly do not have to predetermine its outcome in every detail. In any case, before I would accept such a claim, I would like to see some proof.

Indeed, if it is true that Luhmann's writing did indeed degenerate or change in his later work, then this is sufficient proof that things "could be otherwise" simply because they were so before. The perceived change probably was not so much due to his method of note-taking, as it was due to a change in how he processed these notes in composing his articles and books.[1]

That being said, I should perhaps also point out that I believe that all writing benefits from "extended, linear, rational argument." This should be the distinguishing mark of the finished product, while it need not and probably cannot be a characteristic of the process of discovery. (See also Wittgenstein on Note-taking.)

When Bute finds that "in reading Luhmann, before long one inevitably experiences a “clang” as a thought resonates with something pre-existing but only half-formed, evoking a “now that’s something worth thinking about”, and you put the book down gently for awhile lost in thought," she describes an effect good note-taking can produce in the process of discovery—even if there is no inevitability here either.

1. None of this means that Luhmann's method is without its problems. See also Critique of Zettelkästen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sentimental about Typewriters

Only loosely related to note-taking: Obituary of a man who loved typewriters

Without further comment.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Looking versus Reading

This is perhaps worth another look ... argh ... reading: McLuhan on Wikis?

Without further comment.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Frost's Notebooks

I recently bought Robert Frost, The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Ed. Robert Faggen (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2007). I found it interesting, but less so than I had anticipated. Robert Faggen argues in his introduction that Frost's Notebooks reveal him as an aphoristic thinker, comparable to Francis Bacon, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and Friedrich Nietzsche. "in keeping with modern revivals of the aphoristic philosophical tradition, Frost's Notebooks have the probing quality of Pascal's Pensées and the wit of Lichtenberg's 'Waste Books.' Frost's notebooks, like Pascal's and Lichtenberg's, refuse easy editorial arrangement as extended, logical arguments, but that does little to diminish their inspired intensity or the focus of their thought" (x).

I beg to differ. I t is true that Frost's notebooks, like Lichtenberg's notes and Pascal's thoughts, are difficult to edit and do not offer extended logical arguments. It is also true that some of the entries have an aphoristic quality. But the difference between Pascal and Lichtenberg on the one hand, and Frost on the other could not be more striking. Frost's notes consist of an unordered "mixture of phrases, sayings, meditations, stories, topical lists, dialogues, teaching notes, and drafts of poems" (ix), Pascal's and Lichtenberg's entries have a much more finished look. The notes of Pascal and Lichtenberg are ends in themselves, while Frost's are means, perhaps even "mere means" towards another end, most notably his poems.[1]

As Faggen himself points out, "Frost drafted the poems in the same or similar notebooks to the ones presented here, tore out pages he wanted transcribed, and then destroyed early drafts. But trial lines and early drafts of a number of poems can be found in the surviving notebooks" (xi). The notebooks were working instruments, no more and no less. "A visitor to Frost during his later years, either in his study on Brewster Street, in Cambridge, or at the cabin on the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, Vermont, might find him stretched out in his armchair, homemade lapboard on his knee, his feet surrounded by a clutter of notebooks. Nearby on the floor would lie a small, well-worn, brown leather satchel half-opened, showing more notebooks and many sheets of paper covered by handwriting ... They [the notebooks] were his constant companions such that he tool one with him wherever he traveled" (xiii).

What you find in them are some of the raw materials of his poems and speeches, together with some experiments and trials. None of this means that we cannot learn from them. It just means that the 688 pages of notes yield far less to the reader who is only casually acquainted with Frost's poetry than the Introduction promises. Faggen also calls the notebooks Frost's "laboratory," and I believe that this is closer to the truth.

Frost's notebooks may provide "insight into the ... ideas that became poems." He recorded ideas and expressions with a view to later use. But much of what may have made sense to him, will makes no sense to us. His notes for himself are to a large extent inscrutable. To a lesser extent this must be true of all notes someone takes in pursuing a project or simply taking note. Some may even become inscrutable to the note-taker himself, which may or may not be a good thing.

1. This, of course, does not preclude the possibility that some of these fragments would later become the means to some other end.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Should Go into Notebooks

I am not sure whether I agree with everything (or even most) of this post at 43 Folders, but I certainly agree with this:
A notebook is basically the creative equivalent of the NFL jersey you picked up at Macy’s; unless you fill it with a lot of hard work and sacrifices, you’re just a dilettante with poor spending patterns. An aspiring something. A fan of the game. An existential cosplayer.

Nor does it matter whether the notebook is made of paper or whether it is electronic. It's what goes into it that counts. And that has to be work.

There are, of course, some applications that support work better than others.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Jarte is a free rich text editor, based on the wordpad editing engine. Nothing really fancy, but it's fast. Their line: "Does your word processor handle like an ocean liner?" Well ... this one doesn't.

I paid the $19.00 to use the plus version, which adds some features I like. Footnotes have been promised, and I am waiting.

One of its really interesting features, available in the free and the plus version, is "Hot Connect." It "connects Jarte to any other program's text window allowing instant transfer of text between the two windows. The connection makes it easy and convenient to use Jarte to write and spell check text for the other program. Hot Connect can be used for writing and spell checking e-mails, blog entries, newsgroup posts, or any other writing task you normally do in another program or in your web browser." It "can also be used for reading articles from your web browser without any of the ads."

You just press "ALt-F7" in the other program (with Jarte running), and the text in the other program shows up in Jarte. Saving the text in Jarte will actually save it to the window of the other program.

I have tested it with ConnectedText, and it worked well. But it will probably be more useful as an editor for Thunderbird and this Blog.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bacon on Instruments of the Mind

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) felt that human beings could not accomplish very much without the proper instruments. "Neither the naked hand nor the understanding left to itself can effect much. It is by instruments and helps that the work is done, which are as much wanted for the understanding as for the hand. And as the instruments of the hand either give motion or guide it, so the instruments of the mind supply either suggestions for the understanding or cautions" (Francis Bacon, The New Organon. Ed. Fulton H. Anderson. Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs Merrill Co., 1960, p. 39). The mind, he thought, should in establishing reliable knowledge be "guided at every step; and the business be done as if by machinery" (34). The "naked forces of the understanding" don't get us very far. We do need "instruments and machinery, either for the strength of each to be exerted or the strength of all to be united" (35).

The "instrument and machinery" he had primarily in mind were logic and methodology. He rejected the syllogistic method and the Aristotelian categories in favor of a "methodical process," he called "interpretation of nature" (45).

This approach also led to some very practical ideas about note-taking. Thus he also rejected the "tricks" of artificial memory masters and their memory palaces. They are like "tricks and antics of clowns and rope-dancers." Instead, he argued for the use of commonplace books. As he found in the fifth chapter of Book 5 of Of the dignity and Advancement of Learning,
there can hardly be anything more useful even for the old and popular sciences, than a sound help for the memory; that is a good and learned Digest of common Places ... I hold diligence and labour in the entry of common places to be a matter of great use and support in studying; as that which supplies matter to invention, and contracts the sight of the judgment to a point. But yer it is true that of the methods and frameworks of commonplaces which I have hitherto seen, there is none of any worth, all of them carrying in their titles merely the face of a school and not of a world; and using vulgar and pedantical divisions, not such a pierce to the pith an heart of things.

And in a letter to o Fulke Greville, who was looking to hire assistants to help him in his research, he wrote around 1599:
He that shall out of his own Reading gather for the use of another must (as I think) do it be Epitome, or Abridgment, or under Heads and Common Places. Epitomes also may be of 2 sorts: of any one Art, or part of Knowledge out of many Books; or of one Book by itself. Of the first kind we have many Patterns; as for Civil Law, Justinian; Littleton for our own; Ramus Logick; Valerius Physicks; Lipsius Politicks, and Machivels [370] Art of War. some in every kind and diverse in som one. In matter of Story I will not cite Carion, Functius, Melanchthon, nor the French Bibliotheque Historien; because they are rather calendars to direct a man to Stories, than Abridgments of Story. But the reading of the best of these ... will no more make a Man a good ... Lawyer, Logician ...And if the Works of so excellent Men be so fruitless, what shall their Abridgements be?” [271]

General abridgments made by someone else may give us some vague ideas, but not solid knowledge. Instead, he argued:
I hold Collections under Heads & Common Places of far more profit, and use; because they have in them a kind of Observation; without the which neither long Life breeds Experience, nor great Reading great Knowledge: For id demum scimus, cujus causam scimus.(Quoted in accordance with Vernon Snow, "Francis Bacon’s Advice to Fulke Greville on Research Techniques," Huntington Library Quarterly 23 (1959-60), 369-78).

Bacon felt that commonplace books might be useful instruments of the mind, especially if the commonplaces are collected from the nature of the world, and not from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy. In fact, for Bacon the commonplace book is not a means of storing stock phrases and ideas in accordance with traditional "commonplaces," but a tool in the discovery of a new "interpretation of nature." It is for him not a "top-down," but a "bottom-up" approach that "arrives at the most general axioms last of all" (New Organon, 43). This is "the true way," which remained "untried," but which he recommended.

Some people still use commonplace books this way. Others are trying to adapt electronic note-taking tools to this traditional approach, even though there are much better ways to keep one's notes today.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ConnectedText on Linux

Apparently it's possible now.

See Connectedtext on Wine

A More Relaxed Style of Thinking

"When we are stuck on a particularly difficult problem, a good daydream isn't just an escape - it may be the most productive thing we can do."

Peripherally related to note-taking, but and very interesting:

Daydream Achiever

Without further comment.