Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Literary Machine

The Literary Machine is a piece of software with very ambitious goals. Its author describes it as a "dynamic archive and an idea management tool aimed at creative thinking—built especially with the writer in mind. It is packed with indexing and display techniques so general and potent that you will use it as an intelligence center. In a class by itself, it is virtually an extension of your brain. So, write in it. Collect and sort information and ideas in it. Make it your treasure chest of random notes and ideas for analysis and future reference. For, it will serve you well as the substance, catalyst, and processor for relating or reusing them in creative combinations."

So far, so promising. But then there is the claim that "LM is designed to fulfill needs, not fancy." This raises immediately the question as to what criteria are used to differentiate "needs" from "fancy." Yet, we are not told what the criteria are, but only told what the results of the application of these criteria are supposed to be: the application "does not 'fool around' with features that your conventional word processor and email client already do well and more efficiently than a database could. Instead, LM teams with your other programs to accomplish what, till now, was possible only in your dreams."

"Can LM help you think 'outside the box?' Answer: What box? LM's powerful 'fuzzy thinking' kernel does away with 'the box.'"

The reason is "LM's tremendous flexibility," which is said to stem "from its innovative, dual-classification system: one an optional, traditional data tree of well defined topics, the other a powerful underlying conceptual network that forms the keyword matrix of LM's revolutionary 'fuzzy thinking kernel.' It's where you discover relationships, where you find something you filed too long ago to remember what topic it's in, where you dredge up past bits of writing or thinking on a subject, where you go to get an idea."

If by now you are interested in what this "fuzzy thinking kernel" is, you are not alone. But the answer is ultimately rather disappointing. It has to do with what in the language of the program are called "words, concepts, and 'ideas."

  • "words" correspond to what are usually called "key words" that are collected in a "dictionary." Any kind of entry can be assigned such key word(s), and entries that have common key words can be retrieved by its means. In most programs this would be done by a search, LM is more visual: you drag the key word to the desktop and all connected entries appear. Nothing fancy, one might be tempted to say.

  • "Concepts" are explained as connections between words. Actually, they may also be represented as searches of two or more terms connected by the Boolean operator "AND." Nothing fancy here either.

  • "Ideas" are just the items or records in the database, to which a keyword or keywords are applied.

This is the fuzzy thinking kernel. Records connected by keywords they have in common.[1]

LM uses a simple flat keyword structure rather than an inheritance hierarchy, such as are used by Lotus Agenda and many other programs written after it.[2] In other words, there is no nesting of keywords. In this it is very similar to Personal Knowbase, which also bets on indexing "your notes, messages, and ideas using keywords for fast access" and, just as LM, makes exaggerated claims about how this makes it "a Unique Free-form Note Organizer." But at least, it is open about the concept of "Keywords" and does not pretend to have a "fuzzy thinking kernel."

It also has another advantage over the "Literary Machine," namely a clean, and very intuitive interface. In fact, LM's use of the visual metaphor of a card index only seems to get into the way—at least as far as I am concerned. Dragging "a concept to the LM desktop produces a deck of (note) cards. Each card is an item you connected to that concept, and the information it contains could be text, an image, a sound, or all three." The Website warns that if you are dragging "a Dictionary word to the desktop produces several word-combinations (e.g., concepts), you should review each before opening the connected items." The reason is that "otherwise the desktop could get so full [that] you couldn't sort the appropriate items from the inappropriate ones." But actually there seems to me already more than enough confusion when you have dragged just one word to the desktop. (See the screen shot, which also shows that the applications retains almost all the non-endearing features of Windows 3.1).

Why am I so negative on the "Literary Machine"? Well, I used index cards for a long time in the real world. This application promised a translation of this approach into software for research and writing. I spent about a week around 2000 trying to make it work, only to give up on it as being unworkable.

The many claims about how the program reproduces what the mind does, supported by appeals to supposed discoveries in cognitive science, did not help either. If you are interested in an application that works by means of flat list of keywords, Personal Knowbase is much to be preferred. But I would prefer an application that does not just rely on keywords. For one, given the power of today's computers, every word in a database can be a keyword, and a powerful search engine that includes "OR," NEARBY," and "NOT" should find many more connections than the Literary machine or Personal Knowbase.[3] Secondly, the ability easily to link different items to each other is absolutely essential—or so it seems to me. The Literary Machine does not offer either.

1. The whole thing is made even more confusing because in the language of the program "keywords are concepts, which are built by Dictionary words — singly or in combination. Since a concept may thus consist of several Dictionary words (without a designated header word), LM marks-up an item with an arbitrary word (a keyword) from the concept. At a first, this strategy might appear senseless, but your work in the program gradually shows you how useful it is." In my experience, it never made sense, but perhaps I never gave it enough of a chance.

2. See Taking Note on Agenda

3. Literary Machine 2000 is restricted to "AND" or "OR." Personal Knowbase just searches for strings. Keyword mode allows "AND" or "OR."


This application is billed as a "cross" between personal wiki and Zettelkasten or as a tool for knowledge management. It is a Rich Client Platform (RCP) application based on the Eclipse platform. Accordingly, it works on Windows, the Mac, and UNIX.

See Relations. Nice picture of Arno Schmidt!

There is a screen cast, explaining the details.

It will not replace ConnectedText for me, but it is an interesting variation of a common theme. I intend to follow its further development.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thinkertoys and the 'hypothetical writing machine'

An interesting paper about note-taking and hypertext (not necessarily in that order): The Magical Place of Literary Memory™: Xanadu:

"I was continually trying different systems for organizing ideas. File cards... were clearly hopeless. I tried index tabbing, needlesort cards, making multiple carbons and cutting them up. None of these solved the basic problem: an idea needed to be in several places at once... but then, in graduate school, I took a computer course" (Ted Nelson in 1992).

Without further comment!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bettina Heintz on Luhmann's Card Index

Here is a video interview of someone who saw the fabled object: Bettina Heintz. The interview is in German, and the relevant parts are in the second half of the interview.

No further comment!

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Given my experience with Feedbooks, I have decided to turn off the RSS feed from now on.

Their position seems to be that they can publish the contents of anyone's blog without so much as having a reference to the original blog and without having any reference to the person who wrote the blog entries.

In other words, their motto is "you can make anyone's work 'your book' and publish it simply by adding the feed to their site," thus making it in effect THEIR book.

If this inconveniences any of the people who regularly read my entries, I am sorry.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Feedbooks Rip Off

Searching the Internet I came across this today:

No indication about who wrote it, no reference to this blog. This seems to be theft.

Six Impossible Things

One of my favorite quotes—not a very strong relation to note-taking, but not entirely unrelated either:

Lewis Carroll's White Queen, in response to Alice's "One can't believe impossible things'":

"I daresay you haven't had much practice... When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

As a historian of philosophy, I don't necessarily practice this, but I have a large collection of such things.

Idiosyncratic Reflections on Note-taking

Some people who read this blog may be interested in this essay just because it was written by the same person who writes this blog:


Without further comment!

Darwin on Collecting Notes "with the Determination not to Publish"

Charles Darwin, an inveterate note-taker with special systems of folders and notebooks, wrote in his Introduction to The Descent of Man: "The nature of the following work will be best understood by a brief account of how it came to be written. During many years I collected notes on the origin or descent of man, without any intention of publishing on the subject, but rather with the determination not to publish, as I thought that I should thus only add to the prejudices against my views. It seemed to me sufficient to indicate, in the first edition of my 'Origin of Species,' that by this work "light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history;" and this implies that man must be included with other organic beings in any general conclusion respecting his manner of appearance on this earth. Now the case wears a wholly different aspect." [1]

One might wonder whether collecting with the "determination not to publish" is different from collecting with an "intention of publishing" or whether there is no significant difference. Darwin could be taken as saying that there is, but I think that would be over-interpreting what he says. He is not focusing on note-taking but on why he is publishing the book at the time in which he published it—in 1871, that is.

Still, he demonstrates—at least indirectly—the value of just collecting notes without a definite purpose. See also Collecting. However, I should also point out that Darwin is collecting his notes with more focus than Klemperer. There would seem to be a continuum between "highly focused" and "completely unfocused," and there might be such "vices" as "too focused" and "too unfocused," with true virtue lying somewhere in the middle. But, as Aristotle, from whom I take this inspiration, pointed out, this cannot be an "absolute mean." It must be a mean relative to the person who takes the notes. It's not a science, but an art, even if it's an art that makes science possible.

1. Quoted in accordance with the Gutenberg e-text of The Descent of Man.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thinking on Paper

From James Gleick, Genius. Richard Feynman and Modern Physics: "Weiner remarked that Feynman's notes represented 'a record of day-to-day work,' and Feynman reacted sharply. 'I actually did the work on paper,' he said. 'Well, said Weiner, 'the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.' 'No, it's not a record, not really. It's working. You have to work on paper, and this is paper. Okay?'"

Actually, the quotation, which I have not checked yet, comes from Merlin Donald, A Mind so Rare: The Evolution of Consciousness (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), p. 301, a book I am reading at the moment. Donald uses this passage to illustrate his point that our memories do not just reside in our brains, but also in external artifacts, based on "symbolic technology." These artifacts "liberate consciousness from the limitations of the brain's biological memory systems. The new physical media of symbolic technology have enormous advantages over brain-based memory media. One of their chief advantages ... is that they are fully accessible by awareness. ... Because of the limitations of biological memory, conscious thought was enormously difficult when contained entirely within the brain box. External storage changed this and gave thinkers new strategic options" (305).

Paper has certain advantages as a medium of external memory storage, computer programs have others and more—or so I would think. But however that may be, the book is a fascinating read.