Saturday, January 31, 2009

Habermas on the "Fragility of Communicative Life Forms"

Only loosely connected to note-taking:

Public space and political public sphere – the biographical roots of two motifs in my thought by J├╝rgen Habermas (Commemorative Lecture, Kyoto Nov. 11, 2004).

Without further comment!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Doctorow on Writing in the Age of Distraction

Doctorow writes in an article on Writing and Distration: "The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn't help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally ..."[1] I am not sure about that one.

He also lists a few "interesting simple techniques that [he has] been refining for years." He "still sometimes feel[s] frazzled and info-whelmed, but that's rare."

I especially like these two:

  • "Short, regular work schedule."[2], and

  • "Researching isn't writing and vice-versa."

Well worth the read.

1. Thanks to Orange Crate Art for the reference. The comments to that entry are also worth a look.

2. See also my earlier Efficient Academics?.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Lyrical Connections between Ideas

I had claimed in a recent entry that Softfile has a unique capability, not encountered in any PC application. It doesn't. What I meant is described by Steven Berlin Johnson here and here, namely a search function "smart enough to get around the classic search engine failing of excessive specificity: searching for 'dog' and missing all the articles that have only 'canine' in them. Modern indexing software learns associations between individual words, by tracking the frequency with which words appear near each other. This can create almost lyrical connections between ideas."[1]

DevonThink, the subject of Johnosn's praise, can do this. But it needs OS X.

I actually got a Mac to try this out. Alas, "the lyrical connections between ideas" did not materialize, and I gave up on the Mac.

Still, hope springs eternal.

1. See also my earlier post on Planning for Unexpected Discoveries.


I turned RSS on again.

The Myth(s) of Multi-Tasking

There is an interesting quote attributed to Lord Chesterfield “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time ... This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”[1]

It is used as a "hook" in an interesting article by Christine Rosen in The New Atlantis, called "The Myth of Multi-tasking". She refers to many recent studies that point out why trying to multi-task does not seem to be a good idea. However, I found most interesting her reference to William James, who, she says differentiated in his Principles of Psychology of 1890 between “sensorial attention,” “intellectual attention,” “passive attention,” and the “gray chaotic indiscriminateness” of most people.

I looked it up. It's a bit more complicated. First, James claims uncontroversially that attention "implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German, and he then goes on to differentiates between "various ways" of dividing attention, namely between

a) "Objects of sense (sensorial attention); or to
b) Ideal or represented objects (intellectual attention)."

finding that it is either:

c) "Immediate; or
d) Derived:

immediate, when the topic or stimulus is interesting in itself, without relation to anything else; derived, when it owes its interest to association with some other immediately interesting thing. What I call derived attention has been named 'apperceptive' attention."

It must further be considered as either

e) "Passive, reflex, non-voluntary, effortless; or
f) Active and voluntary."[2]

After some discussion, he claims rather controversially that "each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit." But in the next section he asks whether voluntary attention is an effect or a cause ("resultant or force"). His answer is twofold (i) psychology is unable to tell, and (ii) philosophy (or metaphysics) may decide. His decision is that it is attention is a (spiritual) force or cause. But he admits that it is just as reasonable to suppose attention is caused by other factors.

Applied to multi-tasking, James would say (on insufficient empirical evidence) that it the mind that decides what to attend to and that we can engage or disengage in multi-tasking. Others might argue (on insufficient empirical evidence) that it is indeed impossible for the mind to so engage or disengage all by itself. It's ultimately a metaphysical question. When we say that "each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit," we leave the realm of empirical evidence.

And this, of course, has consequences for the tools we use in note-taking, thinking, and writing. Mark Pilgrim has presented a spirited argument against "the latest fad of full-screen 'writing-focused' text editors" in Wrongroom. He does not explicitly argue that they do not work as causes that narrow our focus, but implicit in his argument is the claim that focus or attention depends on the person who uses a text processor, and that it is therefore frivolous to punish or limit the instrument of writing for a failure that resides only in the writer. More than a hundred of comments contradict his post.

As always, it's a bit more complicated, however. And perhaps it still is ultimately a "metaphysical" question.[3]

1. See the Project Gutenberg edition of the Letters to His Son , Letter IX, London, April 14, O. S. 1747). It's interesting (at least to me) that the quote continues: "When you read Horace, attend to the justness of his thoughts, the happiness of his diction, and the beauty of his poetry; and do not think of Puffendorf de Homine el Cive; and, when you are reading Puffendorf, do not think of Madame de St. Germain; nor of Puffendorf, when you are talking to Madame de St. Germain." The context of this claim is the idea that we need to pursue pleasures as well as studies, and that we should give our undivided attention to each as we pursue them.
2. See William James, Principles of Psychology, Chapter 11: Attention
3. Neo

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Johnson's Dictionary

A word a day

For those who would like a word a day from Johnson's Dictionary.

No further comment!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Notebook, Voodoopad, and Wikipedia

In June of last year I wrote about Will Duquette's Notebook, which was one of the earliest versions of a desktop wiki. I used it extensively between 2003 and 2005. Of late, its author seems to have turned towards more theological interests, and the development of the project has been very slow. Nothing wrong with that, since it is a freeware application.

There was a Wikipedia page on the Notebook. It was deleted on December 4, 2008 by some Jac16888. The stated reason is that 'No reliable secondary sources establish the notability of this application.' I think the reason should have stated as: "I was too lazy to look for reliable secondary sources establishing the notability of this application." Even if development of the application has slowed down (and may never pick up again), this was once a significant application. The page should have been kept for that reason alone.

On the other hand, one finds on the Personal wiki page of Wikipedia the claim that Voodoopad: "essentially invented the modern personal/desktop wikis," which is blatantly false (even though it is attributed to the developer of Voodoopad, Gus Mueller).

Mueller said in an interview dated September 2003 (when he was working on the beta of version 1.1) that he had probably started developing Voodoopad in January 2002. The Website says that VoodooPad 1.1 alpha 2 came out on May 11, 2003.

Notebook was already available in version 0.8 by June of 2002, and there was another application, named Wikit (also written in tcl/tk) available even before then. If I recall correctly, there were still other applications like it being developed in 2002 as well. Notepad was developed either earlier or roughly at the same time as Voodoopad. Therefore, the claim that it "essentially invented the modern personal/desktop wikis," is incorrect, quite apart from the fact that it is not at all clear what phrase "the modern personal/desktop wikis" is supposed to mean. "Modern" as opposed to "medieval," or "modern" as supposed "ancient" or "outdated." In either sense, the phrase makes not much sense.

This is not so much to cast aspersions at Voodoopad or its developer, but at the haphazard policies of "senior" contributors to Wikipedia and the way that history actively gets distorted in its pages by such arbitrary deletions.

Not that I have ever understood the hype that goes with Wikipedia anyway.

Softfile and Luhmann's Zettelkasten

Some time ago, I wrote about recreating A Faithful electronic version of Luhmann's Zettelkasten. It just occurred to me that Softfile could be used to reproduce the three different kinds of links between records in his card index.

These were:

1. The series of links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... where every new number indicated a new topic or subject.
2. The series of links 1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 ... (or 2.1, 2.2 .... etc.) where every new number indicated a continuation of the previous record, and
3. The series of links 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d ... where every new number indicated a branching off from the original topic.

The three series could then be combined in various ways to make for the infinite internal branching capability of the memory machine, like (or 2a, 2b ... or 1.5a, 1.5b ... or 7.10.1a3 ... etc.)

Softfile can easily make pages of the sort 1, 2, 3. It can also easily "attach" record 1.1 to 1, and 1.2 to 1.1, etc. And it can "link" 1.1a to 1.1, or 20a1.43b to 20a1.43 (or any record to any other record).

Even Luhmann's conventions are more or less preserved. The first two types of links appeared in black at the top of the record. And the third type would appear in the body of the text in a different color, namely red. (In Softfile they will be blue.) Descriptive headings could be added to any number as well (like like "Kommunikationstheorie" to 20a1.43b, if one found this desirable).

It's not for the faint of heart, and I don't think it necessarily adds anything of significance to the ability to link records in a database product like Softfile, which automatically takes care of the unique number of any record, but as an experiment in applied anthropological research of the late twentieth century it might be useful.

I remember having to fashion in school primitive Faustkeile (stone hand axes) to get some feeling for how people in the Stone Age made their instruments. The idea was never that we should use such an implement in daily life. In the same way, this entry is not meant to encourage anyone to use this approach in their own note-taking.

Come to think of it, I don't want to discourage anyone from doing it either.


Softfile is an old program. Even though it has not received much attention, it is very interesting. In fact, when it was announced in 1991, it was far ahead of its time.[1] Softfile, it was said, "organizes information somewhat like a notebook. But, unlike any physical notebook, it could store roughly one million entries or records." And "if a note doesn't fit on one screen, it can be continued on subsequent records, just as you would continue a handwritten note on successive pages in a paper notebook. The records are connected in a way that lets you 'page' through them, forward or backward, like the pages of a book."

What really set Softfile apart, however, was the ability to "link" the different records by hypertext links: "You can set up a connection between the two records which lets you move from one to the other with a single keystroke. This connection is called a link. Any two records can be linked together. You can think of links as cross-references to other pages in the electronic notebook created by Softfile. - A paper notebook and a word processing document are linear: you start at the beginning, and text follows word by word until you reach the end. But text with links between related items, often called hypertext, gives you alternative paths through the information. - Softfile has both linear and hypertext capabilities. Records can be connected together so you see them in sequence, but they can also be linked together in any desired order. Indeed, records can even be separate from all others, like paper notes tossed at random into a large box."

Nothing much has changed. The latest version, which runs under Windows, has the same capabilities. While the early versions stored the information in text files, the latest one stores it in HTML. See Softfile Homepage. You can download a free demo, which is limited to 100 entries. The full version costs $25.00 if you choose the option of electronic delivery.

I came across Softfile very late, namely after having discovered Wikis. If I had known of its existence in 1991 or even 2002, I would have made extensive use of it. Now, it seems a bit dated to me. It has been left far behind by such applications as Voodoopad on the Mac and ConnectedText on the PC.

There is, however, one feature that still seems to be of interest, having to do with its Search function, which is otherwise not the strong suit of this program. The feature does not seem to have survived in the Windows version, in any case. As described in Inexact Softfile Searches, "Softfile can provide a list of up to ten words which are similar to a word you enter. For example, if you enter 'notes', Softfile might find 'footnotes', 'notebook', and 'notecards'. Each of these matches contains 'note', but none of them begin with 'notes'. - If Softfile doesn't find obvious similarities, it will look for more subtle ones. A search for words similar to "personal" displayed the following words: 'person', 'conversational', 'peripheral', 'persuasion', 'performers', and 'perspective'." The first part about "obvious similarities" is trivial. Any good search program will allow you to search for "*notes" or "note*". But the second part is not.

There is no PC note-taking application that has this automatic capacity even today—at least not that I know of.[2] Connectedtext allows you to define such relationships in its Synonym list, but Softfile did (or was supposed to to do this) automatically. It limited "a search for similar words by assigning a score to each word and retaining no more than ten words. The purpose of the ten-word limitation is to focus on good matches, when there are some, and eliminate the large number of equally-poor matches which often follow the good ones."

It's too bad I did not know this application when I still had use for it.

1. See Softfile: A Memory Enhancer and on this blog Softfile and Luhmann's Zettelkasten.
2. Added Wednesday, January 07, 2009: Actually I misunderstood. There is less there than I wanted to see. What I saw as "automatic capacity" is more of the same. The program would just look for "per*", and "*onal"—nothing more. Any capable program can do this. My imagination is to blame.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Authors Prefer Courier

Why not Helvetica?

Without further comment!

Efficient Academics?

Sounds like a contradictio in adjecto or contradiction in terms? Perhaps not. See the following link to the Google Group The Efficient Academic, which could be more active for my tastes.

One of the relatively recent entries I liked most was a short review of Circus Ponies Notebook for the Mac. See Mini Review. It also contains an intriguing reference to Ulysses, a "predecessor" of Scrivener. Another entry I found interesting concerned Robert Boice's Professors as Writers, which recommends daily short writing periods over longer periods once or twice a week.