Friday, February 27, 2009

Digital Shoeboxes

Conquer Your Text is a series of interesting articles on programs that electronically emulate the "shoebox method" of filing, dating from 1993 to 2006. Sorry, but these are for the MAC only.[1]

Without further comment!

1. See also My digital shoebox.

A Library in a Shoebox

This is what people were dreaming of in March of 1965: Putting a Library in a Shoebox. How different the future turned out. Though these things are still around, a shoebox seems to be too big for electronic books.

No further comment!

Envelope Pigeonholes

From The Writer: A Monthly Magazine to Interest and Help all Literary Workers. Vol. VI (1892) Boston, April by one W. H. H. from Somerville, Mass.: "One of the most useful appliances that I use in daily work is the row of envelopes in the front compartment of the upper left-hand drawer of my desk. The envelopes are made of stout manila paper, almost as high as the drawer is deep, and eight and one-half inches long. They are arranged in the drawer at right angles with the front, so that as I sit at the desk the face of each envelope is toward me. The flaps are turned inside, and each envelope has an inscription on the upper left-hand corner. They are used for filing material wanted for early reference, and they keep such material classified, within immediate reach, and in much smaller space than if pigeon-holes were used. The first twenty-six envelopes are inscribed with the letters of the alphabet, and are used for filing material alphabetically. Those beyond are labelled with subjects, also arranged alphabetically, the subjects being those in which I have an immediate special interest. For instance, if I am preparing an article on "Misprints," any examples noted are filed away in an envelope so marked, and when I get ready to write the article the material is ready at hand. "Bills Unpaid," "Receipted Bills," "Ideas and Suggestions," "Postage Stamps," "Addresses," "Cards and Circulars," may be marked on other envelopes. If a drawer is not available, the envelopes may be kept in a box within easy reach, but the drawer is best. The scheme is easily adapted to any special needs. In the case of a writer collecting material, when an envelope bulges too much, it suggests profitable action."

Another writer who used envelopes to organize his material was Walt Whitman. He wrote on any material he could find, and then put the scraps into envelopes with descriptive labels. At times, he would empty them, arrange and re-arrange the scraps on a table to see whether a poem might suggest itself to him. At other times, he seems to have been even more creative. Thus he would put the scraps on a loop of string and turn them around in order to compose a "piece." His notebooks seem to have been made by sewing such scraps together.

See also Texture and Quotation and Pigeonholes. As I said before, I don't think that pigeonholes and envelopes are the best metaphors for electronic versions of note-taking. Card indexes are better. But wiki- or hypertextual technology, which is constantly evolving and has no real equivalent in paper, is best.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Texture and Quotation

From the review of Keith Thomas, Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England:
"The texture of the book reflects the author’s method of working. He reads voraciously and indiscriminately (“I try to read everything”), and copies out telling phrases he notes onto pads of paper. Thus when Thomas tells us that John Donne, in one of his sermons, says that “work” is “a word that implies difficulty, and pain, and labour, and is accompanied with some loathness, with some colluctation [ie, struggling]” it is a reasonable guess that he has come across this quotation by the elementary procedure of reading all twelve volumes of Donne’s sermons. It so happens that I too have read all Donne’s sermons, but I read them in order to understand Donne’s theology. I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to read them for Donne’s passing references to daily life, to courtship and children’s toys, to holidays and labour, to sickness and health – to read them, as it were, constantly against the grain. And harder still to imagine what it would be like to realize that hundreds and hundreds of such volumes would need to be read before one could construct a paragraph on, say, the ostentations of the wealthy. But that is how Thomas has worked, and the resulting pages of notes are then cut up and put in envelopes with labels such as “Clothes” or “Dirt”. When he wants to write, he empties out an envelope and begins to arrange the quotations, clipping them into place on sheets of paper."

In some ways, this may be said to describe exactly the way that research should not be done. It only goes to show that ... Actually, I don't know what it shows. I have to read the book. But the review makes me want to read the book, just because it was written in the way that the reviewer describes.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

An Archipelago of Inspiring Quotes

I have mentioned Steven Berlin Johnson before.[1] In a recent post at BoingBoing, he describes how he wrote his latest books. with DevonThink. Basically, it's a three-step process
  1. "The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting ... This goes on for months and months"

  2. "In the last stage before I actually start writing, I create a little folder in Devonthink for each of the chapters. And then I ... read through every single little snippet that I've uncovered over the past year or so of research. And as I'm reading them ... I just drag them into the chapter folder where I think they will be most useful"

  3. "Devonthink has a wonderful feature where you can take the entire contents of a folder and condense it down into a single text document. So that's how I launch myself into the actual writing of the book. I grab the first chapter folder and export it as a single text document, open it up in my word processor, and start writing. Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I'm looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes."

"Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands."

I am not sure that thinking of writing as building bridges between islands of "inspiring quotes" is the way to go—at least not for academic and other more philosophical writing. Thinking through the "stuff" of which one's research is constituted is more painful than that, as it involves making new islands out of old ones and the inspiration that comes from quotations usually turns out to be inspiration for fundamental criticism. This would take place mainly during what he describes as the second step, and makes for the difference between mere collection of information and note-taking. At a minimum, collecting is classifying, and classification must be more than simply determining what snippet goes into which chapter.

Still, the way Johnson describes the first and the last step is inspiring, if only because what he says about DevonThink can just as easily be done in ConnectedText.

1. I guess Lyrical Connections between Ideas are like "bridges between islands" of "inspiring quotes."

More on "Amish" Computing

Self-imposed limitations are the best, of course. Or are they?

Without further comment!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Thinking on Paper and the Necessity of Failure

I related in an earlier post a story about Feynman and the necessity of thinking on paper rather than "in the head." Here is another quote to that effect by Anne Enright. She also speaks of "the importance of working more on the page than in your head." But she also emphasizes the necessity of failure. When she hears "of people taking a year off to write, [she] worr[ies] that a year might not be enough. You must fail as a writer for much longer than that."

That failing is often a necessary condition of the possibility of success in any worth while task is often forgotten. That's why writing is not a pleasant activity, but often pure pain (especially when you have a deadline).

It's said that Beckett had a card beside his desk, saying: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

ConnectedText and Luhmann's Zettelkasten

I have written a few times about Luhmann's Zettelkasten and how it can be reproduced it without reverting to keywords as the main means for connections, for this does not seem to me very "Luhmannian." He relied on direct connections between different entries. This can be easily reproduced with other programs, like Notetab and Softfile. Other programs, like Jot+ Notes, which allows easy linking to existing topics by enclosing them in square brackets, can do this too. But I have never seriously used such a scheme. The upkeep would be just too laborious and links can easily be deleted inadvertently. It would just not be worth the effort.

A personal wiki, like ConnectedText, is, I am convinced, a much better means of reproducing Luhmann's main idea, just because it relies on direct links and makes continuations and branchings of topics very easy. Since it is based on a database, the user does not even need to be aware of the unique identification number of each of the topics. The program takes care of this.

But I have been wondering whether the decisions one has to make in thinking about the numbers has a cognitive advantage. In the paper-based system one had to decide when it was best to continue a series of topics, when it was best to branch off, and when one should start an entirely new series of topics. And after one had created many topics, one had a strong visual indication of where different clusters of concern had formed. The numbers gave rise to a "map" of the topics.

So, I thought about re-creating such a map in Connectedtext. The result was this: Making ordered lists with ConnectedText. I have a hunch that it will allow me to recognize clusters of topics in an easer way than otherwise possible. But I don't know whether this is true. It may not add anything of value to wiki-notetaking, but I will try it out with a smaller project (and report back at some point).


Pigeonhole organizers or boxes with small compartments for different subjects played a large role in storing information since at least the seventeenth century. My thesaurus tells me that it can also stand for a general concept that marks divisions or coordinations in a conceptual system. We all know them as mailboxes (of the physical sort).

There is a piece of software that aims at reproduces this functionality electronically. It's appropriately called Pigeonhole organizer.

It's an interesting idea, but I am not sure I would pay $19.99 for it. There is a free version, limited to just one pigeonhole group, however. And you can try it out to see whether you like it.

Pigeonhole organizer reminds me of another application I tried for some time, namely Notebox Disorganizer. Its concept appealed to me. But in the end, I could never really make it work for me.

Both of them look very much like applications that try to make a spreadsheet-like front end productive for note-taking and writing. Pigeonhole organizer aims more at note-taking, Notebox Disorganizer more at writing. It may well be that the metaphor is "easy to understand and navigate ... that all your notes are spread out in plain sight ... [that] nothing is hidden away in a database or lost in an outline 'tree.'" But the front end gets more in my way than it helps me. I like applications that let you get in medias res right away, like a personal wiki, over which you have a great deal more control.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Otto’s Notebook

David Chalmers and Andy Clark wrote an article about "extended mind" some time ago. The claim was that "external memory," such as notebooks are literally part of the mind. I have some sympathy for this view. See Thinking on Paper. But I also think that the thesis advanced by Chalmers and Clark goes too far, relies far too much on metaphors and analogy, and one of its central "thought experiments" does seem to rely on a naive view of what Alzheimer's patients can and cannot do:
Now consider Otto. Otto suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and like many Alzheimer's patients, he relies on information in the environment to help structure his life. Otto carries a notebook around with him everywhere he goes. When he learns new information, he writes it down. When he needs some old information, he looks it up. For Otto, his notebook plays the role usually played by a biological memory. Today, Otto hears about the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and decides to go see it. He consults the notebook, which says that the museum is on 53rd Street, so he walks to 53rd Street and goes into the museum. [1]

It's far from clear whether Alzheimer's patients, who have trouble tying their shoe laces and finding their way home in neighborhoods they have lived all their lives, could perform such complicated actions as recording relevant notes and retrieving them at relevant times—or so it would seem to me. Perhaps something like this is possible during early stages of the disease, but I don't know. In any case, the whole thing reads too much like the thought experiments some philosophers are overly fon of. I would be more interested in empirical research concerning this.

Now there is a book by Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension. It is reviewed by Jerry Fodor in the London Review of Books. At one point he finds some of the examples "pretty impressionistic," but then notes that unless [he has] missed it, there isn’t an exposition of EMT [Extended Mind Thesis] that is markedly less metaphorical in the book". Too bad ... if true.

1. Another thing that bothers me in the article is that there is no reference to the work of Donald and others, who proposed this view long before they did.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Haystack is a project at MIT, whose "goal is to make it easier for people to collect, organize, find, visualize, and share their information. One of the biggest obstacles to such information management is the rigid, centrally-planned information models and user interfaces of existing applications and web sites. The data people use in the real world is rarely so well-formed. It is full of exceptions and idiosyncrasies. Our group develops tools for the web and desktop that can flex to hold and present whatever information a user considers important, in whatever way the user considers most effective."

One of the applications that grew out of it is, which works with Firefox. I referred to some of the research behind this application in an earlier post. See Information scraps. See also Why Computers Can't Kill Post-Its at Forbes.