Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Darwin on Outlines

"I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso."[1]

1. see also The Method of Darwin's Notebooks, Darwin's Notebooks on the Internet, Darwin on collecting Notes.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Where Do Good Ideas Come from?

Here is an interesting video from Steven Johnson.

Parts of the answer: "connectivity" and serendipity.

No further comment!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Whose Distraction is it anyway?

See Introducing “ū—”: A Distraction-Free Writing Environment for an answer.

Enjoy! I did.

For added enjoyment, you should perhaps first take a look at this: The key to good writing is not that magical glass of Bordeaux, the right kind of tobacco or that groovy background music. The key is focus.

But be sure to read to the end, for otherwise you are going to miss some exquisite pretentiousness of the German kind, like: "The original title was 'Writing Machine', a literal translation of the German 'Schreibmaschine' which means 'type writer.' But, alas, “Writing Machine' is too long for iOS. More importantly, 'Writing Machine' suggests some sort of artificial intelligence that writes for you, which is exactly the contrary of what a good writing tool does ..."

The name of an application called "Writer" does, of course, suggest that you do the writing, or does it?

Scrivener for Windows Announced

Yes, Virginia, there is going to be Scrivener for Windows.

Looks interesting. I know that many people have been looking forward to this.

From the blog of the original developer: "The Windows version has actually been in (secret) development for the past two years, but it is a completely separate development effort by another developer who has now thrown his lot in with L&L. Lee Powell was a Mac user of Scrivener who approached us back in 2008 wanting to create a Windows version, and his enthusiasm for Scrivener and writing made it too good an offer to pass up." Public Beta is supposed to be out by the end of October, if I understand correctly.

No further comment![1]

1. 7:50 PM: Actually, I can't help myself. I have to make at least one comment. The developer aims at the end of October for the release of the Beta because then it will appear "just in time for NaNoWriMo." And everyone who participates "and achieves their 50,000 words (and has them validated)" will get a 50% rebate on the final price ($40.00). As if they were not already too many bad novels ... I sincerely hope all the novelistic nonsense can be turned off in the final application. See also Writer's Café.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writer's Cafe

I referred to a review of Scrivener in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier. They have just published a review of an application, called "Writer's Cafe", which is available for both Windows and the Mac. (It's also available for Linux.) The review is on the whole positive. The reviewer finds, for instance, "Writer's Cafe is intended as a fiction writing tool, but you can also use it for other types of writing. Indeed, the naming convention used throughout the program refers to storytelling: storylines, screenplay formatting, character development, and there's even a "name generator" for characters. If you can move past these conventions, Writer's Cafe becomes useful for project-based writing."

I have never been able to get past the naming conventions (and I do not understand why they are hard-coded into the program). Even the name is overly pretentious (if that isn't a pleonasm). As a result, I have never given this program a thorough trial.

I have seriously tried yWriter which is less visual but otherwise quite similar, and the "fiction metaphor" drove me bonkers. I don't want to create the (slightest) appearance of writing a novel—even to myself. So I will stick with ConnectedText as my Scrivener for Windows. It's much less pretentious and much more flexible.

Authors' Libraries

The Boston Globe has published an article on Lost libraries. The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections.

Interesting! The most significant author's library in the Boston area (I know) is the Stone Library of the family of John Quincy Adams in Quincy.

No further comment!

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I just saw a reference to a book that I must read: Charles Seife, Proofiness, The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception (Viking, officially to be released next week). From a review in the New York Times: "The numerical cousin of truthiness is proofiness: “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.”

As a historian of Philosophy, I have had to live with that approach pretty much all of my life. Much of "analytic" and "post-analytic" philosophy lives off this kind of "proofiness," albeit more based on logic and semantics. Is it a mere accident that it rhymes with "goofiness"?

I will have to get this book, in any case!

Wittgenstein's Type-Written Pages

Wittgenstein remarked in the Preface to Philosophical Investigations "I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another.—It was my intention at first to bring all this together in a book whose form I pictured differently at different times. But the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks."

And: "After several unsuccessful attempt to weld my result together in such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination.—and this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought cris-cross in every direction."[1]

Wittgenstein had typed up these notes, cut them up, and clipped some of them together again with staples to "achieve" this purpose. In another context, he confessed: "Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles." So much for the supposed hypertextual deep-structure of his thinking![2]

1. See also Wittgenstein "on" Note-Taking and Long-Hand and Type-Written.
2. Compare Nabokov's approach. He also "saw" the whole thing and used short clips, i.e. index cards, to record it. Yet, he was not so "vermessen" or daring to think that one sentence could say the whole thing.

Long-Hand versus Type-Written in Pre-Computer Writing

Robert J. Sawyer has argued that there were "two basic metaphors for pre-computer writing," namely, "the long-hand manuscript page" and the "typewritten page." I will call them the long-hand and the type writer metaphors respectively. These metaphors were adopted in various ways by the makers of word processors. Sawyer claims that most word processors emulate the the type writer, while some, most notably Wordstar, try to emulate long-hand.

What do the two metaphors amount to, according to Sawyers? He says: "On a long-hand page, you can jump back and forth in your document with ease. You can put in bookmarks, either actual paper ones, or just fingers slipped into the middle of the manuscript stack. You can annotate the manuscript for yourself with comments like "Fix this!" or "Don't forget to check these facts" without there being any possibility of you missing them when you next work on the document. And you can mark a block, either by circling it with your pen, or by physically cutting it out, without necessarily having to do anything with it right away. The entire document is your workspace ... On a typewritten page, on the other hand, you are forced to deal with the next sequential character. Your thoughts are focussed serially on the typing of the document. If you're in the middle of a line halfway down page 7, your only easy option is to continue on that line. To go backwards to check something is difficult, to put in a comment that won't show when your document is read by somebody else is impossible, and so on. Typing is a top-down, linear process, not at all conducive to the intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at."

This sounds plausible on a first read. Hell, it sounded plausible to me even on a second read. But when I thought about how I actually wrote with a type writer, it became apparent to me that this is superficial. Whe you write a page with a type writer, you are indeed forced to focus on the next character, or next word you type. But the very same same is true about long-hand. While actually writing you must concentrate on the next character, next word, next sentence. Both ways of writing are equally sequential or linear. It is also false that you cannot write series of unconnected notes. You can, and to do so, many people wrote their first (or second) drafts on index cards which were conducive to what he calls the "intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at." If you take a look at what Sawyers compares, you see it is actually not writing down letters and words in long-hand or with a type writer, but rather revising a long-hand document and simply typing on a type writer. This is not fair. It amounts to comparing things that are at different ends of the same continuum.[1]

So how did we revise the type-written page? Well, we struck out words and sentences, wrote new ones in the margins or above the struck out line, annoted [sic] the text with comments like "Fix this," "Expand!" etc. Stapled half a page or a paragraph that we wrote to the original page, marked it up by circling or underlining. Sometimes we even cut up the manuscript and glued it together in a new order. Ultimately, it had to be re-typed, just as a long-hand manuscript would have to be re-written. As far as revising went, there really were no significant differences. And even as far as writing went, there were few. I have seen manuscripts of novels, in which the author struck out things, typed between lines, etc., right on the type-written page.

For this reason, the conclusion is unwarranted: "a word processor that uses the typewriter metaphor — WordPerfect is one — might be ideal for low-level secretarial work: proceeding top-down through a document that has been created in content and structure by somebody else. But for one who must start with absolutely nothing and create, from scratch, a coherent document with complex and subtle structures, the long-hand-page metaphor is the way to go." Since there is no fundamental difference between the two metaphors, they cannot lead to such fundamental different applications. This is also apparent from such metaphors as "cut and paste," for instance, which comes mainly (but not exclusively) from the age of type-writers.

What about this: "If I want to make a note to myself, WordStar lets me simply type it in my document. WordStar will not print a line beginning with double periods, like so:
.. check the length of Jupiter's year"
Well, any word processor allows you to enter anywhere something like "###" to write ###check the length of Jupiter's year###, and "###" is easily searched for, as it does not occur naturally in many texts.

Most other things he talks about have "work-arounds" like this. What does this show? We fall in love with our tools. Some of us do not reflect on what we are doing, some of us do. This may lead to quite different ways of using these tools. Some of us use our word processors for "low-level secretarial work," some of us use it for "the intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at." I actually think there are better tools for the second kind of work, but that is another matter that has little to do with the myth of the fundamental difference between long-hand and type-written pages.

1. He claims himself: "Writing and revising are a continuum," yet he uses the two extremes of this continuum to argue for a (radical) discontinuity between the long-hand and typewriter approach.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Write&Set, according to its author, is a full-featured word processing program with hyphenation, contents creation, footnotes, index, embedding graphics and a lot of more. It is an alternative concept of word processing for people who don't like Winword-like programs. Shareware."

This leaves out the most important aspect of the appeal it has for some. It is a program that emulates WordStar. One of the things that makes it different from Wordstar is that editing and formatting are done in separate programs, called WSedit and WSformat respectively. The first is freeware, the second shareware.

The programs work thus very much like Tex, which itself seems to have its roots in Unix, where once upon a time text was written in vi and then formatted for printing with nroff.

"Write&Set uses the Wordstar 4.0 file format. Write&Set also reads Wordstar 5-7 files, but always saves Wordstar 4 format. (The Wordstar 4 file format does not use the 'symmetrical sequences' of Wordstar 5-7.)"

I played with WSedit and found it very interesting. Its way of formatting reminds me very much of lightweight markup languages or a wiki format like ConnectedText. Since it really does not provide any functionality that would go beyond such markup languages, I would not go back to it, however.

While I remembered some of the CTRL-commands, I had completely forgotten about the block and dot commands.


Wordstar 3.x was not the first word processor I used, but it was the first word processor I used to write a book. It was a DOS application, did not have automatic footnoting, and had no WYSYWIG capabilites, but it worked well.[1] I abandoned it for MS-Word after I finished the book because it had these capabilities.

Believe it or not, there are still some people using Wordstar today. One of the best articles singing the praises of Wordstar is Wordstar: A Writer's Word Processor by Robert J. Sawyer. His main reasons for liking it are (i) it's good for touch typists, and (ii) it uses what he calls the "long-hand metaphor." Sawyer argues there are "two basic metaphors for pre-computer writing. One is the long-hand manuscript page. The other is the typewritten page. Most word processors have decided to emulate the second — and, at first glance, that would seem to be the logical one to adopt." Yet, he thinks the long-hand metaphor is better for writing. Instead of having to focus on the next character, you can jump around, mark up and edit the document at will.

The two metaphors are, of course not mutually exclusive, but they certainly do make a difference.

The article repays careful reading—or so I believe.

1. For a description, see this Wikipedia article.

Why Facebook is a Very Bad Idea

Six Reasons Why I’m Not On Facebook, By Wired UK’s Editor

No further comment!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Defending Links

In Defense of Links presents an argument against some of the claims made by Carr in The Shallows.

"Links have become an essential part of how I write, and also part of how I read." This also characterizes an important aspect of my reading, writing and thinking.[1]

I even like the picture!

1. Even if this has for me little to do with "The Web" but with private note-taking.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Borders Books

I read today: "Borders book retail chain suffers sales fall." This reminded me of my last visit to the local "Borders."

The store seemed empty, so many shelves had been removed from it. There were not many customers either. The shelves that remained were full of books that I could have bought anywhere else. But most of the books I would not have bought in any case. Any section that would have interested me was no longer there. Hardly any "Philosophy," but lots of crappy "Metaphysics" and an excess of "Religion" and "Christianity."

I had long given up of finding any book by Sebald, though two years ago they actually stocked some of his novels. I asked myself what I was doing in this place and vowed not to come back.

In the article they blamed Electronic Books for the downturn. I think they have next to nothing to do with the real problem. Borders' sales are falling because they are not stocking enough books of the kind that people like me were buying and would continue to buy. If people find no reason to go to the bookstores, they will a fortiori not buy anything there. I am not sure that this downward spiral can be reversed.

It is not that Barnes and Nobles is any better. When I visited last week the University Bookstore of Boston University, I saw that the Fiction section was downsized, and that "Romance" took up the first row. "Philosophy " was cut in half, "Spirituality" doubled. This is another bookstore I will avoid from now on. Luckily, Cambridge and Harvard Books is not that far away.

Outliners in ConnectedText

Here two pictures of the results of a graph command in ConnectedText for the topic "Outliner." The first is two levels deep, the second three:

Please click on the pictures to enlarge!

Should I say that clicking on any of the nodes takes you to that topic? (Not in these pictures, of course.)[1]

1. It's created by an expression like this: "[[$GRAPH:(($CURRENTTOPIC))|Height=500|Width=1000|Levels=2]]". It resides in the footer of every page (note) I create.

Password Strength

Here is a nice post on password strength.

The difference made by the number of characters to the time it would take to crack a password is truly amazing.

No further comment!

Addendum or another comment at Wednesday, September 01, 2010, 8:45 PM: It has been pointed out to me by a friend (who is flattering me by reading my posts) that I "misstate" the point of the blog post I am linking to: The times it takes to crack a password comes from a LifeHacker article that this post is disputing. I am not sure that I misstate the point of the blog entry because I don't say anything about what its point is.

The the blog post does not raise any doubts about the mathematics on which the the time estimates are based. Perhaps the mathematical ratio by which the times increase is simple-minded, but "all the duration ratios in the table make sense." That's what interested me.

The post does raise doubts, however, about how this applies to actual cracking programs (the ratios don't "explain how password cracking programs actually work.") Depending on what algorithms a cracking program uses, even a shorter password might take longer to crack than the table predicts, etc. So, there are questions "which are a hell of a lot more interesting than raising 26 to a variety of powers." Agreed!

In so far as I did not get into any of this, I may be said to have misled the reader who did not go and read the blog entry I referenced. Mea culpa ...