Friday, December 31, 2010

On the Size of a Thought

How "big" is a thought? Nicholson Baker thinks "most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product" Perhaps we'd better ask, what makes for a "unit" of thought? Or still better: is there a unit of thought? Is it a concept or a word, or a sentence, a paragraph or a document?

Locke would have had no problem saying "yes." It's an idea—most likely a complex idea. In other words, it's something expressed by a word. Others, like Kant, have argued that a thought requires a proposition, judgment or sentence (and that a concept is something like an abbreviated thought).

Ranganathan, inventor of faceted systems and the five laws of library science thought that a "document" was an "embodied micro thought" on paper "or other material, fit for physical handling, transport across space, and preservation through time."

I myself like Collingwood's idea that "the true 'unit of thought'" is not "the proposition but something more complex in which the proposition served as answer to a question." So for him a thought always presupposes a question and represents an answer to such a question.[1] I would add that such answers usually require more than a sentence, and that at least a paragraph is necessary for anything that approaches "the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine." My paragraphs usually are between 200 and 500 words long.[2]

If you need more than a paragraph to answer a question, you probably need more than one thought for the answer.

Whether thoughts come in chunks or objective units of meaning, like the seven (or ten) digits that make up a telephone number and knowledge has a granular structure is an entirely different question. I am skeptical about our ability to identify the beginnings and ends of particular thoughts.[1] That skepticism does not imply, however, that we should not try to formulate one thought at a time.

1. If a "unit of thought" presupposes a question, it presupposes other units of thought, whether they be clearly expressed or not.
2. The paragraphs in this blog are therefore not quite representative.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Goldberg's Knowledge Machine

Vannevar Bush gets all the credit for having described the Internet or Hypertext before they existed. His 1945 paper "As We May Think" described a desk that allows someone to access information stored on microfilm and to record the "trails" of his research in a way that reminds us of internet searches. Bush thought the machine was mimicking the brain.

As Robert A. Fairthorne pointed out in 1958: "The Memex project ... developed ... into the Rapid Selector. The Rapid Selector had probably been realized as a workable device by. E. Goldberg of the Zeiss Company around 1930." He came to the conclusion that Bush's paper was "timely, even though few suggestions were original."

Emanuel Goldberg's life and work is described in Michael Keeble Buckland's Emanuel Goldberg and his Knowledge Machine: Information, Invention, and Political Forces (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006). He shows that Goldberg and his achievements became both the victims of National Socialism and the cold war.

It is also interesting to note that Goldberg was a student of Wilhelm Ostwald and Wilhelm Wundt. Ostwald was very much interested in improving the way scientific information was transmitted. He was one of the co-founders of the Bridge ("Die Brücke"), the "International Institute for the Organization of Intellectual Work" in 1911. He coined the phrase "brain of the world" (Gehirn der Welt) and thus influenced Wells others. His "principle of the independent use of the individual piece" was not just significant in the history of bibliography.

The book is worth a close reading. There is an excerpt at Google books.

Some Canadian Holiday Cheer

A radical pessimist's guide to the next 10 years

No further comment!

A Better Pencil?

I just bought for my Kindle: Baron, Dennis (2009) A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. For a review, see American Scientist. I'll let you know what I think in the new year.

From the review: "I have to add that my own view of the computer as a writing instrument has always been that it’s not so much a better pencil as a better eraser, allowing me to fix my mistakes and change my mind incessantly, without ever rubbing a hole in the page." First reaction: I think the computer is both "a better pencil" and "a better eraser." The two functions are equally important. But the delete function on the computer adds something important, namely the ability to store what is erased.

When I write the final copy of an essay with the word processor, I always create two files, one called "name of essay.rtf" and another one called "scraps for name of essay.rtf." The scraps sometimes come in handy in another context. A versioning system is overkill for my purposes. Furthermore, for the earlier drafts ConnectedText provides automatic versioning, anyway.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


About a month ago, I gave my iPod Touch to my oldest daughter and bought an Android phone, the Samsung Intercept. I can do everything with this phone that I did with the iPod. In addition, I can also place and receive calls, something I don't do often.

I use mNote to synchronize with SimpleNote now. The thing I like most about the phone is that it has a physical keyboard which works better for my aging fingers than the touch keyboard on the iPod. Another thing I like is that I do not have to carry three devices (Kindle, iPod, phone) any longer, but only two.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Where Do Bad Ideas Come From?

I made a mistake and bought Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (New York: Penguin Publishing, 2010) for Christmas reading.

The central idea of this book is that good ideas are not produced by single geniuses, but by connected networks. He claims: "what you really need to kind of begin with [sic], is this idea that an idea is a network on the most elemental level." Put differently, "ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape." Or: "A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind." In supporting this notion, Johnson uses "Kauffman’s notion of the adjacent possible is the continuum it suggests between natural and man-made systems."

The two other central ideas of the book are those of "slow hunches" and "serendipity." Johnson thinks that "slow hunches ... mature ... by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view." Or: "Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincaré said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection." Many of these ideas are serendipitous. Those who have good ideas are “always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

The conclusion he "argues" for by producing anecdotal evidence (perhaps better stories) about discoveries in the sciences is that in order to produce good ideas, we should create an environment in which bricolage, slow hunches and serendipity are encouraged.

The book ends with a long list of "good ideas," like "World Wide Web (1989-1992)," "Asteroid Extinction (1980)," "MRI (1974)," "VCR (1956)," "GPS (1958)," "Ecosystem (1935)," "Nylon (1937)," etc., etc. These examples take up far too much of the book, as far as I am concerned. They seem to be just filler to get to a respectable number of pages for a book.

It's not that I am unsympathetic to Johnson's point of view, but I think his book represents half-baked goods.[1] My main objection to Johnson's "argument" is that he does not show where good ideas come from. At the very most, he shows how any old (new) idea may arise. But for any example of a good idea he gives, one might adduce a bad one, like "Social Darwinism," Fascism," "Nationalism," "Consumerism," "Phrenology," "Eugenics," "Epicycles," etc. And he himself mentions a few bad ones among what he takes to be good ideas, like "Gatling Gun (1861)" and "Motorcycle (1885)." How do these bad ideas arise? In the same way that good ideas arise. The trick, if it is a "trick," is to differentiate between the two. Poincaré's ideas may have arisen in a crowd, but he knew which one's to pick and develop.[2]

Johnson makes not the slightest effort to deal with that problem. It would have been good to leave "good" out of the title. Come to think of it, it would have been better for Johnson to have reflected a bit more before publishing these ideas as a book. Johnson's "slow hunch" would have benefited from being slower.

I am not sure either that Johnson has even identified the necessary conditions of the possibility of ideas, even though he may have stumbled on some of their sufficient conditions.

1. See Where Do Good Ideas Come From? and An Archipelago of Inspiring Quotes, for instance.

2. Nor is this point identical with the cautionary maxim that we should not discard ideas too early (as being obviously bad).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Everything Buckets, Again

I posted before against the view which opposes everything buckets. Someone at MIT's CSAIL Research project thinks along similar lines and provides an argument why all your data should live in a single file. Needless to say, I agree that the answer is "to build structured data applications where the users themselves define and adapt the structure to meet their own needs." I am not using Haystack for this either.

I agree that this is "still predicated on fairly sophisticated users because the authoring process that involves arbitrarily complex data may require comparable complexity in authoring decisions, even if procedural programming skills are not required."[1] What else is new?

1. See Data-Structures are for Programmers.

Notebooks Made of What?

Elephant Dung, that is. Supposedly they are environmentally friendly and odorless![1]

No further comment!

1. By way of Notizbuchblog.

Notebook Stories

This blog is written by someone who likes (paper) notebooks much more than I do. It also includes entries on the "Notebook Addict of the Week."

Addiction is not a good thing, even if it is an addiction to a relatively harmless "substance." I have a hunch, however, that "addiction" is nothing but hyperbole in this context.

It's amazing how many different kinds of paper notebooks I don't need.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Basic Outlining

Perhaps too basic for most. But there it is.

What about Reverse Outlining?

No further comment!

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Noteliner  is a minimalist, yet very capable intrinsic (one-pane) outliner, which is actively developed by Sam Hawksworth. It is freeware and can be used for anything from a simple todo list to a complicated writing project.

I especially like the drill-down feature that lets you work on a particular "page" or outline level without having to worry about the rest of the structure.

It is almost good enough to replace Brainstorm for me, though I am still hoping that something will happen with Brainstorm.

Noteliner is definitely worth a try!

Friday, December 17, 2010

On the Decline of Common Places

Alexander Koyré argues in his book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1956) that it was not so much the "secularization of consciousness" nor the "discovery" of consciousness and subjectivity that are primarily responsible for the radical spiritual revolution that characterized the seventeenth century: They "are concomitants and expressions of a deeper and more fundamental process as the result of which man—as it is sometimes said—lost his place in the world, or, more correctly perhaps, lost the very world in which he was living and about which he was thinking, and had to transform and replace not only his fundamental concepts and attributes, but even the very framework of his thought" (4). The new scientific discoveries and the philosophical reflection on them led to the destruction of "the Cosmos," that is, the idea of the world as a "finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered whole" (4).

In the new intellectual world, "common places" that expressed this ordered whole, had no place any longer (no pun intended). This view took a while to "sink in," but by the late eighteenth century it was generally understood. "Commonplacing" came to mean just "placing things under general headings." For most people, however, "common place" became just a word for "trite" and "ordinary," not a useful approach to taking notes.

This will be the last time I will belabor this point.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

E. M. Forster on Commonplaces

E. M. Forsters Commonplace Book really is not a commonplace book at all. He used such a book, as he had inherited one, but he did not find it congenial:
Commonplaces My difficulty is that I shall not know what they are until they are finished. Bp. Jebb seems to have known and never to have been surprised by any development of his own thought. This, even more than neatness of handwriting and aptness of quotation, separates him from his successor, who continues his work after an interval of a hundred and twenty one years. Apparently, if he had an idea he could put it down as he had it. But perhaps what he had were not ideas but certified topics that could be carried about intact. I must know what is inside me before I can tell what I am after. Perhaps, if I get through a dozen pages of this book, I shall tell, and my New Ethic result. Each commonplace will be short: how pleasant it would to feel copious as well as fluid! the modern mind takes such small flights."
Forster knew the tradition. Commonplaces were indeed "certified topics that could be carried about intact" and they were meant to support writing that was "copious as well as fluid." He "must know what is inside [him] before [he] can tell what [he is] after." For the traditional commonplacer, the commonplace told him what he should be after or after what patterns he should mold his inner and outer life.

No wonder Forster soon gave up any pretense at commonplacing and consciously pursued the notebook method. He scraps the "awful" entry by topic and puts down whatever he likes.

Commonplace Books

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (London, 1805) defines a commonplace book as a "book in which things to be remembered are ranged under general heads." He also lists a verb "to commonplace" which means "to reduce to general heads." Commonplacing is thus a very common activity, according to Johnson.

This already reflects a very watered down conception of the "common place," most likely influenced by John Locke's ideas.[1] From antiquity to the Renaissance and early modernity, a common place was a "privileged place," not just any general heading that might or might not be arranged alphabetically.[1] Loci were more like categories in which one searched for knowledge or on which one founded arguments. They usually constituted a kind of system, as I have argued before.

1. See Locke on commonplaces.
2. See also Search for commonplace.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Davies on Typewriting

Robertson Davies in an Interview with the Paris Review: "I type because writing by hand I find to be a very great betrayer. If you write carefully and try to write legibly, as I do, you finish a page and think, That’s a handsome page. This is absolutely wrong. Also, you can only write so long with a pen before your hand becomes tired, and then your invention begins to tire. If you type, which I do because I had my earliest training as a newspaperman and learned to use the typewriter readily, you have what you’ve written there before you cold and bare. Then you can go over it, and it is as though someone else had written it and you can edit it with great severity. I am a terrible fidget about form, and the first typed draft is often pitifully ragged and messy. But then after it goes to my secretary, who makes a clean copy, I revise extensively. The heavy work is done, but I like revising. As for editing, though I try to be stringent, you will recall that I resist your editorlike zeal for total clarity—all the lights blazing and not a dark corner to be found. I am a writer much given to light and shade, and I firmly believe that to know all is to despise all."

In another interview he revealed more about his note-taking or, perhaps better, note-making, and how it shades into writing: "I make a great many notes. I carry a notebook all the time, a book like this, and fill several of them with notes and then I transfer the notes into another book in form of a plan, and I make all kinds of extra notes as the plan develops and then from the plan I write the first draft. And then the first draft requires very, very extensive revision and after a great deal of revision, that's pretty much the book."

In the age of computerized note-taking, we have a tendency to neglect this aspect of note-taking, that is, the aspect of working through the notes, revising and rewriting them. This takes time.

I used to think that electronic note-taking is of great utility because it saves time and makes one more effective because this process of transferring, revising and cataloguing notes happens without the need for re-writing and copying. I am no longer sure this is a good thing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Robertson Davies on Notebooks and Minds

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies did not just use notebooks as a literary device in some of his novels. He also kept notebooks of ideas, characters, circumstances and other details. Apparently, he always carried one with him and constantly took notes. As do many people who keep paper notebooks, he numbered the pages. But he went further and gave every entry on a page a number, so that he could refer to it by a combination of numbers and letters: 10A, 24C, 45B and so on. That way he could refer to notes that he later found to belong together, that is, were relevant for a particular character, for instance, in an efficient way.

He seems to have viewed the human mind as a kind of "catchall"-notebook. Thus we find in his very first novel: "You like the mind to be a neat machine equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position." This view seems to be quite independent of his Jungian fantasies which I find quite unpalatable.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hofmannsthal on Reading

Hugo von Hofmannsthal said in 1907: "I speak of those who, depending on the different stage of their knowledge, read entirely different books, without any determinate plan, always skipping, seldom resting in one book, driven by a constant longing that is never quite satisfied ... they seek in one book after the other what the content of none of their thousands of books can give them. They seek something that hovers between the contents of all the individual books, something that might connect and unify these contents into one unity. It is the scientist, who can satisfy this longing."

Perhaps ... though I believe the metaphysical longing for the one overarching principle of unity in all knowledge is a romantic impulse that will never be satisfied. Nor should it ... perhaps.

Call me a skeptic (who else would start and end a paragraph with "perhaps")!

Review of Scrivener 2

From the department of "highly recommended."

I did not know that Scrivener 2 improved the presentation of notes and footnotes, for instance.


I recently read the following comment in the Zotero Forum: "Because I use a very involved annotation system, anything important that I read has to be converted to PDF to support handwritten ink, multicolour highlighter hotkeys, heirarchical [sic] bookmarks, etc. in bluebeam. Currently this is a very involved process ... I would desperately like to simplify this as it acts as a real disincentive for reading!"

There is no need of going into the details of this "involved process." The simple advice is to give it up altogether. Annotating source is at best a supplementary or preliminary tool in note-taking. It marks the things you want to take note of, but it is not a substitute for excerpting and reformulating the material in your own words and organizing it in such a way that it will be useful even years later.

It represents a rather superficial "surf and collect" attitude that mistakes the accumulation of information for the creation of knowledge. I would not go so far as to call it "epistemologically irresponsible," but it is "epistemologically challenged" because it involves the implicit belief that having marked some things somewhere (in disparate places) amounts already to having made connections between them or that annotating materials is sufficient for thinking about them. Well, it is not.

Even such programs as such programs as "Surfulator" represent a better approach to note-taking. They are based on the claim that we need "better ways to collect and manage the worthwhile information we find." This means that we should "permanently save anything you find on the web." While simply "collecting," "managing" and "saving" what one has "found" is rather less than note-taking, it is more than mere annotation.[1]

In my experience, students who highlight their textbooks with markers—often with many different colors—often do not as well in exams and papers as they expect to do. In fact, I believe that the money spent on highlighters is money "thrown out of the window."

1. See also Note-taking versus Information-gathering.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Organizing PDFs in iTunes?

That's what this blog post suggests.

It makes for interesting reading. I have not tried it yet.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sapping Attention

Here is a very insightful blog on the "Digital Humanities," called "Sapping Attention. Using tools from the 1990s to answer questions from the 1960s about 19th century America."

I very much like Clustering isms together, for instance.

In any case, I recommend recommend the blog highly.

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Favorite Mechanical Pencil

Pentel P1037 Sharp Kerry

It takes 0.7 mm leads, and it has a cap that is precision engineered. They say: it "is hand-assembled with watchmaker's tools for precision and accuracy."

Its "dual-purpose cap provides proper balance while writing and protects writing point when pencil is not in use." More to the point—no pun intended—it protects your pockets when not in use, while it allows advancing the lead when writing!

As I said, I love it (mainly for underlining in books, as I hardly ever write anything by hand anymore).

I should probably not admit to the fact that I own two other ones (a black one, also for 0.7, and a red one for 0.5 mm leads). I prefer 0.7 mm.

If you want to read more about it, see Dave's Mechanical Pencils .