Sunday, January 30, 2011

Musil on His Notebooks

Some time ago, I bought Robert Musil, Diaries. Robert Musil: 1899-1941. Selected and with a Preface by Philip Payne. edited and with an Introduction by Mark Mirsky (New York: Basic Books, 1998).[1] The first word in the title is particularly inept. Musil did not keep diaries, he kept notebooks. He himself called them "Hefte," i.e. "cahiers" or "composition books." He usually kept several at the same time. His entries are dated, but not consistently so. They are, for the most part, summaries of books, extracted passages, lecture notes, drafts of essays, preliminary sketches of fiction, and reflections on various matters.

Thus you find in Nr. 34, dated from February 17, 1930 to early summer 1938, on p. 432 a thought on Heidegger: "Long before the dictators, our times brought forth spiritual veneration of dictators. Stefan George, for instance. Then Kraus and Freud, Adler and Jung as well. Add to these Klages and Heidegger. What is probably common to these is a need for domination and leadership, for the essence of the savior. Do leaders also have character traits in common as well? Fixed values, for instance, that nonetheless permit different lines of thinking? ..."

Musil tried to make the vast material accessible to himself by assigning to entries a sequence of numerals and letters. Apparently, there are 100,000 of them. This system of reference is, however, very opaque to outsiders. In any case, his approach is not too dissimilar from the way in which other authors and thinkers tried to master the results of their note-taking and thinking. Whether Musil's system was more effective than that of others may be doubted. But apparently he had an aversion to the card index. Not all of his notebooks are extant. About forty of them disappeared.

Here some reflections by him on his notebooks:

P. 84: (1905) "Today I am beginning a diary; I do not usually keep one but I feel a distinct need to do so now. After four years of diffusion it will give me occasion to find that line of spiritual development again that I consider to be properly mine, ... I shall seldom make notes on personal matters and then only when I believe that it will at some time be of spiritual interest to be of reminded of the matter in question."

All thoughts on the "Science of Man" ... Nothing from ... academic philosophy. But drafts ... Here and there a poem ... halftones and shades of meaning. Absolute expressions. ... how one says it. Search for my own style. Up till now I have tried to say the unsayable with words that reached out directly. This betrays one-sided intelligence. The will to forge expression into an instrument shall stand at the entrance to this book. 2. Iv. 05 Brünn."

P. 11: "I once wrote to Valerie that it was sufficient if one felt each day that a single thought had grown out of oneself to maturity—clear and yet [after Mallarmé] surrounded by the sensuous mysteries of arts. In these entries there isn't yet a single line that reaches that standard."

P. 462: "127) (End of September 1939 in Geneva.) Yesterday, while looking for something I leafed through many notebooks, and this ended in deep depression. Sometimes a good idea, hardly ever any progress. Admittedly this is partly because whole notebooks are concerned with some special situation, with Unions for example. I have never taken anything beyond the opening stages (though I have finished the books that have the scars to show for it). It would have been so easy to arrange the reflections in proper order, these would have made treatises or books that would, together, have amounted to a modest life's work. But I did not want to do that, nor do I feel capable even today of doing this. That is how Note 126 emerged. Yesterday I had the impression of a person who is of no value and who was not destined to achieve anything of importance."

"128) ... It occurs to me, that, if there is any chance of redemption, then it should come not by using these notebooks as a source for what I write, because I shall never be able to bring these thoughts to any conclusion, nor even to a state where they are of significance; I must rather write on the subject of these notebooks, judging myself and their contents, depicting sins and obstacles. That would unite the biographical with the factual, these two plans that for long have competed with each other.
Title: The Forty Notebooks
Attitude: that of a man who doesn't agree even with himself."

1. I read the German Notebooks a long time ago. See Robert Musil, Tagebücher, Aphorismen, Essays und Reden, ed. A. Frisé (Hamburg: Rohwolt: 1955). The translators get their "Diaries" from the "Tagebücher" in this edition. For Musil on aphorisms and notes, see vol. 2, p. 291: "Die Notizen... und die Aphorismen zeigen die gleichen Schwierigkeiten der Ausarbeitung. Über beiden waltet kein Wille, Entschluss, Affekt, der zur Wahl nötigt. Ein Gedanke schließt sich an den andern, und das geht nach vielen Richtungen."

Barthes and Fiches

Here is a photograph of Barthes. Don't look at the author. He is dead. Look at what is (was) behind his authorship.

I know this look will reveal nothing about anything of any significance, but it may satisfy idle curiosity.


Jrju is a Perl application that "weaves hypertext 'notebooks' from plain text files." It's a bit like a wiki, but actually seems to have been developed before the idea of a wiki was conceived. It uses a special kind of markup. Its files are stored in plain text Links are automatically recognised. Jrju is also much more hierarchical than wiki. "Each notebook has a table of contents that serves as a top level index. Hierarchical indexes provide more specificity when needed. All available notes are listed somewhere in the hierarchy."

I am not recommending using it, since it appears rather dated. I gave it a try a long time ago.

No further comment!

Cloud Report

Personal Knowbase, a program that I always think of when I think of Daniel Luedecke's Zettelkasten, has an interesting way of reporting on its keywords.[1]

Now, it would be nice, if my favorite application had something like that (sans keywords, of course). It's another way of revealing clusters in one's notes.

1. For the Zettelkasten, see last post. I have also written about personal Knowbase before.

Hypertext and Coherence

Hypertext per se does not favor coherence. In fact, it accommodates incoherence very well. That is one of the reasons why it is good for note-taking where you often have no idea what it is that you are going to argue for or what claims will actually be supported by the notes being collected. It is very much like using index cards that way.

On the other hand, hypertext per se does not hinder or prevent coherence either. You can order and re-order the information according to various criteria. And, in a program like ConnectedText you can use categories or tags just as much as you can use outlines. This is again very much like using index cards which can be sorted into different heaps, which can then be organized into a (more) coherent structure.

The beauty of hypertextual note-taking is that it actually does not favor any particular coherent structure and facilitates re-ordering or re-thinking the notes in accordance with different criteria or goals. This is one of its special strengths. It is not unrelated to its ability to tolerate incoherence.

Put differently, hypertext does not per se differentiate between "signal" and "noise." What is "signal" in one context, may just be "noise" in another (and vice versa). That lack of cognitive overhead is (still) one of the reasons why I find applications like Zettelkasten less useful as a desktop wiki like ConnectedText.[1] The main way of connecting information in the Zettelkasten program is keywords which necessitate a decision about what is important and what is unimportant when you enter the information. In order to automatically connect the notes belonging together thematically (thematisch zusammenhängende Zettel) you need to decide right away which words in the notes are significant and which ones are not, thus superimposing a kind of system on what is supposed to be—or perhaps better: is best treated—as raw information.

1. The Website and the Program are written in German. I would go amiss, if I did not point out that the program has been improved a great deal since I last wrote about it. It now also allows for manual linking of different entries, for instance. Furthermore, it now is available for Windows, Unix and the Mac.
2. I am aware that this distinction between the raw and the processed (or data and theory) is far from mutually exclusive in this context. Indeed, it is just because I am aware that our preconceptions have a tendency to influence what we consider as data that I am favoring hypertext over keywords. It is not that it eliminates bias completely, but it does not favor it either.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Notational Velocity 2.0β4

"There finally exists a kind of wiki-like linking in Notational Velocity, in the ability to turn any text into a link by placing it inside [[double square brackets]]. If that text is the title of an existing note, then clicking it will jump to that note, searching for it in the process. (The Deselect button in the search/title field will double as a back button.) If no such note exists, just press return to create one with that title, exactly as you're used to doing already." (See here.)

ResophNotes (Windows) had this for a while.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Plain-Text To Dos

For what it's worth: Lifehacker on To-do Text, Again.

No further comment!

PS: You might also be interested to look at the latest pseudo-scientific entry from this source on the supposed cognitive benefits of handwriting.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Zettelkasten with ResophNotes

It is quite possible to reconstruct something like a Zettelkasten with with ResophNotes, Notetab or ConnectedText.[1] It is easy enough to continue entries like this: [1/1], [1/2], or [2/1], [3/1]. It's just as easy to branch the information like this, for instance. [1/1a] [24/5b6]. In ResophNotes and Notetab, you just have to enclose the numbers in square brackets, in ConnectedText you use double square brackets and you have a link. The only question is why one would want to do this in an elctronic version. In some sense, it is much easier to use [words] as hyper- or wikilinks, as one typically does in a desktop wiki like ConnectedText.

It's rather obvious why you need a numbering scheme like this one in a paper-based system. The numbers actually determine a fixed place for the piece of paper. If you take out a scrap, you know precisely where to put it after you are done with it. The numbers are also absolutely essential for effective cross references. Because they refer to the fixed place, you can always find the other piece of paper. This would be difficult, if you used concepts and a hierarchical organisation. Also remember the length of the "path" that would have to be written every time.

The numbering scheme reprents in some sense the skeleton of the file. It would have no structure (or the wrong structure) without it. This structure is exogenic, but it also reveals something about the endogenic structure of the data. So, the organisation by numbers reveals something about the information that wouldn't be revealed, if you used just words. You would see right away that anything having the number "1" or "2" belongs together in some way. Mind you, this "belonging together" is not supposed to be hierarchical. 1/1 or 1/2 just continues 1, and 1b branches off 1 somewhat arbitrarily. Still, it allows you to determine "regions" or "clusters in your information in your information. Indeed, it would be difficult to see this without the numbers.

The numbering scheme also makes you think about where the information belongs, that is, where it connects up with the other stuff that you already have in the file. It makes therefore for a much more "connected" text than using just words, though this difference is only gradual, as you can also look at the words that point to already-existing topics.

Is this benefit enough to justify using numbers. Using numbers makes the contents of the file more opaque to the user. It isn't immediately obvious what a number like [54/6c5] hides. Though the person who has constructed this thing knows better than anyone else, it would require a super-human memory really to remember this combination of numbers and letters. Even longer ones would be absolutely hopeless. There is a certain non-transparency built into the system, and
the "surprises" that Luhmann's Zettelkasten gives to Luhmann seem to a large extent due to the non-transparent character of the numbering scheme. The use of words makes the connections more transparent and thus appear less fortuitous. But since this is more a matter of appearance, it is less important than he thought.

So, it seems to be just the visibility of clustering that makes numbering important for applications like ResophNotes and Notetab. ConnectedText has other ways of showing clusters, namely embedded graphs. That's one of the reasons, why I will stick with it.

1. Do a search for "Zettelkasten" or "Luhmann" on this site for more background information on this.
2. See Outliners in ConnectedText.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


This is an application I looked at more than once and installed twice. I like the idea of a semantic outliner. But the actual implementation is too baroque. It never really convinced me. Here is a review that might convince you to try it.

No further comment!

Thursday, January 6, 2011


TypeLink is a "is a cloud-based personal wiki notepad." It is also an application for the iPod and the iPad.

Sounds like an alternative to SimpleNote.

No further comment!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Better Pencil, Again

I said I would report on Dennis Baron, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. I have read it, and I have little to say. It's not the kind of book I would have expected from Oxford University Press as an academic press. It's the kind of stuff I expect from more commercial presses.

If you are looking for stimulating theses about the influence of "the digital revolution" on writing, you will be disappointed. If you hope for stimulating theses about the relation of writing implements and writing, you will be equally disappointed. I was ... What you get is well-written but very superficial accounts of the history and workings of clay, papyrus, printing, pencils, erasers, typewriters, computers, word processors, email, blogs, IM, wikis, etc. There is some emphasis on early criticisms of these devices. You also get advice on what to do or not to do with email, wikis, blogs, etc. ... but no more than you could find out easily on the Web yourself.

I thought his report on how he has his students make and use clay tablets for writing was mildly interesting (though my first impression was that the human guinea pigs were actually high school students, but apparently this goes on in a university class). I found the account of the history and use of pencils completely uninteresting, as I had read Petroski already. Nothing new about typewriters. Even if you wanted to find out more about Ted Kaczynski and other enemies of the computer, there seem to be better sources. (But this is a guess, as I have no interest in Kaczynski's delusions.)

In other words, these $10.00 (and the time reading the Kindle Book) were not well spent.