Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The List

I just bought a new (remaindered) book: Belknap, Robert E. (2004) The List. The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1 is called "The Literary List" which would actually have been a more precise title for the book. Even more precise or more indicative of the contents of the book would have been: "The Literary List in Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau" (Chapters 2-5 are about these four authors).

From the Preface: "Literary lists afford us particular attractions and pleasures. the rhythm of the repetition interrupts the forward drive of the text, and for a moment we are invited to dance" (xiii). Hmmm ... I can't dance.

His definition of a list? "... a formally organized block of information that is composed of a set of members" (15). Is this sufficient? I don't think so. How does this definition allow us to distinguish between a list and a paragraph? It doesn't. A paragraph is also a formally organized block of information that is composed of a set of members, be they words, or sentences, or letters. Nor does it allow us to differentiate this genus from some of its species, like the outline or the check list.

Belknap notes later in the first chapter when he quotes another author, a list is "an apt vehicle for enumeration, and its random sequence makes it apt for display of formal order" (34). Except, of course when it is not random (but systematic). Nor do I understand how "random sequence" is particularly apt for "formal order." I think what he means is that sometimes, if used cleverly, a random list may actually suggest formal order.

Lists are very basic ways of ordering things from a certain perspective.[1] So, a shopping list, enumerates things that need to be bought. But the uses are many. Walter Benjamin wrote: "I recently entertained myself by putting together a 'list of my mistakes and failures of the last two years" and the result was the slight comfort that the former were not at all always prerequisite of the latter."

Much better than the general discussion of lists did I like the account of how Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau used lists in their works.[2] In any case, I don't think there are literary lists as opposed to utilitarian lists, there are utilitarian, literary (and many other) uses of lists.

1. This is not meant to be a formal and complete definition either. It's just adding a necessary feature. David Weinberger calls a list the "most basic way of ordering ideas" (Weinberger, David (2007) Everything is Miscellaneous. The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books). I think this also falls short of a definition. But Weinberger's discussion of Borges presumed Encyclopedia as a conscious attempt to construct an impossible or self-contradictory list goes toward showing how important "point of view" or "selection" is in lists. We usually make lists for a purpose. Only rarely do we want to make a list of everything. In any case, everything is miscellaneous only when you assume no perspective at all.

2. See also Lists.

Friday, April 15, 2011

ConnectedText and Scrivener

I have been going through some of my old paper notebooks recently. I found the following entry I made on Friday, December 12, 2008. It was the result of a similar exercise:
On Sunday August 20, 2006, I asked myself whether I might not be trusting ConnectedText too much by putting all my notes into it. The last two years have shown that I made the right decision.
It is now April 15, 2011, that is, five years after I recorded the original worries. I have kept on using ConnectedText, and I have not regretted it one bit. It's a rock solid application. Even during Beta testing I have never had any real problems or worries about the safety of my my data.

At the beginning of this month, I finished the first draft of the book I am working on. I wrote it entirely in ConnectedText from the first note to the last sentence.

But now the time has come to revise and polish it in ways that are best done with a word processor, so I imported all the topics to RTF, using the AhK script I wrote earlier. It worked well, for the most part. Getting everything, that is, all 195,000 words (footnotes and all), into the proper format, took about five hours.

But I missed the outliner and the powerful search function of ConnectedText, so decided that I will use Scrivener as an intermediate step between the the rough draft and the final version. What I like about it is that it easily "compiles" the entire manuscript into PDF, RTF or doc files whenever I need or want to.

I will continue to use ConnectedText for my notes and rough drafts, however. Scrivener and ConnectedText seem to work well together (though I am not sure at this point whether Scrivener will prove to be as reliable as ConnectedText).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Scrivener for Windows Beta 023

I tried to import the RTF file of 1.61 MB into the newest Beta of Scrivener for Windows. This time I could not even import the file. This made me think that perhaps the issue has to do with the fact that Scrivener for Windows has issues with certain zip formats. Atlantis saves "supercompact" RTF files (i.e. compressed files).

I opened the file in Open Office and saved it as a DOC file. This file imported into Scrivener without any problems and the speed issue is gone.

It now works as promised. Sorry to have been so quick to judge. I'll give it another trial.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Amazon Cloud Drive

Here is a short review of the Amazon "cloud" drive. You can store 5 GB for free. This is not much, but it is 1 GB more than DropBox.

You sign in with your Amazon password.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Scrivener Beta 022

I am now at the stage in my project where I benefit from having a word processor. Accordingly, I tried today to import a large RTF file (190,000 words) into Scrivener. It choked. Even moving a cursor down one line took several minutes. I chopped the file into different files of chapter size (between 10,000 and 15,000 words), it worked—sort of, but it was still intolerably slow. Even breaking down the files into still smaller chunks did not make it much better.

There are quite a few footnotes, some words in italics. That's all. Nothing complicated or fancy.

I am giving up on Scrivener for now! It was probably never meant for serious work, anyway.

ConnectedText did not have a problem with this; neither does Atlantis.[1]

1. In the forum, there is the following claim: "We trialled a 364,440 word (2,361,934 characters) in a single document. First clicking the down arrow in the binder through a series of other docs until one hits the 364,440 word document took about 7-10 seconds to display." This is most definitely not my experience on a AMD Athlonll X4 630 (P) 2.8 GHz (95W) with 4GB of memory (and Windows 7, 64 bits).

DropBox (In)Security

Don't store any deep dark secrets, or any other private matters, in DropBox. You knew that, didn't you? This article points out some specifics I was not aware of. Just another reason to be careful.

No further comment!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Index Card

Index Card (singular) is "a simple, but powerful, non-linear writing tool designed specifically for the Apple iPad. Capture your ideas and store notes as they come to you. Organize the flow of your project by using a familiar corkboard interface. Compile your work into a single draft document that can be read by most word processors and specialized formatting programs. Index Card will assist in writing, structuring, and managing a large project by allowing you to work in small easily manageable chunks." (their claims).

Looks cute, but I doubt it is more useful than Notational Velocity or other more minimal tools.

The Website also says: Index Card "projects with the award-winning Scrivener application running on your Mac OS X computer." Don't know precisely what that means, but it seems to to refer to the claim: "Starting with Scrivener 2.0, you can sync projects with Index Card. This includes the title, synopsis, and order of cards in your project. The folks at Literature & Latte have put together a fantastic video on how to sync Scrivener with Index Card for iPad."

On the Praise of Typewriters

Michael Leddy who has honored this blog with comments in the past has an interesting take on a new kind of "gravitas," involving typewriters and "type-ins."

I concur! No further comment!

P.S.: I also recommend his recent post on the earliest writings in Europe.

The Information

James Gleick's The Information. A History, a Theory, a Flood Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: "The Information is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. The Information is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand."

I bought a Kindle edition and I read it. I am less impressed.

It's not a bad book, but it reads more like a collection of essays on various topics, loosely connected by the word "information." Whether the word actually denotes something all these essays have in common (or whether it expresses one consistent concept of information remains rather questionable).

The book represents a quick trod through various theories and developments having to do with information, ending up with the nearly ubiquitous "information overload."[1] Its subtitle should have been: "Some history, some theories, some Speculations." So we hear about "Drums That Talk" (1), "the Persistence of the Word" (2), "Two Wordbooks" (3), "To Throw the Powers of Thought into wheel-Work" (4), A Nervous System of the World" (5), "Information theory" (7), "The Informational Turn" (8), "Enthropy and Its Demons" (9), "Life's Own Code" (10), "Into the Meme Pool" (11), "The Sense of Randomness" (12), "Information is Physical" (13), "After the Flood" (14) and "New News Every Day" (15). The titles give a good indication of what they are about.

The book is well written, it is informative. It was also a good read on some rides on the "T." It may even be "sexily theoretical," though I think that this phrase is an oxymoron. I would have liked more discussion of the connections. It may well be that "hardly any information technology goes obsolete," and that "each new one throws its predecessors into relief," but what does that mean?

There are many other questionable claims, like: "in the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself." Sounds like a form of Hegelian idealism. But Gleick seems more impressed by John Luis Borges and his "Library of Babel," i.e. the "mythical library that contains all books, in all languages," Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong. Fred Dretske also makes an appearance. Towards the beginning we read: "Fred Dretske, a philosopher of mind and knowledge, wrote in 1981: 'In the beginning there was information. The word came later." He added this explanation: “The transition was achieved by the development of organisms with the capacity for selectively exploiting this information ..." Towards the end: "It takes a human—or, let’s say, a “cognitive agent"—to take a signal and turn it into information. 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and information is in the head of the receiver,' says Fred Dretske. That has to do with Borges worry the "'certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.' To which, John Donne had replied long before, 'He that desires to print a book, should much more desire, to be a book.'" Not one of my desires ... nor one of Gleick himself, I would suppose, given that he had this book printed—perhaps not quite a performative contradiction, but close enough.

"The library will endure, it is the universe." Really? I am not sure. I am sure, however, that The Information will not endure.

Is this a criticism the author would or should take seriously? I doubt it. The book was written as light entertainment for people who like their reading "sexily theoretical." As I said, it's "a good read" for the "T" (or any other subway or commuter train). I wouldn't "luxuriate" too much. It is not information very much "aware of itself ..."

Sorry, I wish I could be more positive, as the topic interests me immensely (and I have liked other books by Gleick a lot more). Still, I would also say that it was $12.99 well spent.

1. I think I am going to scream, if I hear the phrase "information overload" one more time!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mindola SuperNotecard

"SuperNotecard is an intuitive tool that uses notecards to capture and organize your ideas. These virtual notecards can be moved into decks, arranged on the screen, or grouped and categorized with ease."

In other words, it does what StickySorter does, and then some. It's a very competent application. I tried this program out a long time ago, but it did not convince me as an application for nonfiction writing (for which, to be fair, it was not designed either).[1] I should have mentioned it a long time ago.

Other so-called "writing applications," like Scrivener, use the notecard metaphor in more limited ways, i.e. the actual writing is not done on the "notecards," but in documents. The notecards are for meta-information about these documents. I must say that I like this approach better.

In the end, I prefer, of course the wiki or hypertextual approach, which is less visual, but much more flexible and conceptually "cleaner."[2] In the final stages of writing and note-taking, an outline is just as good or better than "fake" or virtual cards. In the early stages of writing (where one does not yet know where one is going or what one will ultimately say), even an outline gets in the way—or so it is for me.

1. Another thing I did not like was that it is a Java application.  (I know this is a highly subjective reason, but I avoid Java where I can.) It is available not just for Windows, but also for the Mac and Linux.

2. See also Virtual Notecards


StickySorter is a prototype application from Microsoft Office Lab. It is a post-it note application with a twist, allowing you "to sift through hundreds of research observations and organize them into groups using a process known as affinity diagramming."

Affinity diagramming may be thought of as the next step to be taken after brainstorming. In it you sort your ideas into groups for further review and analysis. It's also known as the "KJ Method" and is used in project management.[1]

So you can go from this (or something much more chaotic):

To this:

All I can say is: it works as promised. I don't know whether I will use it on a continuous basis, but it is a "clean" concept. It's what one used index cards (or sticky notes) for in the "old days." After researching one's topic, noting every fact or idea on a different cards, one sorted the cards into different heaps. The next step was the outline.

Oh ... and it's free!

1. See Kawakita-Jiro-Method, which seems to be a fancy name for what most American children were taught in high school already.

Friday, April 1, 2011

QuickPad Pro

In the category of "Amish Computing:" Here is a very detailed review of the Quickpad Pro.

The Quickpad Pro was (is) an interesting alternative to the Neo. It runs on four AA batteries and can run DOS applications. But not all applications are guaranteed to run. It can be bought at the moment at eBay for $89.99.

It's a bit dated, having come out in 2002, I think. The domain www.quickpad.com is currently unavailable. There is a private website that has interesting information and links, including one to a Yahoo group which you have to join in order to gain access to the information. Someone complains in this group that he tried "numerous" dos editors, and that none worked. WordStar and MS-Word 5.5 can apparently be made to work.[1]

I was half-tempted (no, more than that: I made an offer) to buy it and experiment with it in order to run Lotus Agenda, but $89.99 is too much for this experiment—at least for me—and I will not start collecting keyboards like this. They take up much more space than pencils.

P.S.: I will not, I say "not" ... collect keyboards.

1. The HP 95LX does run Agenda. See here. It can be bought more cheaply, but the keyboard is atrocious.