Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Cognitive Basis for Writing Software

Anyone really interested in the consequences of the cognitive model of writing for writing software, may also want to take a look at this PDF.

They suggest that writing "can be viewed as a complex process involving different cognitive modes" and propose a multi-modal application that corresponds to the different cognitive modes. The program has four different modes:
  1. network mode
  2. tree mode
  3. editor mode
  4. text mode
The network mode represents the exploratory phase, and offers clusters of ideas. The tree mode is essentially an outline, while the editor mode is simply an edit window for the concept under consideration and the text mode an editor for the document as a whole.

What I find amazing is how closely the picture corresponds to my setup of ConnectedText. (I must have read this paper before and it may have unconsciously influenced me).[1]

The order of the elements is, of course, not the same.

No further comment!

1. What corresponds to the editor and text modes is not visible at the same time, however. What I miss in scrivener and Ulysses is the network mode.

Flower and Hayes

For a much very elaborate model of what I called "multidimensional writing, see Flower, I. and J. Hayes, "The Dynamics of Composing: Making Plans and Juggling Constraints." In Creative Processes in writing. Ed. L. Gregg and I. Steinberg (Hillsdale: Earlham, 1980). What they call "the cognitive model of writing" seems to me to come close to an explanation of what should all be considered when we talk about programs that are intended to foster writing:
Putting it more generally, writing interacts in important ways with long-term memory. This is something that Luhmann also realized. for him, the Zettelkasten was his secondary or long-term memory.

Miltidimensional rather than Non-linear

There is a lot of buzz about non-linear versus linear writing, where "linear writing," where linear writing is often blamed on a supposed "brainwashing job that years of MS Word have done" on someone. Applications like Scrivener are supposed to enable you to write in a "non-linear" way and that is praised as a superior way of writing. I have always thought that this is a crock. Writers have always written in non-linear ways by using notebooks in which they recorded different parts or aspects of what they were thinking about and then later synthesized in a coherent piece of writing. Even during the last stages of writing, people used a variety of strategies to break the "linearity," like outlining, starting a paragraph on a new piece of paper, making a mark to indicate that something needs to be filled in later, writing meta-notes in the margin, striking out things that were written earlier to add them to another paragraph, etc., etc. More recent applications just make it easier (provide more "affordances") to allow these things.

Furthermore, I believe it is probably better to think of writing not just as a non-linear but rather as a multidimensional process, that is, as a process during which many different things are going on at the same time. Thus writing involves (should involve) reading or re-reading what you have written, planning what will comes next, choosing appropriate words, thinking about how to make a paragraph better, relating what you write to other things you know or have written before, etc. etc.[1] A good application for writing should allow for all that, but one might think that perhaps the best one can hope for is that it does not "get into the way."[2]

I do think that there is at least one thing that any writing application designed to support multidimensional writing should support, and that is the integration of note-taking and writing. The more this is supported the better. Another thing that is required is that you should be able to view the text from many different perspectives. This is something that Scrivener does quite well, while Ulysses does not do it quite so well. But even Scrivener does not even come close to the kind of integration that a Wiki like ConnectedText provides—at least for me.[3]

1. Unless we are talking about "spontaneous" or stream of consciousness writing, which may have a use (even if I have never found it useful for myself).
2. Hence the over-abundance of "simple" writing applications. Whether "getting out of the way" is enough is, of course, another questions. I don't think it is.
3. See also this post which emphasizes the necessity of being able to view the written text from different perspectives.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Categories and Wastebaskets

Nelson Goodman's Problems and Projects (Indianapolis: The Bobbs Merrill Comapany, Inc., 1972) contains a chapter entitles "Snowflakes and Wastebaskets". It is about the notion of "categories" in Immanuel Kant and C. I. Lewis. Since Goodman believes that Lewis went "as far beyond Kant" as Kant went beyond his predecessor, he prefers Lewis's understanding of categories. In this context, he relates the anecdote that Lewis once said to his class that anyone who really succeeds in deducing the categories will make a "lasting name" for himself only to add after a pause: "but it cannot be done".

Kant thought that "categories" are the fundamental synthetic functions of thinking, that is, the necessary conditions of the possibility of thinking at all. without categories, we could not think at all. In particular, we could not think in terms of objects. Lewis rejected this view. For him, categories were just tools we use to sort out stuff that "comes" to us. They represent the order we impose on things. They represent our "filing system" and any kind of filing will do.

Goodman illustrates this point by telling another story. "A poet once had a filing system consisting of four folders severally marked: 'Unpaid Bills', 'Rejection slips', 'Love Letters', and 'Miscellaneous.'" As he became successful he made a slight improvement, renaming the miscellaneous folder "Acceptances' and throwing everything else into the wastebasket. He claims that as long as we have either a miscellaneous category or a waste basket, we will never be at a loss in filing or categorizing things. "That whatever we encounter will fit our scheme depends upon no assumption about what we shall encounter but only upon reasonable care in devising our scheme—especially by providing a wastebasket." Such a system "guarantees limited variety" and "insures against unending novelty." We can also be sure some repetition.

By fiddling with the categories we can make some recurrences more probable. But the reliability of the system decreases with the number of categories. Maximum reliability is achieved by having the waste basket as the only category. But reliability alone is not enough, so our filing systems tend to betray a tension between safety and the "need for specificity" we may have.

The important point for him is, however, that the regularity of the world does depend upon the arbitrary choices we make in categorizing the world. "Reality must be regular because reality is distinguished by the very fact that it conforms to the requirements of the non-wastebasket compartments of our categorical scheme." Chaos is impossible as long as we have some categories.

But absence of chaos is not really what we are after. We clearly want more. Therefore the choice of our non-wastebasket categories matters very much. The trick is to find those that have the right sort of specificity that allows not only for novelty and regularity, but also for revision.

This is why all note-taking systems need categories—any categories and why a "miscellanea" can never be sufficient. As Goodman said himself in other contexts, the "right inductive categories" are of paramount importance.

None of this, pace Goodman and Lewis, has anything to do with Kant. His "categories" are not meant to be inductive (and are thus of an entirely different nature as those of Lewis and Goodman). Nor are they directly relevant for note-taking. But that is a story that does not belong here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Am I so Rational?

Apparently a new study shows that thinking in a language other than your native language makes your decisions more rational.

I am skeptical (in English and in German). But what do I know?

Monday, April 23, 2012


For a really thorough review of text editors available for iOs, see this post by Brett Terpstra. I actually use Nebulous Notes.

No further comment!

Sunday, April 22, 2012


I did know that ostraca (or ostraka), small shards of broken pottery, were used during a certain period in Athens to vote (ostracism). What I did not know was that such shards were also used for tax receipts and other official documents as well as letters. They also had inscriptions meant to function as charms, curses or amulets. But most surprising to me was to find out that they were also used for note-taking. Makes sense, just did not know.

Papyrus would have been too expensive, wax tablets too formal and cumbersome. Pottery shards were available everywhere, just as as scraps of paper today. Size and flatness of shards were prized. Accordingly, those broken from large amphorae seem to have been favored. Sometimes, a number of shards were kept together in a wooden box. Scratching the letters was possible, but some kind of ink was used more often. Early ink would wash off too).

Some claim the practice started with the Egyptians.

Whatever their use in antiquity was, they are a far cry from a USB stick or a SD card.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Little Common Place Book

I had to have it: A Little Common Place Book. From the description at Amazon: "Reading is perhaps best understood as a peculiar form of writing, and vice versa. Renaissance thinkers took this paradox seriously, giving it concrete form in their "commonplace books," manuscript journals of passages copied from assorted texts and organized under various headings. The origins of the practice lay in the preparatory methods of classical oratory and medieval sermon composition, but commonplacing achieved the status of a true art among humanists like Erasmus and Montaigne, who used these notebooks to maintain command over an ever-expanding body of published texts, while culling material for their own correspondence, essays and literary compositions. The perfect gift for the itinerant thinker, this handsome volume is a facsimile of a notebook originally printed in 1797--the only remaining copy of which is held in the rare books collection of Princeton University--and reprints its introduction to the principles of commonplacing as practiced by the philosopher John Locke, as well as 144 blank pages for collecting and cataloguing your own thoughts."

The book is produced by Cabinet Books & Proteotypes.

James Mill’s Common Place Books

James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, kept commonplace books between 1806 and about 1825. Here is an electronic project to publish them all.

No further comment!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rivarol's Bags

Antoine de Rivarol (1753 - 1801), a French Royalist during the time of the French revolution, who seems to be known in English only through haphazard collections of quotes, used to write his notes and ideas on small slips of paper which he kept according to topics in different bags tied to the posts of his bed. Periodically he went through these bags and collated the notes in carnets or notebooks. He referred to these as his treasure. After his death, four of these carnets were found and the contents published. The most reliable edition of them seems to be Notes, Maximes et Pensees de A. Rivarol (Haumont 1941).

The practice of keeping papers in bags was apparently still common among lawyers and oficials in late eighteenth-century France.[1]

1. See these entries for more on storage of papers in bags.


Attention is important in note-taking and has played a role in this blog already. Some time ago, I bought and read Winifred Galagher, (2009) Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. I liked it very much and am re-reading it at the moment. The motto of the book might be William James' claim that "my experience is what I agree to attend to." Essential to her claims is the view that there are two kinds of attention, namely bottom-up attention and top-down attention. Bottom-up attention is more or less automatic, involuntary and stimulus-driven. Top-down attention is voluntary and driven by ourselves. She claims, correctly it seems to me, that "At any one moment your world contains too much information ... for your brain to 'represent,' or depict clearly for you. The attentional system selects a certain chunk of what's there, which gets valuable cerebral real estate and, therefore, the chance to affect your behavior."

The trick is which part of the attentional system you allow to take over. Most of the time, we seem to be in automatic mode, but we can pay attention and thus control our experience. Our "neuron population can represent pretty much everything, but not everything at once. You have to choose — or they do." The same is, of course, true of the applications which we may use as extensions of our brain. Note-taking can at times be very stimulus-driven. But we should also always be capable to change to the top-down mode. It should allow for both modes.

Ernst Jünger, not one of my favorite authors, wrote that "to the same degree that a topic becomes important to us, its relations to other topics (das Bezügliche increase. It is as if we had knocked at a door that leads to a panorama of ideas"(Ernst Jünger, Die Schere (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1990), p. 10). It seems to me that this is a combination or interaction of the bottom-up and top-down attentional system constituted by the note-taker and the note-taking system she uses. This is where free links comes in — at least for me!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tree, an OS X Outliner

Brett Terpstra can love the Tree Outliner. I "can't like it" — to quote my oldest grand child. I like more traditional outliners, like Scribe, it turns out.

No further comment!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Umberto Eco on Fog

I have referred several times obliquely to Umberto Eco's fascination with fog in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a book that makes memory loss a topic. Here is an interview in which he explicitly comments on it:
Apart from the fact that I was born in the fog, my memory is full of foggy visions, and I adore fog (to such an extent that I collected an anthology of literary pages about fog, from Homer to our time); fog is an inevitable metaphor for the loss of memory. The irony is that Yambo has lost his own personal memories but not his cultural memory: Thus he is obsessed by words about fog, words of the authors he remembers, about something (the fog) of which he has no more visual memory, because it belonged to his private, personal life.
Not that I am an expert on memory, but I am far from sure that "fog" is an inevitable metaphor for the loss of memory. If you do not remember that you have forgotten, there is no fog, not even any sense of loss. And that is a real problem for others who interact with you. There may also be anxiety — especially if others keep telling you that you have forgotten. And that is a problem for you and the other.

In other words, I am more than doubtful about Eco's "conceit." Just as I found the approach in his last novel too much like Blumenberg's conceit.

Blumenberg's Hybrid System

The philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) left many unpublished papers. His estate or Nachlass has been deposited in Marbach. The bulk of it consists of more or less fully formulated short papers on a variety of subjects, collected in a system of maps or folders. One of the folders is entitled "UNF" which was first thought to mean "Unerlaubte Fragmente" or literally "Disallowed Fragments." The name probably means, however, nothing as mysterious as all that, but simply an abbreviation for "Unfinished" (which works both in German (Unfertiges and in English. There are supposed to be 10,000 typed pages of such manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have been published as short collections. They are almost indistinguishable in style from some of Blumenberg's later collections. I am thinking specifically of Der Mann vom Mond, a book of notes about Ernst Jünger published in 2007 and Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer of 1979, a colleection of notes about the metapher of ship wrecks.

What makes the collection of folders even more interesting is that Blumenberg also kept a card index that refers to these manuscripts. The cards are numbered from 1 to 23,515. They order the material in a more or less systematic fashion and allowed him to easily connect the most disparate materials. The setup explains to a large extent Blumenberg's specialty, namely the easy connection of philosophical theory with apparently accidental texts from the most obscure places.

In fact, it explains what I have always found to be an annoying character of Blumenberg's work. Take for instance, his 1981 book on Die Lesbarkeit der Welt, perhaps best translated as "Reading the World. It reads just like the contents of a card index that have been written up for publication in historical order. You can almost see where the one card ends and the other one starts. It starts with the Bible and ends with the genetic code, talking in between of Newton, Johann Georg Hamann and Mallarmé, to name only a few.

The earlier named Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer does the same about ship wrecks. Blumenberg was obviously interested in shipwrecks and how they were used metaphorically in the history of Western literature. And the book is nothing but a collection of comments of such passages. It's cute, but does not lead to any deeper insight.

The same holds for most of his works. None of this is without interest, but it is ultimately disappointing. Blumenberg seems like Umberto Eco's hero in Foucault's Pendulum:
I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away. I kept files on everything. I didn't think to use a computer (they were coming on the market just then ... Instead, I had cross-referenced index cards. Nebulae, Laplace; Laplace, Kant; Kant, Königsberg, the seven bridges problem of Königsberg, theorems of topology ... It was a little like that game where you have to go from sausage to Plato in five steps, by association of ideas. Let's see: sausage, pig bristle, paintbrush, Mannerism, Idea, Plato. Easy. Even the sloppiest manuscript would bring twenty new cards for my hoard. I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them.
In another novel, Eco has his character collect passages on fog. These passages then end up in his novel as a theme. Borges collected passages on death (if I recall correctly), Ernst Jünger collected "Last Words" (which also fascinated Blumenberg), etc.[1] This whole idea is sort of strange to me. But strange or not, mere collections of comments on passages collected according to some theme are not enough for a contribution to philosophy or literature, or so it seems to me. In other words, in Blumenberg there is a lot less than meets the eye.

1. See Jünger's Card Index.