Thursday, May 31, 2012

Capture Cards

See this post about Capture Cards. I approve of them and their proposed usage. The Vaultz index box seems cheesy, however.[1]

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1. This idea is much more classy.

A Cool Application I Never Used

Hypercard, like many cult applications of earlier times, does not have a direct successor either. See also this earlier post.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Blank Books

I picked up for a $1.00 at Brattle's bookstore (on the way to this year's graduation ceremonies) Alexandra Johnson's Leaving a Trace. I read the whole thing before having to "march" and on the way home. It was worth the Dollar, though I would never have paid full price. It's full of interesting factoids and homely advice. One I found especially interesting is that there are nearly 10 million blank books sold annually in stationery stores. I have a strong suspicion that most of them remain blank.

Other interesting facts: Truman Capote preferred writing in other people’s homes, John Updike had four rooms for writing in his house, each for a different genre of writing (fiction, nonfiction, essays, letters). Anais Nin kept a "decoy" diary just for husbands.

She claims that diaries are about "making connections" (39). I couldn't agree more. She quotes Eudora Welty: "Writing is one way of discovering sequence in experience ... Connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves ... Experiences ... Connect and are identified as a larger shape" (140, see also 39) and Heraclitus: "A wonderful harmony arrives from joining together the seemingly unconnected" (54).

On the whole, I find the book too "preachy" and too naive. Thus she advices one to keep a "gratitude journal," for instance, and claims that "a journal is always a self-portrait, its narrative still evolving" (123). Nice, but is it really? I kept many journals in blank books or, more frequently, in Composition books, but most of them had little to do with life and much with work, that is, note-taking.

They have little to do with the ten supposed hidden patterns in all journals, longing, fear, mastery, (intentional) silences; key influences; hidden lessons; secret gifts; challenges; unfinished business; untapped potential. That list seems more than a bit naive and haphazard to me.

Secret gift? Intentional silences? What about misery and absence of talent? She does talk about them, but not as much as it seems necessary to me.

"Diaries are the self's first drafts" (151), she claims. But who is then writing these drafts? And why does the self need drafts. It's at the very least highly questionable whether the self is a "narrative" at all. Misery could lie this way.

There are better uses for blank books than writing "the self's first drafts." One of them is to leave them blank. Another one is to take notes, forgetting self-portraits and evolving narratives.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


This review of Justnotes makes a case for choosing this application over Notational Velocity and nVALT. I am not sure it makes a strong case. The main reasons are:
  1. Ugly icon.
  2. I don’t like the UI of the app itself, the dual purpose search/create new notes field has always bugged me.
  3. Both of these apps don’t work particularly well with the KM macro that I use to pre-fill the note title because of that omnibar thing.
If that's all there is, there is no need to change from Notational Velocity/nVALT. It's actually easy to change the icon and Keyboard Maestro is an acquired taste. I prefer TextExpander. The dual purpose search/create is viewed by most users as a strength of Notational Velocity and nVALT.

At the end, you find an update: "forgot to mention that the way Justnotes names files is odd. It names them with what seems to be a random string when you use Dropbox — this will be really annoying if you go by notes names in iOS apps. So beware of that."

If that is not a significant disadvantage that outweighs all the supposed—highly subjective—advantages, then I don't know.

Oh ... and did I mention price?

Addendum May 19, 2012: John Gruber agrees with "pretty much ... every word" in the review. Go figure ... And I think a lot less of him as a result.

The Shapes of Neurons

Here is an interesting article with a picture of different shapes of neurons. They are beautiful, inded.

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It's About Links

Here the blog of a kindred soul. Though he works mainly with DevonThink and not with ConnectedText, there is one entry on how to link to specific PDF pages from ConnectedText. I wonder whether he realizes that ConnectedText also allows URLs to which other applications can link.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

John Ruskin's Diary

John Ruskin (1819-1900), a famous literary critic, kept a a diary between 1876 and 1884. He was also haunted by nervous breakdowns, the first of which he marked in his diary by leaving blank two pages, just marking them: "February to April—the Dream," thus taking note of his illness.

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How Much Markup Do I Really Need?

I often hear complaints about the difficulty of remembering markup conventions in ConnectedText and other applications. It may indeed be true that trying to remember everything is hard at the beginning. But the question is for me: How much do I need on a daily basis? It turns out that I need very little. Just when I used a typewriter many years ago, I need to be able to indicate emphasis, make different paragraphs for block quotes, some kind of list, headlines and footnotes. In ConnectedText this means:
  1. italics --> "//italics//>"
  2. blockquotes --> ":" or "{Space}" (at the beginning of a line)
  3. ordered list --> "{Space}1.{Space} "(hitting return will automatically continue lists; hitting return twice will stop it)
  4. unordered list --> "{Space}*{Space} (hitting return will automatically continue lists; hitting return twice will stop it)
  5. headlines --> "===some headline===" (five levels deep, with the number of "=" indicating the level)
  6. footnotes --> "[!This is a footnote!]" (during edit it will show up just where you type it; in view mode it will be at the end of the paragraph)
There are two other option that could not be created on a typewriter (or can only create with difficulty in most other applications)
  1. links --> "[[link]]" to connect different topics
  2. Categories --> "[[$CATEGORY:some category]]" to impose some rudimentary order
That's it: eight different options. And that is all I really need. In addition to these eight, I use two others very frequently:
  1. inclusion --> "((some topic))" to include some other stuff from other topics
  2. properties "[[$PR:xx:=y]]"
These last two can, admittedly, become very difficult very quickly. But they are not essential for someone starting out. Nor am I sure that they are basic needs. They are acquired and can be acquired by anyone who uses the markup long enough. So ten basic options and two that go beyond them. Of course, there are many other options that go far beyond these ten. They go from bold and underline to tables and attributes. But using them is (for me) choice, not necessity.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

DeLillo's Notebooks

Since we are at it, here is a picture of one of De Lillo's Notebooks.
It was for his novel Underworld (1997).

Frost's Notebooks, Again

I wrote about Frost's Notebooks before. Here is a picture of what one of them looks like:
It's from this this Website. Apparently, Frost used "fountain pens, which have thick lines and a tendency to bleed. Also, his handwriting is extremely difficult, and in the notebooks he didn’t take the same care as he would when writing a letter.”

The two pages in the picture don't show the problems with bleeding — or so it seems to me. But see also here and here.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Wikipack is a personal wiki. It is also a web application that "transparently syncs your data with Dropbox via their secure API." Using plain text files, it also allows you to format your documents with Markdown.

It allows for free links this "[[CoolStuff|cool stuff]]"

I have not tried it and probably will not try it, but it looks interesting and might be plausible for someone with needs that differ from mine.

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Einstein's Desk

Einstein's desk was even less orderly than mine. I couldn't live with bookshelves like his, but then I am no genius.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Thomas Mann's Notebooks

Thomas Mann kept a diary during most of his life, but burned many of them at two occasions. He also kept notebooks. While he did not seem to have burned any, only fourteen of them have survived (1893-1943). Apparently, he used them until the material in them was used up. He tore out pages that were still of use and kept them in newer notebooks. Sometimes he also copied entries from an old notebook into a new one. Like Musil he kept several notebooks at the same time, many over a long time. Also just like Musil's notebooks, they contain hardly any personal revelations, but are strictly for his work. Unlike Musil, Mann did not number his notebooks or entries (though he usually recorded on the first page when he had bought the notebook).

Many of the notebooks very small so that he could very them in his coat pocket. Others were larger and were meant for his desk or desk drawer. The notebooks contain everything from observations, short excerpts from books, magazines and newspapers (though he also had collections of newspaper cutouts) and lists of names, addresses, finances, plans of trips and which books he wanted to order. He separated different entries by horizontal lines. Sometimes he skipped many pages to start a new set of notes later in the notebook. Once he was done with a note, he crossed it out.

When time came to write a novel or an essay, he would go through these notebooks and excerpt relevant material on pieces of paper of various sizes and ordered them in accordances with the themes, topics, persons and motives of the work. He kept these stacks of paper on his desk while writing his manuscripts, revising and amending the notes contained in them as the need arose. Some of these intermediate Zettelkonvolute have survived. For Tonio Kröger he prepared about fifty pages.

Writing was thus for Mann a process that involved at least three different steps:
  • Note-taking
  • Sifting and ordering the notes
  • Writing the manuscript
It would, however, be better of talking about three different aspects rather than of steps. First, much of the note-taking took place while he was writing (other manuscripts) and he usually had already a plan for a new project, some of which never came to fruition, like a book on Frederick the Great and the second volume of Felix Krull. The material often found its way into other books. Second, writing led to modification of the sifted and ordered notes, and the modification of them presumably led to changes in writing. Just for a scientist, for a writer just seeing is not sufficient.

It should be obvious why note-taking was extremely important to a writer like Thomas Mann who claimed he did not invent anything but only transformed the ordinary into the "poetic." But in some ways, his way of taking notes was itself rather ordinary.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

AhK Inline outliner in ConnectedText

I published this some time ago in the ConnectedText Forum, but perhaps it is worth a plug on this blog as well. While ConnectedText offers a capable outliner of its own, I sometimes feel the need to use outlines within a topic. This hack is meant to itch that scratch: see here[1]

This code presupposes you press Shift-Ctrl + the key you want. It has worked well for me in the past few years. It's probably best if you save it in a separate ahk file (like Outliner.ahk).

While it does not replace GrandView, you can reduplicate some of its functions by using links [[like this]] in the headings to jump to topics that correspond to the headings.

1. The code does not display correctly here, that's why I supply the reference to the ConnectedText Forum.

Are Chairs Evil?

This is not directly related to note-taking but, since most of us take our notes sitting down, it is not unrelated either.

Too bad that the only solution offered is to get up and walk around — not very effective for note-taking the modern way. Monks in the middle ages were better off, as they could learn all that was important to them walking and memorizing.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Seeing is not Observering

Time Magazine's How to Increase Your Powers of Observation is an interesting of advice on keeping a "field book." I am not sure I need one, however.

See also this.

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