Monday, February 25, 2013

Carl Becker's Wild Thoughts

C. Wright Mills argued that every "intellectual cratsman" needs a "file." And he asks: But how is this file — which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of “literary” journal — used in intellectual production?" only to answer: "The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished." One person who is known to have kept such a file was Carl Becker (1873-1945. His file apparently now resides in a "twenty-drawer cabinet ... in the Cornell University Libray."[1] They contain maily his reading notes which show that "he attended closely; he stayed oriented by any arts he found necessary—often drawing rather clumsy little maps or diagrams; he questioned and reflected upon the author's inferences; he pursued striking ideas out into his own rrealms of being" (141f). It appears that he read all kinds of thing, not specializing just on his research.

The earliest notes date back to his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin. They are pocket notebooks, each called "Wild Thoughts Notebook." They form a kind of journal. In May 1895 he resolves: First, "abstain and buy books," second, experience through writing, and thirdand most importantly:
in order to learn to write well ... write. ... Whether what one writes is important or not is another matter. That depnds on native intelligense and knowledge. But one thing is certain: there is no better way of developing whatever knowledge one may have acquired, than by persistently trying to put it into written form what one has to say, whether it important or not (145). He followed this idea for the rest of his life, "making and filing away notes of his ideas and reflections pon books, people and events" (149).
In other words, he tought on paper, trying to make his thought ever more precise while at the same time maintaining a file "of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished. Many of these notes ended up in publications. Whether this file is in the form of papers or electronic files is not as important as the effort to maintain it—or so it seems to me.

1. Charlotte Watkins Smith, Carl Becker: On History and the Climate of Opinion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956), p. 141.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Beckett's Notebooks

Look here, here, here, here, and here for some interesting pictures of Samuel Beckett's Notebooks.

I find it interesting to speculate whether his doodles have some deeper connection to his writing. There must be literature on this, but I do not know it.

By the way, no Moleskines here, just ordinary notebooks as every kid in France used them. Had he been in America, he would probably have used composition books (which are superior to the ones he did use).

Weinberger on Science

Weinberger claims on p. 136 of Too Big to Know that while getting "an article accepted in Nature still carries more weight than posting it on your personal blog," its "impact on scientific thought now is inextricably from the waves it makes in the social networks—formal and informal—of scientists, amateurs, and citizens."

This is false. While I am only a philosopher, I have served on Tenure and Promotion Committees where the work of scientists is evaluated. I can assure you that any "waves" an article may have made "in the social networks" has been almost entirely irrelevant to the evaluation of the work of a scientist—so irrelevant that it is usually not even mentioned. Attempts to popularize science may count as part of "service" to the profession, but they are irrelevant for the evaluation of the research. It is the judgment of her/his peers that counts; and that is how it should be.

The claim that peer review does "not scale" and that "no commercial journal could afford to put most submissions through peer review" is no argument against peer review, but just serves to call attention to the fundamental difference between basic science and commerce.

Weinberger thinks that knowledge has to do with "experts" and "expertise." But his attempt to show that experts and expertise have become questionable notions or are "moving from being a property of individual experts to becoming a property of the Net" (p. 67) is just as questionable as the rest of his book. Experts never were the ones that "produced" knowledge. Indeed, "an expert is someone that has special knowledge or is skilled in a special science," but I would never call Albert Einstein or any other scientist I respect an expert. In the same way, I doubt that the Internet will ever become scientific in the relevant sense.[1]

This will be the last post on this book. It does not mean that there is not be much more to criticize. It's just that I am getting tired of engaging with the pseudo-claims of the book. I am sorry that the author chose to publish it. His early Everything is Miscellaneous was problematic, but it was much more subtle. I once even used it for a critical discussion in class. This book is a non-starter.

1. This is not just due to the fact that I disagree with Weinberger on who is important in the philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty (let alone Martin Heidegger) are for me not the experts (pun intended) that Weinberger takes them to be.

Weinberger on Reasoning

On p. 93 of Too big to Know Weinberger argues that the following argument:
All men are mortal
Socrates was a man
Therefore, Socrates was mortal
"has become the standard example of how to know something." This is not entirely false. Up to the end of the middle ages, philosophers accepted this kind of reasoning as the standard example of knowledge. Yet, this kind of syllogistic reasoning already came under fierce attack in the early modern period. Accordingly, it has long been discredited as "the standard example of how to know something. Take Take Francis Bacon, who argued in 1620 that this kind of logic is inadequate and can serve "rather to fix and give stability to the errors which have their foundation in commonly received notions than to help the search for truth. So it does more harm than good." He argued that "true induction" from particulars represented the way forward. And inductive knowledge is in many ways more representative of knowledge today than deductive logic—to say nothing about the developments of deductive logic date back to Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein.

Weinberger seems to identify "long form arguments" with deductive arguments, using Darwin as a point of reference. He not only fails to recognize the inductive dimension of this work, he also claims that there is something wrong with long-form arguments because the "Internet is shortening our attention spans." And that's why books are obsolete. We need a network. This is a very poor argument, based on faulty premises. I have tried to show before that the conclusion is just as faulty and misleading.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Underhyped Mac Applications?

I like the Mac, but I dislike all the hype. If I had any doubts before, they were eliminate by this post: The Top Ten Underhyped Apps. So there are under-hyped, hyped, and over-hyped apps?

I'd like my apps without any hype, thank you!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Weinberger on Knowledge

Weinberger claims in Too Big to Know that there are three "characteristics of knowledge that have persisted throughout the ages in the West."
  1. "knowledge is a subset of belief. We believe many things, but only some of them are knowledge."
  2. "knowledge consists of beliefs that we have some good reason to believe."
  3. "knowledge consists of a body of truths that together express the truth of the world."
He then goes on to claim that the "first two are affected by the networking of knowledge. The third is being erased. We are losing knowledge's body: a comprehensible, masterable collection of ideas and works that together reflect the truth about the world" (p. 43).

The fundamental problem I have with these claims is that what Weinberger identifies as different "characteristics of knowledge" per se, are actually different theories about knowledge held by different philosophers during the history of philosophy. Furthermore, Weinberger picks out only a small subset of the different theories. If you want to get a (very) rough idea of the broad range of available theories, take a look at the article on epistemology. Different theories of knowledge take different characteristics to be basic for knowledge. But, and this is important, it is a fundamental error to make any of these theories into basic characteristics of knowledge. Nor is it entirely clear that (i) and (ii) are compatible with (iii). In any case, the claim that "knowledge consists of a body of truths that together express the truth of the world" is a rather clumsy formulation of different tenets that may be held by a variety of (more conseervative) theories. It seems to be rather heavily indebted to the Feindbild (or strawman) of traditional metaphysics "developed" by Richard Rorty as an easy target of criticism. Rorty's views are as controversial as they are "interesting."

But the important point is that Weinberger commits another category mistake and mixes up theories about knowledge and characteristics of knowledge.[1] In any case, on the most charitable reading, it can perhaps be said that Weinberger's claim amounts to saying that the Internet shows that certain theories of knowledge are shown by the new developments to be untenable. This is very different from saying that knowledge itself changed. The confusions do not augur well for the rest of the book.

1. I am well aware of the fact that if you accept a certain theory, you will also accept a certain set of characteristics as basic for knowledge. But Weinberger might have noticed how questionable such views are and how much the idea that knowledge is "justified true belief" has come under fire long before the Internet arose. See also some of the reactions to the previous post (and especially Michael Leddy's remark that Weinberger neglects, among other things, the difference.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On "Paper" and "Network"

"Traditional knowledge is what you get when paper is its medium ... Traditional knowledge has been an accident of paper." So claims David Weinberger in Too big to Know, 45. He intends to show that there "is increasing evidence—that in a networked world knowledge lives not in books or in heads but in the network itself." In other words, the medium of non-traditional knowledge is the network. He also glosses this claim of his as saying that the network "moves knowledge from individual heads to the networking of a group" (Location 863).

It seems to me that Weinberger's conception of "knowledge" is incoherent or at the very least deeply flawed: (i) What does it mean to say that knowledge "lives" anywhere? Is it the kind of thing that can live and needs a place? Or are these attributions misleading metaphors (as I suspect they are).(ii) If "traditional knowledge is just "an accident of paper," then it could not possibly "move" from books or individual heads to the network or "the networking of a group." To generalize the point, if what we call "knowledge" depends essentially on the medium it is to be found in, then a radically new medium should give rise to something that is radically different from anything that has been called "knowledge" up to now.

Weinberger's claim is an overstatement of what he seems to mean, and what he seems to mean is that "knowledge," whatever it may be, depends to a large extent on the medium in which it is expressed. Thus he claims: "Knowledge now lives not just in libraries and museums and academic journals. It lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge," immediately mixing the metaphor again and going on to claim that "[k]nowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication." One may ask: Is knowledge something that lives, is "contained" in something else, and thus can move independently from medium to medium or is it simply a property that some media have? He seems actually to mean something that is closer to the latter: "Transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge" (Location 74). In other words, "knowledge" for him seems to be nothing substantive, but rather a quality of things like yellow.

Leaving aside for now the notion what "knowledge" in general could be for him and whether his notion of it is consistent, I want to concentrate on the claim that paper and network present alternatives in a sense relevant for his argument?[1] I do not think they are. It makes sense to ask: "Do you need paper or can you remember it on your own? In a more stilted way: "Will you use the medium of paper or will you just use your brain?" There are other alternatives: bark, wax tablets, papyrus, vellum, iPod, iPad, desktop computer, lipstick on a mirror, knots in a handkerchief, to name only a few. But one alternative does not represent itself: the network. Paper and network are not opposed in the right sort of way. They are different categories and opposing them in the way in which Weinberger opposes them is what used to be called a "category mistake. It is as if someone who visited Oxford University, be shown the colleges and library, only to ask "But where is the University?" The University consists of the colleges and libraries. In the same way, we can say that the network consists of the things networked. Weinberger looks at books and libraries, and asks "But where is the Network?" He does not realize that the network is not an entity to be found among the networked things themselves. And the things that are networked might be texts or files residing ("living"?) on computers, or they might be books and papers that can be found in libraries, or the libraries, or they may even be people that know each other. Footnotes and other references provide some of the most important links between books and papers, letters or e-mails link people.

In other word, the notion of the network is nothing new. It has always been at the root of knowledge. Knowledge always presupposed co-operation, objectivation, and networking. That's what journals, books, and libraries have done in the past, just as they do today. They allow like-minded people to develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge. And the totality of knowledge has been for a long time much more than an individual brain could grasp. Leibniz is said to have been one of the last pansophists. So there is, at least not in the radical sense claimed by Weinberger.

Does this mean that there is no difference between the electronic networks of today and the analog networks of the past? Of course not![2] But these differences are not as interesting or radical as Weinberger suggests. There is not only no need to oppose "traditional knowledge" and "networked knowledge," the opposition of the two makes little sense. One of the reasons people first began to write things down was to be able to "network."[3]

1. I will return to this matter, as Weinberger makes other interesting claims about knowledge.
2. I will discuss this in future posts. One of the differences has, of course, to do with the number of people we can share knowledge with.
3. By the way, the claim that knowledge cannot be reduced to what is found in books or in heads but is more than the sum of its parts is not new either. Nor does this fact make the claim any more true.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Thorough Discussion of the Alphasmart Neo

Here is a post at Thinking on the Margin that refers to several other reviews, including a very thorough four-part discussion of the Alphasmart.

Since there are several complaints about the price, I just want to point out that it is now just $119.00.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Real Minimalism in Writing

Nabokov: "These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done ... I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well-sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers."[1]
Late in the day, he liked to recline. See also this entry.

1. Here is an entry on Brstol cards. Nabokov used both squared and lined formats, but seems to have had a preference for the lined ones. The format in The Original of Laura does not correspond to any of the sizes given here. So, either they have not been reproduced exactly (which is what I would suppose), or Nabokov used a format that preceded the Din A standard (which I doubt). I have recently encountered a paperback edition of this book in which the cards are very much reduced in size.

Too Big to Know?

I can't believe that this book escaped me for almost a year. I mean David Weinberger's Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. I have bought the Kindle edition and will report on it, as I explore the claims made in it.

From the book description: "We used to know how to know. We got our answers from books or experts. We’d nail down the facts and move on. But in the Internet age, knowledge has moved onto networks. There’s more knowledge than ever, of course, but it’s different. Topics have no boundaries, and nobody agrees on anything." I have a feeling that there is much to disagree in it (which I take to be (mostly) a good thing).

There is also a blog that goes with the book.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Criticmarkup is a specialized markup language "for authors and editors to track changes to documents in plain text. As with Markdown, small groups of distinctive characters allow you to highlight insertions, deletions, substitutions and comments, all without the overhead of heavy, proprietary office suites." It is specially designed to work with "Markdown, MultiMarkdown and HTML, but it's compatible with most plain text formatting conventions."

It has five types of markup:
  1. Addition {++ ++}
  2. Deletion {-- --}
  3. Substitution {~~ ~> ~~}
  4. Comment {>> <<}
  5. Highlight {{ }}{>> <<}
It's an interesting idea. I think I will wait with implementing until it is integrated into MultiMarkdown Composer.

Another issue is, of course, that the person with whom you collaborate also needs to use it.

See also the specs and this account.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Scrivr is another application that "lets you create a website just by saving textfiles in your Dropbox. ... We believe in super simplicity. And thus there is no "Publish"-button on Skrivr. There isn't even a web-interface you have to login to to manage your content. Skrivr is just write, save, published. You write in a text-file, you save it and then Skrivr converts it to valid html and automatically publishes it. You can focus on writing and creating. Skrivr takes care of the rest."

It does Markdown, and it looks interesting. More interesting than what I see outside of the window: 30 inches of snow, drifting. But it's warming up inside, as the power has just come on after being out for 24 hours.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Original of Laura

I now own two more books, Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura. A Novel in Fragments (Dying is Fun). Ed. Dimitri Nabokov (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) and Andrew Piper, Book Was There. Reading in Electronic Times (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 2012). I paid $10.00 for each at Brattle. While I had looked at the Nabokov book longingly in bookstores around Christmas 2008, I was going to skip the Piper book. But the planned followup on a previous post made the purchase almost necessary.

Piper claims in this book as well that Nabokov's "incomplete novel" offers a "timely reminder of the tangled relationship of books and notes. Without notes, so Laura tells us, we have no books" (63f). As I said before, Nabokov wrote his manuscripts on notecards.[1] Here some testimony for this:
I find now that index cards are really the best kind of paper that I can use for that purpose writing. I don't write consecutively from the beginning to the next chapter and so on to the end. I just fill in the gaps of the picture, of this jigsaw puzzle, which is quite clear in my mind, picking out a piece here and a piece there and filling out part of the sky and part of the landscape and part of the - I don't know, the carousing hunter. (Nabokov 1990), p. 16f.
...I find cards especially convenient when not following the logical sequence of chapters but preparing instead this or that passage at any point of the novel and filling in the gaps in no special order. (Nabokov 1990), p. 69.
Ada was physically harder to compose than my previous novels because of its greater length. In terms of the index cards on which I write and rewrite my stuff in pencil, it made, in the final draft, some 2,500 cards which Mme. Callier, my typist since Pale Fire, turned into more than 850 pages." [Interview with the New Yorker 1969 (Nabokov 1990), p. 122].[2]
If Piper had checked Nabokov's claims about his writings, he would have seen that the notecards he used were no notes, but the pages of his manuscript. And there is a big difference between the two, even if, as in most manuscripts that are actively worked on, some passages are more rough than others. There are even "notes to self," like "[write] at least three cards of this stuff. There are also "notes" that are taken by the character of the novel (on Buddhism and self-annihilation), but they are also part of the manuscript, not stuff that precedes it.

1. See here. (See also the references provided in this post, especially this one).
2. "(Nabokov 1990)" refers to Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: Vintage International, 1990; first published 1973).


aText is a full-featured text expansion program for OS X. It is cheaper than TextExpander and LifeHacker touts it as being also better than the competition. It's "better and cheaper." Furthermore: "Not only can you insert things like the date, time, and clipboard in a variety of formats, but aText can control cursor and keyboard positions as well. You can include snippets inside of snippets. You can create fillable forms when you want multiple variables in one snippet, which I find to be the most useful feature in a text expansion app and something aText handles almost perfectly." There seems to be, however, nothing in that list that TextExpander, for instance, cannot do. And the interface looks very much like TextExpander. Since I already own TextExpander, I will probably forgo this application, unless I hear that it can do more than what I can do already. (I really would like AuthotKey for the Mac.)

Nor do I see how it can both be "better" than TextExpander and be soon on the Mac app store. Sandboxing should be just as much a problem for it as for TextExpander. But what do I know? In another review, you find: "At first, I thought aText was just a cheap knock off of TextExpander. It’s not. While features are comparable, TextExpander does more, but aText does the basics." Not really helpful. The claims make no sense? aText not just a cheap knock off of Textexpander? Why? Because (i) the features are comparable? Because (ii) TextExpander does more? Because (iii) aText does the basics? (i)-(iii) scream: "it is a knock-off."

For someone who does not already own such a program, aText might be a good choice at $5.00. But I think the claim "Whether you're currently using text expansion or not, you really owe it to yourself to give aText a try" is false.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Handwriting is Important

No, I have not changed my view, or better: abandoned my skepticism about the claim that handwriting has definite cognitive advantages over typing (and thus computer software) in adults. But this does not mean it is unimportant. To write legibly by hand has definite advantages in taking tests. If you don't want to believe this, read this piece by Jonathan Wolff in the guardian.

I can testify to the fact that, no matter how hard I try, bad (or barely legible) handwriting tends to influence the way I view an exam. The following observation by Wolff rings true: "Every examinee should be made to sit through the opening scene of Satyajit Ray's film The Middleman, where a brilliant student's plans for a career in the civil service are ended when his examiner is defeated by his handwriting and gives him an average mark. Whether the change is in my eyesight, my tolerance level, or student penmanship, reading exam scripts is becoming, for me too, increasingly painful."