Saturday, April 27, 2013

Scapple Released

Scapple "is an easy-to-use tool for getting ideas down as quickly as possible and making connections between them. It isn’t exactly mind-mapping software—it’s more like a freeform text editor that allows you to make notes anywhere on the page and to connect them using straight dotted lines or arrows. If you’ve ever scribbled down ideas all over a piece of paper and drawn lines between related thoughts, then you already know what Scapple does."

I have used the Beta for a long time. I am buying it. Perhaps I should point out that the way I mostly use it is rather different from the one proposed by the developer. I outline relationships between authors, concepts, and theories to paste into ConnectedText, like this, for instance:

For some reason, I like it better than the outline:
  • Lotze
    • Ritschl
      • Herrmann
        • Barth
        • Bultmann
    • Harnack

It costs 14.99. The "Apple Store version" is not yet available.

I would not call it a "mind mapping' application.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, Stationer

This shows that Benjamin Franklin did not just use writing implements but also sold them. It's interesting to see what he sold. I wonder what the fountain pens looked like.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


David Winer has announced Fargo, a new version of the Little Outliner that saves to Dropbox. Make sure you want it to hook up to Dropbox before you click on this link.

Winer has big plans for this application: "This is the beginning of a journey. We plan to hook Fargo into everything. And because it uses an open document format, OPML, other developers can hook into the idea flow of Fargo users. The possibilities are endless."

Saturday, April 13, 2013

McPhee's Workflow

John McPhee, the prolific non-fiction author for The New Yorker described in a recent an article how he wrote most of his books. As far as I could discern, his "workflow"—I don't particularly like the word—involved the following steps:

  1. Taking notes in smallish notebooks
  2. Typing up every note on separate sheets of typing paper
  3. Write the lead
  4. Thinking about where to start by going through these notes several times, deciding to what context they belong: "what I’m doing, basically, is looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code—it’s like an airport code. If a topic is upstate New York, I’ll write UNY or something in the margin. When I get done, the mass of notes has some tiny code beside each note. And I write each code on an index card."
  5. Photocopying the typed sheets and cutting them up into smaller parts, corresponding to the tiny codes and placing the resulting slips into different manila envelopes for each code. ("After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders."
  6. Shuffling the cards until the proper order of the story emerges. Remember, each card represents an envelope.
  7. Writing up the book, one envelope at a time. This involves first ordering the slips in the envelope, and then following that order. "One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood."

If this sounds like something that could be reproduced easily in a program like Scrivener or ConnectedText, this seems no accident to me.

However, McPhee who discovered computers in the early 1980s used another program, namely an editor called Kedit. This was, he tells us the result of interacting with a friend:

He listened to the whole process from pocket notebooks to coded slices of paper, then mentioned a text editor called Kedit, citing its exceptional capabilities in sorting. Kedit (pronounced "kay-edit"), a product of the Mansfield Software Group, is the only text editor I have ever used. I have never used a word processor. Kedit did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, WYSIWYGs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts. Instead, Howard wrote programs to run with Kedit in imitation of the way I had gone about things for two and a half decades.

He wrote Structur. He wrote Alpha. He wrote mini-macros galore. Structur lacked an "e" because, in those days, in the Kedit directory eight letters was the maximum he could use in naming a file. … The programs he wrote for me were molded like clay to my requirements--an appealing approach to anything called an editor.

Structur exploded my notes. It read the codes by which each note was given a destination or destinations (including the dustbin). It created and named as many new Kedit files as there were codes, and, of course, it preserved intact the original set ...

I wrote my way sequentially from Kedit file to Kedit file from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of those files created by Structur could be quite long. So each one in turn needed sorting on its own, and sometimes fell into largish parts that needed even more sorting. In such phases, Structur would have been counterproductive. It would have multiplied the number of named files, choked the directory, and sent the writer back to the picnic table, and perhaps under it. So Howard wrote Alpha. Alpha implodes the notes it works on. It doesn't create anything new. It reads codes and then churns a file internally, organizing it in segments in the order in which they are meant to contribute to the writing.

Alpha is the principal, workhorse program I run with Kedit. Used again and again on an ever-concentrating quantity of notes, it works like nesting utensils. It sorts the whole business at the outset, and then, as I go along, it sorts chapter material and subchapter material, and it not infrequently arranges the components of a single paragraph. It has completely served many pieces on its own. ...

Kedit's All command shows me all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next. It's sort of like a leaf blower. Mercilessly, it will go after fad words like "icon," "iconic," "issues," "awesome," "arguably"; and it suggests how much of "but" is too much "but." But its principal targets are the legions of perfectly acceptable words that should not appear more than once in a piece of writing--"legions," in the numerical sense, among them, and words like "expunges," "circumvallate," "horripilation," "disjunct," "defunct," "amalgamate," "ameliorate," "defecate," and a few thousand others. Of those which show up more than once, All expunges all.

I am not sure how precisely this worked because I have never even seen a Kedit file. Nor do I really understand how this reproduces the old work flow precisely. But perhaps others can make more sense of it.1

  1. I wrote this entry in Ulysses III, saved it to HTML, opened it in Textwrangler, deleted the HTML header, and copied and pasted it into Blogger. It looks good to me (or are there any problems with paragraphs?) The notes came, of course from ConnectedText.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Little Outliner and Workflowy

The newest version of Little Outliner can "import outlines from Workflowy, a popular browser-based outliner." See here.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Why I Have Stopped Using Amazon Cloud Drive

The Amazon Cloud drive application creates a folder on your computer. It is very inflexible and insists that it be on the system drive. My problem is that I am using a smaller Solid State Drive (SSD) to speed up boot times and file operations. The Amazon cloud drive application started warning me today that there is not enough space on the system drive. There seems to be no way to change the location to one of the hard drives connected to the computer. This is really disappointing. I have deregistered my computer. Bummer ...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Writing as Thinking

I have several times discussed or offered my prejudices on whether writing by hand or typewriter or word processor makes a significant difference to the outcome. These questions are embedded in the wider question of whether the tools we use in writing make a difference to what is written. This question about specific tools is impossible to answer. Answers to the wider question seem to be easier. I recently read Writing as Thinking by Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic. It understands writing "as thinking that uses paper or other media to externalize and manipulate symbolic expression," and comes to the conclusion that externalization makes a big difference. Writing on paper or a screen augments mere subjective thought processes. Indeed, it seems to make them possible in the first place.

The paper expands the views proposed by Flower and Hayes that writing is a cognitive process by drawing attention to the fact that one of the most important things in thinking by writing has to do with the easy availability of what has been written already. A "writer’s reading of the text generated so far," as they put it, is crucial. In order to explicate this point, they refer to
the experience of a well-known author of detective stories, Howard Engel, who suffered a small stroke that made him unable to read. Words other than the very smallest could not be directly understood. He had to sound each one out, letter by letter, to know what it was. But the stroke spared his ability to write. His diagnosis was alexia without agraphia. His most recent novel, Memory Book (Engel, 2005), was written following this stroke. It is about Engel’s private detective, Benny Cooperman, who suffers a blow to the head that produces the same brain damage as that of his author. Completing the novel was a formidable task (p. 14).
The task was so formidable that he could complete it only with the help of several editors. "He said: 'It gave me a chance to stare it
[the whole book] in the face, which was something I couldn’t do for myself.'"[1]

Let me call what Engel lost the "editing function." It appears to me, notwithstanding the claims of those who advocate spontaneous writing, that the editing function is present already when you are just writing your first draft (using a pencil, a typewriter, or a computer). We are constantly trying to make sense of what we are presently writing in terms of what we have written already. The more we write, the more difficult this becomes. But it is necessary for writing as thinking, and, for that matter, for thinking as writing.

Oatley and Djikic say many interesting things about this process by "explor[ing] the idea that writing as thinking was associated with the rise of the novel and short story" (p. 17). I would have preferred it, if they had also used other genres, like philosophy, science, or, more generally, non-fiction. They are right: "Flaubert’s methods offer a large leap beyond the idea of Hayes and Flower (1986) of writing as planning, sentence generation, and revising." This is precisely what one would have expected (if Hayes and Flower are right). They believe that they have revealed "literary writing as offering models for the reader to construct that can be successively and sometimes even simultaneously experienced partly in language and partly as emotionally imbued intuition" (p. 24). Nice ... perhaps. But what about writing as thinking? What does the 'editing function" show specifically about thinking.

I have to think some more how all of this is related to note-taking in which the "chance to stare the whole ... into the face" must still wait. Yet, the idea of some whole cannot be completely absent—or so it seems to me.

1. I am going to get a copy of this book.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cheesiness Squared

"Moleskine has really been expanding their range of themed “Passions” journals, each designed to help users keep track of various interests such as Restaurants, Books, Home Life, Cats, Beer, Chocolate, Coffee, Gardening, Wellness, and more. Now they are introducing the most passionate Passions volume yet: The Moleskine Passions Sex Journal!" The cover sports "various kama sutra positions."

By way of Notebookstories. Oh, and did I mention, the story was published on April 1?

Notes by a Notebook Addict

Kevin Barry, a contemporary Irish writer confesses about his "notebook fetish." I don't understand why he likes Moleskines. (He must not use a real (fountain) pen.) I have never smelled notebooks while browsing for them. Nor am I tempted to do so in the future.

I don't own a hundred yet, but I am getting there. This is irrational, as I work mostly on the computer and carry an iPad Mini whenever I go anywhere.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Smallest Manageable Tasks and Algorithmic Thinking

If you believe the Wikipedia article on "Algorithms," then there "is no generally accepted formal definition of "algorithm," but "a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations" would be a good informal definition. The article also gives a more precise definition, namely that "an algorithm is an effective method expressed as a finite list[ of well-defined instructions for calculating a function. Starting from an initial state and initial input (perhaps empty), the instructions describe a computation that, when executed, proceeds through a finite number of well-defined successive states, eventually producing 'output' and terminating at a final ending state." Even today, most people think of algorithms as exclusively in the context of computers and computer science. Yet, algorithms pervade much of our current thinking and problem solving—even if it is unrecognized. The phrase "smallest manageable tasks" belongs to this kind of thinking. In fact, the advice to break complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one suggests that we should approach "getting ahead" algorithmically (if that is a word).

Many people are opposed to this way of thinking because they believe it dehumanizes us. I don't believe this is true. In fact, I believe that Steve Jobs got it right when he said that using a computer teaches us to think in a different way, "using them to be a mirror of your thought process, to actually learn how to think. ... Everybody in the country should learn how to program a computer ... because learning a computer language ... teaches you how to think. ... I view computer science as a liberal art, it should be something that everybody learns; [it] takes a year of their life, one of the courses they take is to learn how to program" (Robert X. Cringley’s “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview”).

Approaching problems algorithmically can be helpful. This certainly also holds of note-taking or note-making, as Luhmann and others I have discussed here knew even before computers became widely available. Taking notes on index cards, restricting each card to one fact or idea, and then trying to extract meaning from them were attempts to analyze problems algorithmically. Whether the algorithms devised for this process were good is, of course, a different question.

It also seems to me that the last step, that is, the extraction of meaning, was usually not algorithmic.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Amazon Cloud Sync

Amazon's new Cloud Drive Application now creates a Cloud Drive Folder on your computer that syncs with the Amazon Cloud. It seems to work just like DropBox, and will let you access your documents, music, and photos across multiple computers. Cloud Drive allows every user five gigabytes of storage for free. 20 GB cost $10.00 a year, 50 GB cost $25.00, 100 GB cost $50.00, etc. The maximum seems to be 1000 GB ($500.00). The pricing scheme is much more favorable to the user than that of DropBox which gives you only 2 GB for free (though it must be said that there many ways of increasing that to 5 GB or more). But 100GB, the first option for an upgrade, costs already $9.99 a month, i.e. more than ten times than Amazon. If you are not deeply committed to DropBox or some other provider, Amazon seems to be the way to go.[1]

I will test it for a week or so, before I upgrade to 20 GB. I had a subscription before, but I cancelled it precisely because I could not sync.{2]

1. There are also options for uploading and playing songs, but this does not interest me.
2. See also Ars Technica. They have some more details. Their claim: "The Amazon prices are identical to SkyDrive's, slightly cheaper than Google's, and about half the price of Dropbox" is true. However, if you are only interested in 20 GB, then DropBox is about ten times as much, Google Drive at 25 GB at 2.49 a month is three times as much, and Skydrive costs the same.