Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Index Cards and Linear B

Index cards played a large role in the decipherment of Linear B. "It was Dr. Kober who cataloged every word and every character of Linear B on homemade index cards, cut painstakingly by hand from whatever she could find. (During World War II and afterward, paper was scarce, and she scissored her ersatz cards — 180,000 of them — from old greeting cards, church circulars and checkout slips she discreetly pinched from the Brooklyn College library.)" This is what it looked like:

She recorded on these cards statistics about each character of the script. They were stored in cigarette cartons.

Thanks to Michael Leddy for calling my attention to the story in the New York Times Sunday Review of May 11.

Emerson's Indexes

Robert D. Richardson, (1995) Emerson. The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press) makes some nice points about Emerson's method of indexing. "Indexing was a crucial method for Emerson because it allowed him to write first and organize later" (201). He first made an index of each journal in the back of it. By 1838 began making lists of topics and added under each heading passages that he thought applied, giving location symbols and page numbers of his different journals. In 1843 he prepared a separate notebook with a topic at the top of each page and included for each topic one sentence references to passages in the different journals; and by 1847 he had created a 400-page master index of topics followed by short quotes and location symbols. For example: "Intellect" had 96 references. He also made a huge biographical index. As he made new indexes over the years, he also kept the old ones.

These indexes were essential for finding things, as he ended up with 263 notebooks. They represent "months, if not years of work."

Clearly, this kind of work is unnecessary today, as Indexes are created automatically by any capable program. However, this does not mean that note-takers should not go through their notes again and again. Even a program like ConnectedText does not make the continued engagement with one's notes unnecessary. Refactoring, rethinking, re-arranging the material is just as essential today as it was for Emerson. Except, it does not involve the drudgery of re-writing indexes all the time. Emerson was forced to engage his material in this way. We should force ourselves to do it.

As I already pointed out in the last post: he found his material by indexes "alphabetic, systematic, arranged by names of persons, by colors, tastes, smell, shapes, likeness, unlikeness, by all sorts of mysterious hooks and eyes to catch and hold, and contrivances for giving a hint (W XII: 93, based on JMN V: 61)" (Rosenwald, 142). I don't know how to implement smells (but never really found the need for them either).

Monday, May 27, 2013

Locke and Emerson on Commonplace Books

Lawrence Rosenwald discusses in Emerson and the Art of the Diary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) among other things Emerson's relation to Locke. He gets many of the details right, but his picture as a whole is distorting their relation. He points out that Emerson claimed in his first journal that "these pages are intended at this their commencement ... for all the various purposes & utility real or imaginary which are usually comprehended under that comprehensive title //Common Place book// (JMN I: 3-4)" (30). More specifically, they seem to have been devised in accordance with Locke's method. In this program, the first step consists "of drawing up an index page" of one hundred boxes, "with each of twenty initial letters being allotted five boxes, and each of the vowels by which the initial letters may be followed being allotted one box of the five" (31). When passages are encountered that are thought worthy of being entered into the commonplace book, they are entered on the next empty page, given a subject heading, and this subject is also entered into "the appropriate slot of the index page" (31).

Rosenwald believes that this method implies a certain pressure through "the necessity of devising a subject heading for a passage directly upon entering it. Locke's method, that is, requires rapid classification, it implies that category inheres visibly in the passage itself, not in the use the writer may later make of it." Locke's method eliminates "the circumstantial" (31). It "clearly and efficiently removes the detritus of historical or personal context clinging to the passages we dredge up and leaves them bright, clean, and isolated not only from us who found them, from the context in which they they emerged as interesting, but also from one another" (32). This is, however, not the genius of Locke's method, it is due to the fact that what he collects are common places, or, perhaps better, common ideas. Nor are they as isolated as Rosenwald believes. They re-constitute a world that itself exists quite independently of Locke's efforts.

Emerson's journal consists of "essayistic material" (37). It also gets indexed, but the index comes after the fact. It is a help for memory. It needs an index "of every kind." As Emerson pointed out himself, it is "alphabetic, systematic, arranged by names of persons, by colors, tastes, smell, shapes, likeness, unlikeness, by all sorts of mysterious hooks and eyes to catch and hold, and contrivances for giving a hint (W XII: 93, based on JMN V: 61)" (142). There is no common order here, or an objective world into which each passage neatly fits. The meaning of each note or fragment remains much more subjective. Rosenwald sees this. What is for Locke a "thing" (or better an "idea") becomes for Emerson an "event." Locke has firm categories, Emerson presents "linked facets" that can take on take on different meanings in different contexts. Somewhat like Leibniz, Emerson is convinced that "the World [does] reproduce itself in miniature in every event that transpires," that every thought is a World (40). The development is from "a commonplace book of parts to a journal of wholes" (43). Furthermore, he claims: "The Lockean commonplace is a stockroom for the writer; it is no more a book than is a scholars collection of index cards." Emerson's journal, by contrast, is essentially a book for Rosenwald.

I believe that Rosenwald goes much too far here. In fact, it is the other way around, Locke's commonplace book is indeed a coherent book, reflecting a more or less coherent world. Emerson's journals are like connected fragments that stand in need of indexing so that connections can be established. He invents categories and does not find them. His journals are much more modern, not to say Romantic. They are "a patchwork of copied and uncopied, revised and unrevised, corrected and uncorrected" fragments, not a uniform draft (68). They are characterized "by very little system" (70).

I think there is no way back to Locke's way of doing things.[1] Nor is Emerson's really a possibility for us. Still, practically speaking, my way of taking notes is indebted to both, being in some ways closer to Emerson's. I do assign titles or subject headings to notes when I take them, but they not represent rigid classifications. Even the categories I assign to these topics are more like tags than they are a system.

1. I say this in spite of the fact that I own a little commonplace book with the Lockean index printed on the first few pages. I like to look at it, but I don't use it. ConnectedText and blank paperbooks support my work more "naturally."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Writing Daily

"Writing clarifies your thinking. Thoughts and feelings are nebulous happenings in our mind holes, but writing forces us to crystalize those thoughts and put them in a logical order" (Zenhabits) — On the whole, I can only agree.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cotton Candy: A Mini Computer

This is a computer, but it really fits in your pocket. "More than just a device that targets making TVs “Smart”, FXI’s Cotton Candy allows any Intel processor based laptop or PC with a USB connection to be used as a thin client to the Android or Linux Ubuntu operating systems running on the Cotton Candy. Now users can enjoy a familiar computing experience on any system, while surfing the Internet freely, using typical programs and accessing sensitive files without the concern of intermingling data or leaving behind personal files and passwords. The benefits of these features are particularly interesting to companies with apps or services that are to be experienced on multiple screens and across eco-system barriers."

It costs $199.00 and runs Android and Linux.

Here is a competing product that does, however, not seem to be available yet. That being said, "the current Cotton Candy firmware open for release is NOT considered a Consumer product, it is only currently acceptable for Developers."

This leaves only the UG007 for just $50.39 at Amazon. But it seems to be the very thing that is "just a device that targets making TVs 'smart'". The company that develops the Cotton Candy is based in Norway.


iMapping presents itself as a new tool for personal information management. It is supposed to have advantages over mind maps (cross links or Querverbindungen) and concept maps (hierarchical structuring at arbitrary depth), and its approach is presented as a new method. I cannot decide whether it is a radically new approach, as I have not tried it. But I am skeptical. The application needs Java 6 to run. You can download it here.

Warning! The Website is written in German. The same seems to hold for the application's interface.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Oak Outliner

Oak Outliner seems to be pretty much the same as Little Outliner. This is what the Website tells you: "You didn't need a password because this outline is stored in your web browser's local storage. It can only be seen from your computer."

It cannot do much either! I have no real use for it. In some ways I prefer Fargo which can save to DropBox, but I do not see any advantages in writing my essentially private outlines in a Web Browser.

It does folding, however!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Scapple is Available in App Store

You can now download Scapple from the application store as well. Same price.

No further comment!

F. Scott-Fitzgerald's Ledger

See here. See also.

No further comment!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Ritual

I am a sucker for books on books. When I came across this title at Brattle Books for $5.00: Rabinovitz, Harold and Kaplan, Rob (1999) A Passion for Books. A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, borrowing, Lending, Caring For, and Appreciating Books. New York: Random House (Times Books). I could not resist, even though I did not expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. I contains several interesting essays. Kaplan's "The Ritual" touched a cord. What he describes is familiar, as I follow a similar ritual when buying a book, though I cannot say that my ritual has only "changed in subtle ways over the years," and "has remained essentially the same for as long as I can remember." I have had many a false start and made substantive changes to my ritual, but I ended up with something that resembles Kaplan's ritual in many ways.

Just like him, I am more a reader than a book collector, and, also just like him, I have accumulated about 5000 books over the last forty-five years. Many of these books I bought in regular bookstores, but many I also bought in second-hand and antiquarian bookstores, though nowadays many come from Amazon. Nor am I opposed to e-books. The interesting part of "the ritual" starts once the books have been taken home:
I must admit that I am not only a confirmed bibliophile but also an inveterate list maker, and it's at this point that these two inclinations dovetail into each other. Because for years I've not only kept a running list of those books I've purchased—as well as those I've read, incidentally, but also an index card file, such as used to be found in libraries of all books in my collection (15).
He says he started this when he was ten or eleven old, "graduating to handwritten, then typed, index cards, and finally to a computer database program." Each title is assigned an acquisition number ("a consecutive number beginning with the number one of the first purchase of each year") (15). He writes the date of purchase in pencil on the upper right hand corner of the back cover. I just write my name and the year and month of purchase unto the front cover. And I only started to make a list of all of my books around 1995, using a Microsoft Word file (which I still have, but also imported into ConnectedText long ago).

Nowadays, he enters each title with the acquisition number and the pertinent information into a database program which, I gather from his description, is a MS-Access application. He also notes whether the book is a paperback or hard cover and specifies the subject matter up to three levels deep. In addition, he has a field for "To be read," "reference," and "reserve," where the last category indicates a book that is not on the primary reading list. Once the book is read, the database record is changed.

My ritual involves the primary program I use for all the information that is relevant for any aspect of my life. I enter the book as a topic in my Notes project with a special bibliographical title, like so: "(Kuehn 2012)." The topic itself lists the author(s), the title, and the bibliographical data. It gets the category "Book" and the properties bought ([[$PR:Bought:=20130504]]) and read [[$PR:Read:=20130504]], as well as the one that hard codes the creation date into the topic ([[created:=20130504]]). I have a simple template for bibliographical entries that contains two headings, namely "===Reference===" and "===Notes===". this allows me to create Bibliographies, among other things.

I used most of this system even before I discovered ConnectedText in August of 2005 (and ever since I discovered my natural affinity to wiki-writing).

Kaplan observes that "none of this serves any obvious practical purpose" and finds 'the process of cataloging new books to be one of the greatest pleasure of [his] life" because it provides "a kind of closure" (16). Quoting McLaughlin about Jefferson, he muses that "'assembling data of this sort had to be an end in itself for Jefferson, just as his collection of books was more than a convenient library of knowledge. collecting odd pieces of data and fitting these meaningless bits into a rational system was a way of structuring and ordering his personal universe.' And so it is with me—my catalog serves as a kind of safety net, a means of feeling that, at least to some extent, I have control over my life" (16).

I cannot deny that the ritual gives me some pleasure and suggests meaning where there may be one. But that is not its main reason for me. Having a topic of the sort "(author year)" allows me to refer to this book in any project and any topic in ConnectedText. And since I keep notes on everything I read, this is important in practice. It is one of the primary ways in which I incorporate the book into my mind.[1]

1. Over the past ten years or so, I have also transcribed many of the title on the list originally created in Word into my database, but I only do so as needed, that is, as I pick up a book listed and actually use it.