Monday, December 29, 2014

Card Files (or Zettelkästen) and Databases

As this topic has come up in the comments to the last blog post, I would like to say a bit about the relation of card files or Zettelkästen and Databases. It is often claimed that databases represent the generalization of a card index. This is especially so for index cards that are assigned a unique identifier. Just look at this explanation from a Website that represents an Introduction to Databases:
A database is structured collection of data. Thus, card indices, printed catalogues of archaeological artefacts and telephone directories are all examples of databases. Databases may be stored on a computer and examined using a program. These programs are often called `databases', but more strictly are database management systems (DMS). Just as a card index or catalogue has to be constructed carefully in order to be useful, so must a database on a computer. Similarly, just as there are many ways that a printed catalogue can be organised, there are many ways, or models, by which a computerised database may be organised. One of the most common and powerful models is the `relational' model (discussed below), and programs which use this model are known as relational database management systems (RDMS).

Computer-based databases are usually organised into one or more tables. A table stores data in a format similar to a published table and consists of a series of rows and columns. To carry the analogy further, just as a published table will have a title at the top of each column, so each column in a database table will have a name, often called a field name. The term field is often used instead of column. Each row in a table will represent one example of the type of object about which data has been collected. ...

One advantage of computer-based tables is that they can be presented on screen in a variety of orders, formats, or according to certain criteria, all the towns in Hertfordshire, or all towns with a cathedral.
There is nothing that links such a structured collection of data" essentially to paper, even if some of the first databases, like Luhmann's Zettelkasten, were paper-based. Luhmann himself said late in his life, he would have used an electronic version for his system, if it had been around when he first started his Zettelkasten.

On the other hand, it is possible to design a skeuomorphic version of a database. Microsoft's "cardfile" in early versions of Windows did this.

AZZ Cardfile is a lot less skeuomorphic. And it appears to me that DEVONthink is even less so. Using a unique identifiers as the titles od notes does not change this fact. And to use these in wiki-like links moves them even farther away from the paper-model—or so I believe.

Autolinks in DEVONthink à la Luhmann

In one of my last posts I pointed out that autolinks have the problem that they may lead to many unwanted links. This can be avoided, if you make all the title of the notes unique. Luhmann proposed a way to do this in "How to Communicate with Zettelkästen," proposing an organisation by numbers. "Every slip would receive a number, independently of the information on it, starting with 1, and potentially continuing to infinity. Since his slips were relatively small (slightly larger than 5 x 8 cards, or Din-A 6, to be precise), he often had to continue on other slips the information or train of thought started on one slip. In this way, he would end up with Numbers like 1/1 and 1/2 and 1/3 etc. He wrote these numbers in black ink at the top of the slip, so that they could easily be seen when a slip was removed and then put back in the file.

Apart from such linear continuations of topics on different slips, Luhmann also introduced a notation for branchings of topics. Thus, when he felt that a certain term needed to be further discussed or the information about it needed to be supplemented, he would begin a new slip that addded a letter, like a, b, or c to the number. So, a branching from slip 1/6 could have branches like 1/6a or 1/6b, up to 1/6z. These branching connections were marked by red numbers within the text, close to the place that needed further explanation or information. Since any of these branches might require further continuations, he also had many slips of the form 1/6a1, 1/6a2, etc. And, of course, any of these continuations can be branched again, so he could end up with such a number as:

21/3d26g53 for -- who else? -- Habermas."[1]

It is unlikely that "21/3d26g53" will occur anywhere else than in a title for a specific note. "1", "2", "3" will, but that problem can easily be solved by adding a letter to the end or the beginning of all the titles, like "21/3d26g53-l", "1-l", "2—l", etc. This would make for a rather faithful electronic reconstruction of his Zettelkasten, very much like a described it here.

Groups and tags would allow greater control over how the information is represented, of course. While one still has to be careful about not accidentally renaming topics, this approach has promise!

1. See my Luhmann's Zettelkasten for more.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Review of the Rotring 900 Fountain Pen

The Rotring 900 is an interesting pen. Here is a short but informative review of it.

I do not agree to the claim that it is different from other Rotring pens in that is not scratchy. I have yet to use a Rotring pen of any sort that is scratchy. To be sure, all of them are stiff, but that does not translate into scratchy in my experience.

It might also be interesting to point out that the Rotring Altro is a plastic copy or plastic "version" of the 900.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Trunk Notes Early Access Build

Trunk Notes Early Access Build is the OS X version of the popular personal wiki software for iOS. It dates from July 2012. It does not seem to have been updated since then. That is too bad.

It's also regrettable that it is not recommended that it be used in conjunction with the portable version. But it does work.

Autolinks in DEVONthink

As I have said many times before, I like free links in note-taking applications. In other words, if you want to create a link to another note or article, you put "[[" "]]" around a word or phrase, like, for example "[[Bertrand Russell]]". This approach allows you have control over what will become a link. Many wikis work that way, but there are also such applications as MS-OneNote, Notational Velocity, and nVALT that allow you to do this.

The second best method may be auto-linking as it is found in applications that transform any word or phrase into a link, if there is already a topic or file that has the expression as a title.[1] It's very convenient, though sometimes you may not want a link. Take the word "problem" for example. You may not want every occurrence of "problem" in every file or topic to link to the specific problem discussed in the topic problem. This happens more often than you might think, but perhaps you would not be bothered by it. I would be, as I like more control over my knowledge base.

Another thing is that while it is easy to link to existing pages, creating new pages is less easy. DEVONthink seems to make this process as easy as it is possible. It allows you to select a word or phrase, copy it (⌘ C), and then open a new note "with clipboard" (⌘ N). You then have to manually go to the newly created topic. I am sure this process can be automated and reduced to one key press with TextExpander and AppleScript. Perhaps a template could also be devised. So, it might in the end be just as easy as enclosing an expression in double brackets.

The expression cannot be enclosed in any kind of bracket, as this makes linking unreliable. It is also important that the words or phrases are in the same case as the file. And there may be other problems with punctuation that I have not yet discovered. Another problem is that when you rename the note or article, the link will be broken. In a true wiki, the expressions linking to it would be updated.

Still, the automatic links do impart a rudimentary wiki functionality to DEVONthink. But, at least as far as I can see now, there is no capability of automatic back links in DEVONthink (or rather inDEVONnote, for which I have a license). And this makes a more extensive use less attractive for me than it would otherwise be. But others might feel differently about this—especially because it allows notes in RTF and Text format (and it is largely WYSIWYG).

1. I am grateful to a reader of this blog who pointed out this capability in a comment to Note Connections: "DevonThink will automatically create links when you type in the titles of other pages. You just have to turn on the WikiLinks option under Preferences > Editing (and click the button for "Names and Aliases"). This works on plain text as well as rtf documents." I am sure there are other things I have overlooked, and I would welcome any comments that set me straight.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Slow Watch?

A watch that is slow is not a good thing. It's unreliable. This shortcoming does not prevent one company to advertise its watch as the the slow watch. What is it? A one-handed watch.

I have to admit that I have a fascination for one-handed watches that I can't explain even to myself. I own three of them. The best is an UNO from Botta Design. It's my favorite:

The other two are cheaper—not to say "cheap," namely a "Bauhaus" of questionable heritage and a "Design Jens Ole Miang" with a Japanese movement. Since I "collect" watches, I am tempted by the "Slow Watch." But I am resisting—largely because of the advertisement: "The great thing is that the 24-hour dial allows you to see the entire day in one view. This fundamentally changes the way you look at your watch and it will give you a much better consciousness about the progression of your day. You will realize that the dial does not show a logo as we believe a great product does not need to show any visible branding to be recognized. A unique design language should do the job."

This is pretentious, and I hate nothing more than pretentiousness. Let me make this perfectly clear: a one-handed watch with a twenty-four hour display does not fundamentally change the way you look at your day. It does change the way you look at your watch simply because it is more difficult to discern the precise time. Looking at it quickly you can easily see whether the time is closer to 14:15 or 14:30, but you need to look at it rather closely to see whether it is 14:20 or 14:25; and you will never be able to be very precise about anything that falls within the five-minute increments. The "Slow Watch" is less useful, as its dial has only fifteen-minute increments.

It's no accident that one-dial watches almost disappeared in the early 18th century and are an acquired taste today. I call these watches my "retirement watches" because I believe that when I retire (soon), I will not be driven as much by the precise clock time as I am now. But I do not use this watch on teaching days. I also like the retro design of these. I wonder whether Heidegger, who despised "clock time," would have worn one of these. I'd like to think he wouldn't because that makes them more attractive to me.

They are available at Amazon and the prices start at $250.00. I hope you realize that this is not an advertisement in any way.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Note Connections

I have already referred to Christian Tietze's blog on the "Zettelkasten" method several times. I recently came across this: DEVONthink as a Zettelkasten Note Archive. It discusses Tietze's four criteria for evaluating software that emulates a slip box. They are (1) The ease of note retrieval, (2) the ease of note creation, (3) "which mechanisms does the app support to create connections?" and (4) the ability of exporting data with relative ease. I have no problem with (1) about note retrieval, or (4) about data retrieval. I heartily endorse (2): Note creation: does it take many clicks or keystrokes to create a new ... note? But I have serious problems with (3) or the downplaying the importance of note connections.
Note connections: which mechanisms does the app support to create connections? I’m leaving this point pretty vague intentionally. I know of various ways different applications deal with this problem. Also, I’m going to cheat a bit: if full-text search works, manually linking notes will work, too: just put the target’s identifier somewhere, copy it, search for the identifier, and open the resulting note.
Not only is the mechanism for note connection intimately connected with the ease with which we can create a note, but full-text search seems to me a lame alternative for the direct linking of notes. In fact, as I have made clear earlier, I don't even think that indirect linking by means of tags can substitute for direct linking. And, yes, the decision to link should be manual, based on the best judgment of the person who maintains the note base.[1] The kind of fortuitous connection described by Luhamann and others crucially depends on the architecture of the link-structure. It may be largely arbitrary in the end, but it is an arbirtrariness that is connected with a definite "partner in communication" or maintainer of the note base and it takes place within a definite context or research project.[12 It is not the Internet.[3]

1. This is also why I don't use Devonthink—a program that I otherwise admire. I even own Devonnote, but I don't really use it. Just listen to this: "If you are willing to use RTF-files, DEVONthink also offers clickable links. Just right-click (or Ctrl-click) the file you want a link to, select “Copy Item Link” and paste it into your document (that’s about 4 or 5 clicks in total)." That is four clicks too many. I would insist on free links that allow me to link directly by enclosing the word or phrase in double square brackets.
But it gets worse: "If you use plain text files instead, here’s what you could do: Copy the link as described above and paste it into your note. Then highlight the link, right-click it, and click “Open URL”. It will now open a new window of your linked file." And "here is a hidden preference to show mmd-files automatically in HTML Preview mode, so the links I set are instantly clickable. This gives DEVONthink a wiki-like feeling to it, but I need an additional mouse-click or keystroke to make my mmd-files editable, so this solution isn’t for everyone."
I consider a "wiki-like feeling" to be just as unsatisfying as a "love-like feeling." In other words, I want the real thing, if at all possible.

2. I was tempted to say "It is precisely not the Internet". But that is the kind of nonsense rampant among continental philosophers of some sort. Nothing is "precisely not" something else. The complement of any term is what Kant called an "infinite judgment."

3. The allusions are of course to Luhmann. The two relevant articles in English translation can be found here and here.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Medieval Notepads

Here is a fascinating post on how people used the margins of books for notes.[1] The most common other note-taking implement was the wax tablet, of course.

But slips of parchment (left overs from cuting the pages for books) were also used Apparently there was a guide book called De discipline scholarum "for students and teachers at the University of Paris" that explained "how a student should bring such slips of parchment to class for taking notes." It dates from 1230.

I wish I knew more about the medieval practices.

1. See also here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On Chapters as Organizing Principles

The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge, either utilitarian or speculative, who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies. Cato the Elder’s “De Agri Cultura” (“On Farming”), from the second century B.C.E., was organized in numbered units with titles; Pliny the Elder’s great compilation of Roman science, “Naturalis Historia” (“Natural History”), from the first century C.E., came with a summarium of topics similar to a modern table of contents; Aulus Gellius, a collector of legal and linguistic arcana in the second century C.E., divided his “Noctes Atticae” (“Attic Nights”) into “capita” with long descriptive titles.* These chapters, unlike the “books” of epic poetry, were what we would now call finding aids: devices for quickly locating specific material in long texts that were not meant to be read straight through.
I am not sure whether this is true, but it is interesting.

For more, see this article in the New Yorker.

It's amazing to me how recent are such things as spaces between words, chapters, alphabetization of materials, and other organizational principles that characterize the modern books really are. Perhaps there are some fundamental ordering principles that we overlook in ancient texts. In any case, the transition from oral organization to mere bookishness was more gradual than we realize.

Is the Pen "a Weapon for Readers"?

It is, if you believe Tim Parks or accept his arguments in the New York Review of Books blog. He goes so far as to claim that reading pen in hand might not be the "single alteration in people’s behavior [that] might best improve the lot of mankind" but he "firmly believe[s] such a simple development would bring huge benefits."

I am not so sure, but have no objection if people use their own books and not the library copies, as I think I said before.

An interesting article!

Enough said!


I have been using a minimalist to do program for a while. It's called TodoTextMac. A fuller description is found here. If you would like an explanation of the principles behind TodoTxt, I recommend this Web site or the Web site by the originator of the format.

TodoTxtMac is of course for the Mac. You can also get an application for the iPad, called Todo.txt Touch, for Windows (Todour), as well as for many platforms. I have only used the mac and the Windows version. They work well, and their files are fully compatible with each other.

The basis idea goes back to Gina Trapani, and it started out as a very sparse command line application. I like simple, but find the original version a bit too sparse. TodoTxtMac and Todour hit the sweet spot for me.

Oh ... and did I mention that the applications are free?

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Journaley is an open-source journal keeping software for Windows, which is compatible with the Day One app for Mac. I have been using Day One for almost three years. It works well, and I like it. I have used Journaley for less than a day, but it seems to work as advertised. I have set it up to sync with DropBox.

I believe it will be just as useful to people who don't use Day One on the Mac. In fact, it may be more useful, as it essentially reproduces the capabilities of Day One. It may be called "Day One for Windows."

I learned of the application from David Bosman

Extensive Review of Note-Taking Programs

A Cornucopia of Programs offers excellent short reviews of windows note-taking programs. Highly recommended!

No further comment!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Quick Word Writer

I recently came across Quick Word Writer in the Apple App Store. It is advertised as "the powerful word processor for OS X. An intuitive interface, powerful writing tools, and unmatched compatibility make it the choice of serious writers everywhere." The developer is obviously Chinese (Trongx Trading).

What intrigues me most is that it is supposed to do footnotes and endnotes. While $29.99 is cheap for a word processor, it is too much for me to just waste. I know nothing more about the application than that you can buy it through the App Store and that it promises to be good. But I have been burned before.

Does anyone know anything more about this application?