Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hoarding or Collecting?

There is a highly interesting article in the New Republic on collecting books. It is called, "Object Lesson: Why we need physical books." I am not sure the author, William Giraldi, makes his main point, but he makes a number of different points along the way that I find worth considering.

It may well be that "forgoing physicality, readers of e-books defraud themselves of the communion which emerges from that physicality." He thinks that smelly books further that communion. I have always found that this particular physicality is standing in the way of any kind of "communion," but I may well be idiosyncratic here.[1] Mind you, I like--no love--books, but there is nothing wrong with electronic books either. I love them as well. He just seems to think they are very useful when traveling.[1]

But there is one point where I find he is just wrong:
Cram your home with books, and you’re lovingly called a collector; cram it with old newspapers, and you’re derisively called a hoarder. But be honest: The collector is a hoarder, too—a discriminating and noble-minded hoarder, perhaps, but a hoarder just the same.
What is the genus and what is the species? Are all hoarders collectors or are all collectors hoarders? One might be tempted to argue that it's either the one or the other, but I would like to resist that temptation. I would want to argue that a hoarder "collector" in the relevant sense. "Collection" has many meanings, of course. Just think of the "garbage collector," or of the coffee grimes "collecting" in the drain. A "hoarder" is collecting things in that way, but a "collector" of books (or pencils) is discriminating. He selects according to some principle(s) what will become part of his collection and what won't. That this principle is not always conscious presents a problem, and it may lead to the collector becoming a hoarder, but it does not negate the difference. The collector is not a hoarder.

By the way, the same holds for "information" or knowledge. There are those who are or would describe themselves as information hoarders. See here and here, for instance.

1. There are many others, like markings with ball point pens or highlighter, crumbling spines, stains, for instance.
2. "The e-reader is a godsend to those travelers who want to carry all eight volumes of Gibbon with them. (Although you can question if a traveler would really make use of Gibbon’s dreadnought while traipsing through foreign climes."

Ayn Rand on C. S. Lewis

As a footnote to the last post. I don't like C. S. Lewis very much simply because he is a simplificateur terrible. My dislike is thus very different from Ayn Rand's. "She called the famous apologist an 'abysmal bastard,' a 'monstrosity,' a 'cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-meta­physical mediocrity,' a 'pickpocket of concepts,' and a 'God-damn, beaten mystic.'"[1] Indeed, all but the last epithet would have applied to her with just as much justification. She and C. S. Lewis are one of a kind, and they both appeal to the adolescents of spirit.

There is one difference, though: I can still read some things by C. S. Lewis, but I find there is nothing in Ayn Rand's mediocre work that would deserve further attention.

1. See here for more, if you dare.

C. S. Lewis on Books as Hobbies

C. S. Lewis, not one of my favorite writers, found:
To enjoy a book... I find I have to treat is as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously. I begin by making a map on one of the end leafs; then I put in a genealogical tree or two; then I put a running headline at the top of each page; finally I index at the end all the passages I have for some reason underlined. I often wonder-how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrapbooks-why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time, and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.[1]

I think re-reading old favourites is one of the things we differ on, isn't it, and you do it very rarely. I probably do it too much. It is one of my greatest pleasures: indeed I can't imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.[2]

Perhaps people don't make their books their own in Lewis's way because they respect them too much. Still, it is a good idea to keep an index of the passages you have marked (in whatever way) as significant. It could be made in light pencil on the fly leaf or even on a separate index card (or cards) that you keep in the book. Transferring the notes (or at least the index) into your electronic note-taking file is not a bad idea either. I nowadays try to do just that!

To re-read some books is good, too. Though I disagree with those who claim that the only books worth reading are those that you would wish to re-read. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to know a priori what is worth re-reading, there are things to be learned from lesser books as well.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. II: Letter to Arthur Greeves Feb 1932, p. 53.
2. Ibid., p. 54

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Making an Index for Your Notebook

Anyone who keeps notes both in paper notebooks and in a computer program should have a system integrating the two. I have described some ways of doing this before.

You need at least three conventions:
  • find a way two refer to refer to the paper notebook
  • find a way to refer to the particular entries in the paper noteboook
  • find a program in the computer, in which to store the reference
This post is about the second convention. Here is my experience: I have found over the years that the most important thing is to (a) paginate the notebooks, (b) create a table of contents at the end or the beginning of the notebook, and (c) create a page in ConnectedText for each notebook into which the table of contents is copied. (It may also contain other relevant information as to when you kept it, etc.)

As I review the contents of the notebooks over the years (some of them go back to the late eighties), I might decide to transcribe some of the entries into ConnectedText, putting a link into the content page for the notebook and putting a cancellation mark in the paper notebook itself. Not everything is deemed important enough for transcription, though this changes over time and many things end up in my ConnectedText over time. I have a category called "My paper notebooks."

Reviewing them (both the paper and the electronic) notes often is an important part of what I would call my "work flow," if I did not despise this phrase. I could, of course, use a digital camera for the transcription step, but I find transcription makes me remember the note better.

I recently came across a post in which a more fine-grained approach is suggested, namely that of keeping an index in every notebook: "The back of your notebook will act like a tag list or index. Every time you create a new entry at the front of the book you're going to 'tag' it." If you follow this approach, you could later transfer the index into your electronic note-taking application at your leisure. The marks on the pages would allow you to locate the information you look for quickly.

As I said, it is a more more fine-grained approach than including a Table of Contents in the notebook. I am not sure I need such a level of detail in accounting for my paper notes (because anything I deem really significant gets transcribed anyway), but others may find the approach described here more useful. Also, remember that most books have both a Table of Contents and an Index. So, you could do both, if you find it necessary or useful.

Ten Simple Rules for Lifelong Learning

This is an interesting article. I believe that anyone interested in note-taking will benefit from reading it. This endorsement does not mean, of course, that I would agree with everything said in it. But I do like the distinction between learning and training: "learning to learn depends on a certain style of thinking [4]. An important distinction here is between education and training: education is learning what you should do and when and why to do it, whereas training is learning how to do it. Obviously, to succeed you need to be both educated and trained." Universities used to be "into" education, but now are in the process of veering entirely into training.[1]

I am not so sure about rule 6 that emphasizes concentrating on the successes of others: "'As Hamming says, because “there are so many ways of being wrong and so few of being right, studying successes is more efficient, and furthermore, when your turn comes you will know how to succeed rather than how to fail.' In addition, he notes that 'vicarious learning from the experiences of others saves making errors yourself.'"[2] This may well be true in science, but it is certainly not true in other subjects. It's not a bad idea to eliminate some of the many ways of being wrong. I wish I had!

1. I know that this is an over-simplification or a bit of a caricature. But caricatures are important precisely because they exaggerate some features at the expense of others in order to make some(one) or something more recognisable.

2. I have referred to Richard Hamming before before.

Monday, April 6, 2015

ConnectedText and Zim

I have written about Zim a good many times before. It is a very light-weight personal wiki application that stores its pages as text files in a directory of your choice. Accordingly, it works well with Dropbox.

Zim's markup, as I observed before, is remarkably close to that of ConnectedText. What I did not not before is that it accepts ConnectedText's URLs without any problem. Something like "ct://Personal/Zim%20Files" works right out of the box. Zim does not have categories, but it does have tags.

Some people believe (or at least suggest) that you have to make a choice between ConnectedText and Zim. I am not sure that this is the right approach. In fact, I believe that they may well complement each other. My main reason for this approach is the following:
ConnectedText does pretty much all I want. Its only weakness, as far as I am concerned, is that you cannot edit the same file(s) from different computers in DropBox. I understand why this is so. ConnectedText keeps its topics in a database that would be corrupted, if this were allowed. Accordingly, I just back up my files to DropBox when I leave home (with Syncback SE), restore them at work, and then do the same when I leave the office, i.e. Back up the office files to Dropbox and restore them at home.

The only problem is that I sometimes forget to do this—and lately I forget it more often than I used to. I have, in the past, devised a variety of ways of using substitute applications or workarounds for allowing me to import or paste updated or new topics into ConnectedText when I have forgotten to back up. See here, for instance. Zim can fulfill this need as well. Having an application at home and at work, I can modify the text files at either place without worrying about corruption issues. I can also create references to ConnectedText, and I can store textual information in it that will never make it into ConnectedText.

In ConnectedText, I have created a topic called ""Zim files" that contains just this line: "[[$FILE:C:\Users\Manfred\Dropbox\*\Notes\*.*]]. It lists all the files created by Zim that I might need in ConnectedText. Since Zim saves its files in UTF-8, I could import them directly into ConnectedText, but that would mean the the header would also be imported. It's something like this: "Content-Type: text/x-zim-wiki Wiki-Format: zim 0.4 Creation-Date: 2015-04-05T15:06:57-04:00". It would not be a big deal, but it might be easier to open the text file manually from the Zim Files page and paste the contents of the files where I want to use them in ConnectedText.
In any case, I will give this a try and use ConnectedText and Zim side by side for a while. Zim is like a little brother or sister of ConnectedText.

Perhaps I should also mention that you could install Zim on the Mac, but it takes some doing and I have not tried it. See this page.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Sounds of the Bodleian

I have taken some of my best notes in libraries. I must say that I like the ambience. Now I can have the sounds of one of the best libraries at home. Here is the sound of the Radcliffe Camera Upper Reading Room, and here is the sound of the Old Library Upper Reading Room. This is going to make me sooo productive ...