Friday, July 31, 2015

The Shallows--Again

There is an article in today's New York Times about "Struggling to Disconnect From Our Digital Lives." It starts from the following "premises":
Five years ago, I read a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr. He was sounding an alarm. The more time we spend swimming in digital waters, Mr. Carr argued, the shallower our cognitive capacity becomes, and the less control we have over our attention.

At the time, I found these ideas intriguing. Five years later, I’m alarmed.

“The Net,” Carr writes, “is by design an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”

Or as the economist and Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon put it even more presciently in 1971, “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Who is at fault here? The "digital waters"? Really? It's not like there was no distraction before. If you are distracted it's your own fault, not the fault of the object(s) you are concerned with. And, yes, you have to be attentive to information, but it is simply false that "wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." It's the lack of control over your attention that creates undifferentiated shallowness.

More Note-Taking Principles

A new academic year begins soon. Jerz's Literacy Blog gives some good tips relevant (not just) for students. I especially like number 5: Review and edit your notes.

“Ideas won’t keep; something must be done about them.” – Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947), English mathematician and philosopher

Academic skills centers and other authorities on effective study skills consider reviewing and editing class notes to be the most important part of notetaking and essential to increasing learning capacity.
  • It is extremely important to review your notes within 24 hours.
  • Edit for words and phrases that are illegible or don’t make sense. Write out abbreviated words that might be unclear later.
  • Edit with a different colored pen to distinguish between what you wrote in class and what you filled in later.
  • Fill in key words and questions in the left-hand column.
  • Note anything you don’t understand by underlining or highlighting to remind you to ask the instructor.
  • Compare your notes with the textbook reading and fill in important details in the blank spaces you left.
  • Consider rewriting or typing up your notes. (Ellis).[1]
By the way, if my previous post suggested to anyone that I have something against versioning, let me point out here that I am not opposed to it. I prefer applications that have this feature built in, like ConnectedText. Git and other systems are an option as well. But there needs to be a clear difference between different versions. Intermingling new and old versions or drafts is the problem, as far as I am concerned.

1. Some of these tips deal specifically with notes taken on paper, of course.

Tinderbox Principles for All Writers?

This post advertises "Tinderbox Principles" for writers. There is nothing in them that would restrict them specifically to Tinderbox, even though the author claims they are: "Tinderbox is more than just a piece of software–it’s a way of thinking. Adjusting your thinking is a critical aspect (and benefit) of using Tinderbox." I think that , on the contrary, the principles might be taken as advice to all writers, no matter what program they may use. They are: (1) Don't throw anything away, (2) Focus on making it easy to store things (as opposed to easy to retrieve things), (3) Let emergence happen, (4) Don’t fear the docs, (5) Be part of the community.

It's an interesting post, though I am struck by an inherent contradiction or tension between (1) and (2).[1] Thus (1) says that "Storing things, particularly texty things, has become affordable to the point where it’s essentially free. You never know when you’ll need something again. Destructive deletes are forever–why risk it? This is especially true for writers, who are known to squirrel away older drafts, and hang on to entire cut scenes and chapters, which might find some use later." But (2) is inspired by Marie Kondo's fantastic book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. If I understand the main message of the book correctly, it is about the importance of discarding according to category.[2] Information certainly is a category, and clutter or untidiness is just as bad in this category as it would be in any other. But perhaps it is worse, as it leads to sloppy thinking, like the one exhibited in this article. If (2) does not contradict (1), it contradicts at the very least the message of the very book it appeals to.

Tidying up and organizing your thinking may be described as the pursuit of "ultimate simplicity" (135) or as paying attention to the "noise" of written information and attempting to eliminate it.

If someone were to object now: "What do you know ... you have never been able to grasp the Tinderbox way of thinking", I only could plead guilty! But I would hope that this interesting post would not count as an example of this way of thinking.

1. But perhaps I am just bothered by the way this blogger supports a view he holds by appealing to a book that actually endorses an approach incompatible with his.
2. The argument goes something like this: (i) "Many people are stuck in a 20th-century mindset about information storage." (ii) "If your mental model resembles filing cabinets and alphabetized folders: reconsider." (3) "Well-crafted tools like Tinderbox have powerful search facilities. Making things easier to retrieve is no longer the critical path against which to focus your efforts." Therefore (3) "Embrace the tool–the more you put in it, the more useful it becomes. Don’t miss an opportunity to save something you might need later." This is hoarding, not tidying! Refactoring, revising, eliminating incompatible alternatives all seem to me essential parts of note-taking and thinking in general. I would think it also holds for "the Tinderbox way of thinking."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Russell Ackoff, a systems theorist and professor of organizational change, classified the contents of the mind into:
  1. Data: symbols
  2. Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to "who", "what", "where", and "when" questions
  3. Knowledge: application of data and information; answers "how" questions
  4. Understanding: appreciation of "why"
  5. Wisdom: evaluated understanding.
Gene Bellinger, Durval Castro, Anthony Mills at Systems Thinking arrange these categories on the axes of understanding and connectedness, like this:
This is rather naive view of mental contents. There a many things to quibble about--both in the original version and the version pushed by Bellinger, Castro, and Mills (which is, however, an improvement. Can knowledge really be reduced to the application of data, and is the application of data reducible to "how" questions, for instance? This seems false to me for many reasons. Knowledge without causes ("why?") seems defective. And why is "understanding" supposed to be higher than knowledge? It's certainly not the ordinary use of "understanding," that allow us to say that we understand someone/something intuitively or approximately. Wisdom does not seem to be reducible to better connected knowledge either, etc., etc.

Bellinger, Castro, and Mills describe data as
  • raw. It simply exists and has no significance beyond its existence (in and of itself). It can exist in any form, usable or not. It does not have meaning of itself. In computer parlance, a spreadsheet generally starts out by holding data.
  • information is data that has been given meaning by way of relational connection. This "meaning" can be useful, but does not have to be. In computer parlance, a relational database makes information from the data stored within it.
I could live with these characterizations, but their definition of knowledge as "the appropriate collection of information, such that it's intent is to be useful. Knowledge is a deterministic process. When someone "memorizes" information (as less-aspiring test-bound students often do), then they have amassed knowledge. This knowledge has useful meaning to them, but it does not provide for, in and of itself, an integration such as would infer further knowledge. For example, elementary school children memorize, or amass knowledge of, the "times table" is seriously defective. Memorizing information certainly does not amount to knowledge, even if high schools nowadays (and perhaps always) work on this assumption

Still the graph is suggestive. The question what connectedness has to do with the difference between information and knowledge is interesting and needs to be pursued, though not here and now.[1]

The whole issue obviously has something to do with note-taking which does some work in the transformation of data to information and information to knowledge (no matter how they are defined).

1. I will return to it in later posts.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

More Trouble in Paradise

The Apple App Store Application has not been working for about a month. In fact, it seems to have stopped just after I did the latest "security" update. Today, I restored the OS from a backup made on June 17. Everything worked just fine until I re-installed the the update: "Cannot connect to the App Store" re-appeared. Trying to sign out of my account reliably creates a crash.

I searched the Internet. Apple is no help. You are told that this may have multiple causes, go through a process with six stops, and then are told to re-install OS X. Stupid question: How do you do that without getting into the App Store (if you have no backup)? And, in any case, there are not multiple possible causes. There is just one, namely the recent security update.

Poking around, I noticed that in the System Preferences App Store Section, there is a checkbox labeled, “automatically download apps purchased on other macs”. It's greyed out (and there is a dash ("-") in the selection box. Underneath, you can read, "Checking if automatic app downloads are enabled" plus a spinning wheel. Whether you enable or disable "Automatically check for updates" makes no difference. The wheel keeps on spinning.

Another good example of Apple's present quality control, I suppose. I do not want to complain, but what can I do. The multiple error reports do not seem to faze Apple, and it is really difficult to get their attention by checking on the forum. What you get is: take these 6 steps; if this does not work, re-install. They should also say that you should not re-install the recent security update either!

As I said before ...

Later that day: 21:01 It's fixed now. I changed the network location from "Automatic" to a new value, called "Home" on the advice of an Apple Website. I wasted a whole day, however. Nor do I know why a security update would change or invalidate this setting.

Friday, July 24, 2015

LoneWiki: "a Lightweight Personal Wiki Program for Windows 7"

LoneWiki lives up to its promises. It "stores wiki content in raw text files and uses the Windows file system to organise categories. With stripped down wiki mark-up for formatting, the minimal amount of functionality required to help you take down and interlink all your thoughts, no prerequisites you don’t have already and no footprint beyond the content you make using it." It uses square brackets for links (but does not complain, if you use double square brackets. In addition it does headings, ordered and unordered lists, blockquotes, as well as bold, italics and underlining (even if the markup for underlining is a bit odd. Don't know of any other program that uses "=".).

"Simply run the executable, select a root folder for your wiki, and get started! New pages are created as you link to them and edit their contents." Files are saved with the "txt" extension. And they are directly accessible (not hidden like in Malkovich).

It's free. And it takes up only 20.0 KB (20,480 bytes) on disk. No install.

It does not do much, but what it does, it does well.

What I like best is a feature that allows you only to show the first line of a paragraph plus a markup command called "Expand." You invoke the feature by placing a "<" in front of the line. I also like the way it implements categories. A category is just a sub-folder on the disk. Recommended! There is no better lightweight wiki as far as I am concerned. (In other words, it beats Zim and Tomboy--at least as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Malkovich -- a Personal Wiki

I came across this program in the Outliner Forum. I downloaded and tried it. It lives up to its promises (which are minimal), using Markdown as wiki markup and storing its files as plain text files.

What I like about it most is that it uses free links, i.e. Double square brackets, like "[[this]]" for links. It's using "io.js and Electron", whatever that means. The one I downloaded is "version 0.9 Released July 7th 2015".

They say: "Malkovich is a desktop application built to run on your computer. It's self-contained and easy to install. You don't need to mess around with databases and run servers."

One problem, I have not been able to figure out where the data (or files) are actually stored (even though the Website says: "Notes are all stored as markdown formatted text files on your computer"). Accordingly, I have uninstalled it again.