Sunday, December 18, 2016

Taking Onscreen Notes?

I recently bought and read Naomi S. Baron's Words Onscreen. The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). I came away somewhat disappointed, perhaps because I expected far too much from it. It does not really seem to provide an account of the fate of reading. Her main conclusions seem to be two: "To the extent we shift our reading from print to screens, we become less likely to reread. A decline of rereading would mark a critical shift in the way at least some types of readers have encountered books for centuries" (xiv), and "Reading onscreen favors short-form reading" (106). She also claims that e-books cannot be owned, but can only be licensed.

Let's take the last claim first. It is, of course true, if you look at books still covered by copyright, but it is clearly false when you look at older text, like those available on Project Gutenberg which is mention on three pages (ix, 36, 200) but does not really discuss. So the claim is at best only partially true. The same holds of the other two claims. E-texts do seem to make re-reading "less likely" and it does seem to favor short texts.[1] But her main reference group for this claim is college or university students, and I am not sure they are the best sample to use. She also concentrates on textbooks which are not really designed for re-reading even in their printed form. Students buy them at the beginning of the semester and sell them at the end of the semester. Some students mark the texts up for reviewing the information, while others avoid it (to get a better price at the end, I think). So, it's partially true that e-books make re-reading less likely, but I am not sure by how much they are to blame.

There is no entry in the index for "notes" or "note-taking," and the text is very light on this topic as well. In so far as she talks about note-taking, it has to do mainly with annotation (27-29, 30, 82, 116, 150-51, and digital annotation, 30). Marginalia are, as far as I am concerned the least important part of note-taking, however. The relative lack of engaging this issue is probably the main cause of my disappointment.

There are other interesting (but questionable) claims in the book, but not enough for me to whole-heartedly recommend it.

1. I don't know what "short-form reading" is.

Friday, December 16, 2016

On Leibniz's Notes

In the previous post I cited Fontanelle's biography of Leibniz on his way of taking notes. Fontenelle cannot be entirely correct, however. See, the previous notes on Leibniz on this blog. But see also this Website. Leibniz did many interesting things to (and with) his notes.

There are 150,000 to 200,000 slips. Often, they consist of papers containing notes that Leibniz cut up and then used to write new notes on.

Beethoven's Notebooks

Peter F. Drucker, in Managing Oneself tells story about Beethoven's notebook habit:
Beethoven ... left behind an enormous number of sketchbooks, yet he said he never actually looked at them when he composed. Asked why he kept them, he is reported to have replied, "If I don't write it down immediately, I forget it right away. If I put it into a sketchbook, I never forget it and I never have to look it up again.

Fontanelle says similar things about Leibniz who, he says, took notes of everything he read and then added his own thoughts at the same time. Afterwards, he put it aside and "never looked at it again. But his incomparable memory forgot nothing that he wrote, as it usually happens [with others]. It was as if through writing he eternally engraved them in his head."

I am sad to say that this is not my experience. It might be that I remember things more easily after having written them down, but it does not seem to make much of a difference.[1] I would be lost without my note-taking system.

1. And it does not make much difference (to me) whether I typed or hand-wrote the notes.

On "Building Your Own Memex"

I came across Building Your Own Memex on Gradhacker. The post is from 2012, but it is still interesting.

No further comment!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

100% Protected against Plagiarism?

Anyone who has recently searched the net for something to do with note-taking has probably come across Web sites that offer students (and others) the service of papers written to order.

One Website claims: "We only provide unique papers written entirely by the writers from scratch. You are 100% protected against plagiarism." This is really galling, as they are offering a service that amounts to 100% plagiarism. What they actually offer their customers is 100% protection against getting caught.

I am glad I don't have to deal with this any longer? What would I do? I would make students write a short (one-page) summary of their paper in class after having handed it in. Not a 100% guarantee, but a beginning.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Cognitive Effort during Note-taking

I recently came across an interesting paper by Annie Piolat, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg, called ("Cognitive Effort during Note Taking". I found it highly interesting. Three points especially caught my attention: (i) "studies suggest that nearly all non-linear note-taking strategies (e.g. with an outline or a matrix framework) benefit learning outcomes more than does the linear recording of information, with graphs and concept maps especially fostering the selection and organization of information. As a consequence, the remembering of information is most effective with non-linear strategies" (295), and (ii) "Retrieving and organizing ideas during a text composition are still more effortful than selecting the information that will be recorded. Searching a new and ‘creative’ solution (i.e. the text written down) requires more resources than taking notes, even if the notes often present content characteristics different from what has been heard or read" (303). And (iii) " Using computer technology to manage information through the click of a mouse can actually increase cognitive effort, judging from these results. It may be that the use of these technologies is less practised than reading and handwriting. Similar results were obtained by Kellogg and Mueller (1993), however, who found that writing by longhand was less effortful than using a word processor even for skilled typists" (304).

On the other hand, I did not find the conclusion of the paper surprising;
The observations reviewed here indicate that, from a cognitive perspective, note taking cannot be conceived of as only a simple abbreviated transcription of information that is heard or read. Rather, on the contrary, it is an activity that strongly depends on the central executive functions of working memory to manage comprehension, selection, and production processes concurrently. Indeed, the severe time pressure of note taking requires that information is both quickly comprehended and recorded in written form. It is a unique kind of written activity that cumulates both the inherent difficulties of comprehending a message and of producing a new written product. Yet, it differs in many of its characteristics from the usual linear and conventionally presented written texts.
In my judgment, the paper is well worth reading carefully, even if your interests are more practical than theoretical.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hermann Burger, Lokalbericht

Hermann Burger (1942–1989) wrote a novel in 1970 called Lokalbericht (1970). It appeared in October 2016. I will buy it and read it. The protagonist of the novel Günter Frischknecht (a composite name made up of Günter Grass and Max Frisch) is writing somewhere in the county of Ticino at the same time a dissertation and a novel by means of two different Zettelkästen.[1] They get mixed up and the slips intermingle. What to do in this situation? Reality and irreality apparently can no longer be distinguished. The novels conceit reminds me of Sterne's Tristram Shandy (and apparently similar situations abound).

I must read it! Ordered it already!

1. "Knecht" in the name may refer to the magister ludi in Hesse's Glass Bead Game.

"Zettelkasten" in Grimm's Wörterbuch

Grimm's Wörterbuch is one of the most interesting early dictionaries of German. Its origins go back to the first half of the nineteenth century and gives a good indication of how German words were used in the eighteenth's century. Here is the entry for "Zettelkasten:"
Zettelkasten, m., kasten zur aufnahme von zetteln, z. b. von theaterzetteln: S. Hensel familie Mendelssohn 3, 22, zumeist aber von alphabetisch geordneten zetteln mit notierungen oder auszügen aus literar. oder wissenschaftl. werken od. ä.: leben des Quintus Fixlein, aus funfzehn -kästen gezogen Jean Paul w. 3, 3 H.; die hier angedeutete schaffensart wird vielfach getadelt, so von Immermann 20, 36 B., von Fr. Th. Vischer altes u. neues 3, 388; Hebbel III 7, 397 W.
box for keeping of slips, like playbills, see Hensel, The Mendelssohn Family 3, 22; but usually [it means] alphabetically ordered slips with notes or excerpts from literary, scientific, or similar works. The Life of Quintus Fixlein, Drawn from fifteen Zettelkästen. The way of working here indicated is often criticized, like in Immermann 29, 36, in Fischer's Old and New 3, 388, in Hebbel, iii, 7 397 W
So "Zettelkasten" already has negative connotations in the early nineteenth century.

What can we learn from Grimm about "Zettel"? They were originally called "Zeddel" which simply meant small pieces of paper (slips). The word derives from the Italian "cedola," which came from the Middle Latin "cedula" and ultimately from the older "schedula." The Latin "scheda" or "scida" means torn off strips of paper [must mean "papyrus, I think}. It all originally come from the Greek "σχίδη."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nottingham, Again

Nottingham 3 is an update of a clone of Notational Velocity. It's explicit about its debt: "In the spirit of Notational Velocity, Nottingham is an elegant notepad for macOS. Designed to be lightweight and easy to use, it's a breath of fresh air perfect for storing whatever is on your mind." But the claim is that "Version 3.0 is completely rewritten from the ground up in Swift 3 to take full advantage of macOS's newest features and to lay a solid foundation for future improvements." And it promises to be fast: "Lightning-fast search across even the largest library of notes." I wonder what the "largest library" is. 100,000 notes, 1,000,000? It would be nice to know.

It now also claims to be able to do "wikilinks." But this is at best a half-truth. It can link to existing notes, and it seem to be able to keep track of the name-changes of those notes, but it cannot create new notes from a typed link.[1] Notational Velocity and nvALT can't do that either (and in addition they cannot keep track of name-changes), but they are free.[2] Nottingham costs $14.95 (though you can try it out for free).

I dislike the name. Searching for "Nottingham" gets you a lot about a city in in the East Midlands of England, getting to the application is harder. It's a complaint about some applications I have for a long time. Try "Brainstorm," for instance!

1. It does not do so reliably, however. There seems to be a problem with the program. I have deleted it again from my machine!
2. Actually nVALT can create a new link from an expression enclosed in double square backets. Clicking on an expression enclosed in double brackets, puts it into the search window, pressing enter creates the topic. nvALT does not, however, keep track of name changes.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Thornton Wilder on His Journals

Thornton Wilder kept a journal for more than twenty years.[1] He started it to attain "better control of his interests, of 'harnessing [his] notions into written paragraphs'" (xvi) But it was not a diary in which he recorded his daily experiences, but rather a record of what he thought. In an early entry, dated February 21, 1940 which he wrote in New York, he says:
I began this Journal in order to discipline my thinking ... [but] I soon came to see that the practice of reflection alone ... would, for me, be fruitless.
He needed a more exacting method in writing to obtain
(1) for precision (2) to prevent mere word-mosaic and self-deception, (3) to collect notions into system, (4) to create a habit and a relation between thinking and writing, and (5) to collect from these records a reservoir of more codified ideas on which to base the judgements, I am so often called upon for in conversation" (xviii).
He hoped that this would lead to "the ability to reflect without writing and build up the power of 'unflurried thinking' in the thousand occasions in the daily life" (xviii).

I consider Wilder's fourth function of a journal, "to create a habit and a relation between [reading,] thinking and writing," as its most essential function. I don't think Wilder would have disagreed, for he wrote on May 21, 1940 that he has the "habit-formed impulse" to reach for a book to read and wishes that he also had such an habit-formed impulse to write. Wilder's Journal is, among other things, an attempt at such re-education or re-habituation, to make writing just as likely as reading.

He used the journal also to make his ideas more precise and develop what he calls "the accumulation of an interrelated grammar of 'reflections'". It's something I also aim for.

I came to Wilder's journals through Doderer's Commentarii, and I tried to read Wilder's journals in their entirety. But I found them rather disappointing. This must be my fault, as others have found that Wilder's journals contain "some of his most important creative work." And:
It is in the journals and letters that we can follow his most interesting thinking as he distills and reports his literary reactions and tastes. Here is the Wilder who reveres Molière and Cervantes, Gogol and Kafka, Nietzsche and Lady Murasaki. And Jane Austen: “How seldom readers seem to remark on all that contempt for the whole human scene that lies just under the surface”; her “only resource and consolation is the pleasure of the mind in observing absurdities” (Robert Gottlieb).

1. Wilder, Thornton (1985) The Journals of Thornton Wilder. 1939-1961. Selected and edited by Donald Gallup. Foreword Isabel Wilder. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On the Basic Marble Notebook

Why Is the Basic Marble Notebook Made by So Many Brands Still So Popular? does not really answer the question it poses. It still is an interesting article because of the historical details it provides.

No further comment!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Saramango on Writing with a Computer

Here it goes:
The truth is, I had no difficulty in adapting to the keyboard at all. Contrary to what is often said about the computer compromising one’s style, I don’t think it compromises anything, and much less if it is used as I use it—like a typewriter. What I do on the computer is exactly what I would do on the typewriter if I still had it, the only difference being that it is cleaner, more comfortable, and faster. Everything is better. The computer has no ill effects on my writing. That would be like saying that switching from writing by hand to writing on a typewriter would also cause a change in style. I don’t believe that to be the case. If a person has his own style, his own vocabulary, how can working on a computer come to alter those things?
However, I do continue to have a strong connection—and it is natural that I should—to paper, to the printed page. I always print each page that I finish. Without the printed page there I feel . . .  
This also describes my experience. But paper has become less and less important over the last twenty years or so.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Jonathan Franzen on the Difference between Typewriter and Computer

In an interview of the Paris Review, Jonathan Franzen observes:
In terms of process, the one small difference between a typewriter and a computer is that a computer makes it easier to find fragments you’ve written and then forgotten about. When you work at a book for as long as I do, you end up doing a lot of assemblage from scavenged materials. And with a computer you’re more likely, on a slow morning, to drift over to another file folder and open up something old. Chunks of text travel with you, rather than getting buried in a drawer or stored in some remote, inaccessible location. ... chunks of writing that I could put together ...
This is certainly one difference, and it deserves to be improved upon.

Against the Apple Ideology?

Ivan Snenonius argues in All Power to the Packrats against the "sleek and clean" apple ideology, in which our “outdated” possessions are turned into symbols of poverty." I found it extremely refreshing:
The room of the modern person is stark, but in its simplicity it exudes wealth and sophistication. There is just an iPad and a simple bed or futon. None of the old-time accouterments, which signified intelligence, artistic interest, or a curiosity about the world, are evident. There are no magazines, books, or records anywhere. Just perhaps some high priced toiletries in the bathroom. Everything she needs is on the iCloud.
Things, stuff, and doo-dads are just hang-ups after all, serving to drag us into our past and harness us to prior ideas of who we were and what we were supposed to be. The Apple world is apart from the old world. It is one where we can be anything, free of the wretched past. Like our room, our body is also clean and shaven, streamlined for action.
What’s next? Giving up all thought, consciousness, history, and agency.
I am not sure about all the claims, but as I said: "refreshing."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Luhmann's Zettelkasten Described

Johannes Schmidt: Der Zettelkasten als Zweitgedächtnis Niklas Luhmanns is a video of a lecture given by Johannes Schmidt that provides a very detailed description of Luhmann's Zettelkastn. I learned many new details (without having to revise my earlier views).

Highly recommnded!

Warning: The lecture is in German.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Epictetus on Reading?

There is a quotation, supposedly by Epictetus, on why mere reading of books is not enough. It's all over the Internet, and it reads:
“Don't just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents." Translation by Sharon Lebell”[1]
Searching Epictetus's texts themselves (or rather Arrian's account of the teachings of Epictetus, as we have no texts by Epictetus himself), you will not find this "quotation." It is actually from a rather dubious edition of Epictetus, namely by The Art of Living. The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Sharon Lebell. The subtitle of this work is "A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell."[1] It is a translation only in the loosest sense. As Lebell points out in her "Prologue", "I have done my share of selection, interpretation, and improvisation with the ideas in the Enchiridion and the Discourses. ... My aim has been to communicate the authentic spirit, but not necessarily the letter, of Epictetus. The passage in question, found in the section on "Essential Teachings on Virtue, Happiness, and Tranquility," is clearly an example of her "improvisation with the ideas" of Epictetus. It is written by Lebell, not by Arrian, and it is loosely based on some passages in the the Enchiridion and the Discourses.

Does it "communicate the authentic spirit" of Epictetus? I doubt it. Epictetus is constantly contrasting mere reading about certain principles and actually living them. To rely on reading is
just as if, in forming our opinions, when perplexed between true and false semblances, we should, instead of practically distinguishing between them, merely peruse dissertations on evidence. What, then, is the trouble? That we have neither learned by reading, nor by writing, how to deal practically with the semblances of things, according to the laws of nature. But we stop at learning what is said, and, being able to explain it to others, at solving syllogisms and arranging hypothetical arguments. Hence where the study is, there, too, is the hindrance.
Reading may be a beginning, but "we have neither learned by reading, nor by writing, how to deal practically with the semblances of things, according to the laws of nature." Practice is what is called for. To be "a more discriminating and reflective person," as Lebell would have it, would be for Epictetus not even the beginning of living in accordance with nature.

The very title of the book includes "effectiveness" as one of Epictetus's goals. But effects are, according to Stoicism not "up to us." Reader beware! And those who consume quotations should be aware that they are not quoting Epictetus, but a modern hash of Epictetus.[2]

1. (HarperCollins Publishers, 1994, 1995)
2. I am well aware that most people would not care about this distinction!

Tom Wolfe on Language

Tom Wolfe's forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech is a criticism of Darwin and Chomsky, among others. I hope the arguments he will offer will be better than this one I read in the Guardian:
“My contention is that language is not the result of evolution but essentially a verbal trick that was invented by human beings. It’s a memory aid – a mnemonic – that enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions.”
His thesis seems to be that
(i) language is not a product of evolution, but
(ii) it is a human invention
(iii) it's a memory aid ... That enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions."

(iii) seems to me obviously true, but it says nothing about the truth of (i) and (ii). Language can be a memory aid, no matter whether it is invented or a product of evolution.

His argument (if an argument it is) would certainly be true of writing which does seem to be a memory aid invented that allows us to store pieces of information, compare them and draw conclusions from them, but I don't know anyone who has claimed that writing is the product of evolution.[1] On the other hand Stanislas Dehaene has shown (convincingly to my mind) how reading (though "invented"), depends on certain structures of the brain that have evolved.[2] "Reading, but also writing, mathematics, art, religion, agriculture, and city life have dramatically increased the native capacities of our primate brains." But we have independent evidence for human beings who could use tools, but who could not write.

Whether there ever were beings that were human but who could not speak is an entirely different matter. Aristotle already proposed as a definition of human beings that they are the animal that can speak or have "logos", though he ultimately opted for rationality as the essential characteristic of humans. What language has to do with rational thought is an interesting question; and there is a host of other interesting questions having to do with language. I just doubt that Wolfe has anything interesting to say about it, and not just because of the passage discussed here. The mess he makes of Stoicism in his A Man in Full seems to me independent evidence for this skepticism. I am not going to rush out and buy Wolfe's book.

1. It seems to me that he is probably not making an argument but simply a claim that (i), (ii), and (iii) are true. I cannot help agreeing with Chomsky who is reported to have said: “I’m frankly astonished at the publicity this is receiving.”

2. Dehaene, S. (2009) Reading in the Brain. The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Viking.

Friday, September 9, 2016

"Ulysses News" on "The Future of Note-taking"

The developers of Ulysses want you to move from Vesper to Ulysses. So, they have sent an e-mail to users of Ulysses called "The Future of Note-Taking". Here is part of the text:
Is note-taking writing? In our opinion, the answer is clear: It depends. Jotting down a shopping list may not be writing, but recording secret thoughts and sudden inspiration comes at least very close. Ulysses is a writing app not only for professional or aspiring authors, but also for sophisticated note-takers. That’s why users of the now discontinued Vesper app may consider it as a worthy alternative.
Is note-taking writing? I agree: "it depends", but it does not depend on whether you are "jotting down something" or whether you are "recording secret thoughts". It depends on whether you are taking down notes in writing or, let's say, dictating into a tape recorder. Jotting things down is just as much writing as is recording thoughts. In fact, I don't really think that "jotting down" and "recording" are binary opposites in the way the author of this mail suggests. "Jotting down" can clearly be a form of "recording."

Can "Ulysses" be an application for "sophisticated note-takers"? Perhaps, but I doubt it, if only because I have tried to use it for that purpose. It just does not have the robust search capabilities that you'd need for long-term note-taking, etc., etc. I am also worried about how well it works with tens of thousands of notes, but perhaps I am not a "sophisticated" note-taker, and someone can enlighten me on the secrets of this way of taking notes.[1]

This says nothing about Ulysses as a mark-down editor for occasional use, of course. I do like the application, I just don't like the hype that goes with it. See also here.

1. I am not sure that Vesper was very good at that either.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Linked Notes 2.5

Linked Notes 2.5 has been available since August 15, 2016. The main differences between this and the earlier version are: a Bug Fix: Prevent new page with same name in different case from corrupting index, Drop support for, Drop publish to Google Docs – API is no longer available. (So, not much of a change.) The basic version is still free. The premium version costs $19.95 and it gives you
  • Pages can be encrypted to protect sensitive information
  • You can setup one or more identities with passwords, or authenticated as Windows users
  • Export any section or all pages into a single RTF document suitable for Microsoft Word
  • Easily search all pages for specific words
  • Screen capture tool will embed an image cropped from any of your windows
  • Publish to
  • Auto paste from Windows clipboard
There is no search in the free version which makes it useless for any larger accumulation of pages.

On the other hand, it does not rely on wiki markup. Nor do you need to manually add links. It recognizes pages with a name that you type in. (I do not consider that a virtue, as it will result in loss of control over links and thus in over-linking.)

You can import rtf and txt files (one at a time), but the program annoyingly adds underscores to replace spaces, so "My page" becomes "My_space", etc.

However, if you need a simple and small wiki, it fits the bill. The paid version seems to allow you to search for single words (not for complex expressions).

CintaNotes Limits, Again

I had not tested CintaNotes but relied on someone else's testimony when I wrote the previous post on it. So, I thought I would actually test it with my approximately 10,600 text files from ConnectedText.

The short of it: I couldn't. CintaNotes uses its own file format (*.db). You can import db, and xml files, no txt files. It has a selection for "All files", but it does not recognize txt files. So I could not import the notes I used in ResophNotes and nVALT. This means that I could not test CintaNotes due to its limitations in import.

For what it's worth I used an SSD drive for all the tests. My notes are small, most of them 500 words or less, and I did not even test search in ResophNotes. Just moving around between different files and trying to change a word or two was too slow already.

I was going to try xml import, but then I found in the help file: "You can import notes using the File/Import command. You can import notes from previously exported XML files and from other notebook (.db) files." So, there does not seem to be a way to import any notes taken in any other application before. This makes the application useless to me (and, I suppose, to many other people who would like to migrate to CintNotes from any other note-taking application.) I have, accordingly, deleted CintNotes from my machine again.

Let me just say that the inability to import text files seems to me a more serious limitation than ReophNotes limited ability to handle a large number of text files.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


I came across RGDot, a freeware blog that lists many note-taking programs. There were two programs that caught my attention: Redhaven Outline and minipad2. I downloaded minipad2. It was not easy, as it has not been developed since at least 2011 and most of the download sites seem to be more interested in installing other crap on your computer than simply letting you download the program you really want.

I like it! It's very small at 350 KB, but it does a lot of things apart from textual notes that can be linked to each other. Some of these things are not interesting to me, like the calculator and dictionary pages that you can create. Others are most interesting, like the memo function that allows you to set a note to pop up at a certain time or at regular intervals, and even allows you automatically to run other programs from those notes.

I also find the link page that allows you to store links to files, programs, or directories. It runs links to ConnectedText topics, like these "ct://Personal/Redhaven%20Outline" as well (which I especially like.

"It is also capable of watching the clipboard and inserting pre-defined text such as time, date, separator and signature – which can be defined via the Tools—>Edit Template menu. New tabs can be created for separate notes and aforementioned included functions." I think this is another strength of the program.

I can't believe that I missed it for such a long time, and I think it is worth a trial even though there does not seem a chance that it will be developed further.

ResophNotes Limits

I tried ResophNotes yesterday on the more than ten thousand notes exported from ConnectedText. It worked, but not very well. It took a while for notes to open. Clicking on a link eventually opened the target note, but it took unacceptably long (even though I have a quad-core processor). Christian Tietze reports that this behavior starts with about 1500 notes (see his comment on the previous post). I would suppose that this slow-down depends at least to some extent on the processor and memory specification of your system, but I also think that it is unacceptable for a large body of notes. More than 20,000 notes are not unheard of for a life-time of note-taking, even if you do not just copy web pages but take careful notes. Thus, Jules Verne amassed 20,000, Luhmann seems to have ended up with about 90,000. Roland Barthes with 12,0000, and Hans Blumenberg with 30,000.

In any case, it does not seem unreasonable to expect a robust note-taking or Zettelkasten-system to handle a large number of notes (with headroom to spare).

Monday, August 29, 2016

CintaNotes Limits

The Outliner Forum called my attention to this blog post from the developer of CintaNotes:
The theoretical limit lies at 4 billion notes. But of course that's theory) I've tested CintaNotes to run on a base with 10000 notes, and it runs fine. But for the current version I don't recommend running CintaNotes directly from the flash drive in this case - it will be slow. Right now CintaNotes keeps the whole notebook in memory and saves it to the disk each time something changes. This is of course quite inefficient, and I'll change this in one of the next versions, where I plan to migrate to an SQLite database. Hope this information will help you to make a better choice (see here).
CintaNotes seems to me one of the closest equivalent of nVALT on Windows.

In recent months have become more and more interested in the actual capacities of note-taking software. For a life-time of note-taking, two things seem to me essential: (i) the ability to handle tens of thousands of notes easily and effectively, (ii) the ability to import and export notes easily to other formats (most importantly [for me] in text format).

In some sense I like ResophNote better, since it uses the convention of '“internal link” with [ and ] (wikilink)'. It's also closer to nVALT. But I am not sure about its limits.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


I recently came across an interesting application, named OrgaNote. It's small (608KB), and it looks like a three-pane Outliner. However, the first pane is a rudimentary outliner, the second one is for textual information or notes, while the third pane lists all the links that a particular note contains. So, it is really more like a two-pane outliner (with an additional pane for links). As they say: "OrgaNote is a tool to organize notes. Notes are small (or large) pieces of text that can be organized in a tree structure. The key feature is the possibility to create arbitrary links between the notes to have an additionally way of organizing the notes."

Linking is done by selecting a piece of text, pressing Alt + (with + from the numeric pad) and selecting the note you want to link to from an outline that pops up. I would prefer the ability for direct links that allows for creating new links right from the editor. I can also see problems arising in a large project with many notes. But it works.

The outliner is somewhat rudimentary, allowing you to move entries down (but not up or left or right). It may be too rudimentary for inveterate outliner. You can import text files and export "extracts," text and HTML.

It also has the ability to give you a timeline for all your entries (see Website). It is kept general to allow for all kinds of uses, but the example given is a "dream journal," so it's probably best for keeping any kind of journal of specific activities or happenings.

As far as I can see, only German is available in the interface. That should not present a problem for most, as it does not have many functions. It's free.

Monday, August 22, 2016

ConnectedText, Texthaven, and nVALT

Having taken another look at Texthaven in the last post, I was wondering how it would handle more than 10,000 notes, exported from my largest ConnectedText Project. Well, it did--at least sort of. This is what happened:
  1. Export to text files is easy in ConnectedText. I exported the text files to a folder called Texthaven
  2. Texthaven uses Markdown as its markup language. So, I had to transform some of the codes, Like "*" for ConnectedText's "//". I also had to change the double with a single square bracket, and removed the markup for predicates, categories, and some other things Easy enough with a program like Search&Replace for the Mac. It took a while, but it worked well.
  3. A bigger problem was that Texhaven uses ANSI, while ConnectedText uses UTF8, but I finally got that done with CPConverter after several trials, had to rename the directory it created, and was good to go.
  4. Texthaven opened the directory without problem, and it also opened the text files, as expected. However, editing them did not always work (or perhaps it just took too long for my patience). It seemed a bit erratic.
  5. This may have been due to the fact that I do not have a registered copy--at least in part. I was determined to buy a copy, if it had worked flawlessly. But I don't want to take the risk, since it had significant hiccups. I could not create an index file either, for instance. Including images was tedious as well. So, I deleted the directory again and gave up on Texthaven.

I believe that this test of Texthaven was a bit unfair. I know that it works well with fewer text files. It's just that I do not need it for that. I then thought that it might be interesting to try the same experiment with nVALT. I did, and it worked flawlessly. nVALT uses double brackets and takes UTF8 without problems. All, I had to do is point the program to the right directory and specify single text files and not the database. It works flawlessly. (Though I left untouched for now the ConnectedText markup for categories, properties, images, etc.) I now have a working copy of my main project on the Mac. I intend to update the files occasionally just to have a recent working backup. I will continue to use ConnectedText itself for my daily work.

Still, I am amazed how well the ConnectedText text files work in nVALT, and how quickly nVALT is in opening links, etc.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Texthaven for Android

Texthaven, the plain-text organizer, is now also available for the Android. As I pointed out before, Texthaven is a good replacement for notepad. It also can handle CVS files very well. "The core of the Texthaven note taking program is a plain-text file. It offers Markdown formatting and options to link to images or other notes but its heart, its essence, is basic text in a simple file in a directory on your hard drive. A file that is easy to read, edit, back up, share or search on virtually any device you would want to read or edit a document on."

"The Texthaven Android app is a complement to the Windows program but can be used independently to create, format and edit Markdown files and view images and simple CSV files."

It reminds me very much of nVALT. I especially like the fact that you can crete links by just enclosing them in square brackets.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Louis de Bernières on Notebooks and Word Processors

Louis de Bernières writes sometimes in a garden shed, but says that "more often ... I write in my library, which has thousands of books. I’ve also got absolutely stacks of notebooks, which makes my creative life a bit chaotic because I don’t know where to find things." Furthermore:
Prose I usually write straight on to the computer. But I wrote my first novel, and some of Birds Without Wings, longhand. My poor sister used to type things up for me. Eventually, she gave me £500 and said, “Get yourself a word processor.” So my next three books were written on a Brother with a tiny black screen and green writing, which I called Esmerelda. It was actually my most fertile period, and I often wonder whether I should go back to Esmerelda. I still have her in the attic.
I don't know about Esmeralda and fertility, but I do know that indexing one's notebooks is a very good idea. It is a tremendous help in finding things.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Peresc's Note-Taking

From Pierre Gassendi, The Mirrour of True Nobility & Gentility Being the Life of Nicolaus Caludius Fabricius, Lord of Peiresc ..., Englished by by W. Rand, Dr. of Physick (1657)[1]:
He was not, therefore, of their mind, who having got fair Books,are afraid to blot them with such lines or marginal notes, for he esteemed those Books most highly, into which he could insert most notes; and therefore he commonly caused all his Books, when they were in Quires to be washed over with Alum-watwer, and when he foresaw their Margents would not be large enough, he cause white paper to be bound between the printed leaves.[2]
The use of of interleaved copies was more common than this quotation may make it appear.

1. For Peiresc, see here.
2. See here for the source of the quotation.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Do Book Readers Live Longer?

"The best reason for reading? Book lovers live longer, scientists say" -- or so you can read in the Washington Post.

The evidence for this is slim. The evidence for readers of books living better -- or having a better shot at living a life worth living seems more persuasive (to me).

The Guardian published a similar story about this study yesterday.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Montesquieu's Pensées

Montesquieu left a set of three bound handwritten notebooks.[1] The entirety of the notes was not not published during his lifetime, though some notesare marked as “put in the Romans” or “put in the Laws.” Others are marked as belonging to a certain context, like "this did not make it into the essay on the 'differences between talents' or "remarks on count Boulainvilliers’ 'History.'”

The notes appear to be in chronological order. They seem to start in the early 1720s and continue to the end of his life. I found the first three notes especially useful as indicating the nature of his note-taking. They are, he says,

[1] Some detached reflections or thoughts that I have not put in my works.
[2] These are ideas that I have not delved into deeply, and that I am putting aside in order to think about them as the occasion allows.
[3] I will be very careful not to answer for all the thoughts that are here. I have put most of them here only because I have not had time to reflect on them, but I will think about them when I make use of them.
In other words, his notes were conceived as working notes. They represent things he wrote down in order to think about some more in the future. They are noteworthy to him, but they are preliminary and might or might not be endorsed by him in future reflections.[2]

This kind of tentative taking note of ideas should be emulated. I believe that it has some similarities to Lichtenberg's Wastebooks.

1. An English translation them can be found here.
2. I became aware of Montesquieu's My Thoughts through Henning Ritter's Notizhefte (Bloomesbury Verlag, 2010). Henning says that he adopted Montesquieu's maxims of My Thoughts as his own.

My Translations of Luhmann

“Communicating with Slip Boxes” (which is about Luhmann's own Zettelkasten) and “Learning how to Read” still can be found online here. See also this post.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Remembrance Agent

"The Remembrance Agent is one of the projects ... developed by the MIT Media Lab's software agents group. Given a collection of the user's accumulated email, usenet news articles, papers, saved HTML files and other text notes, it attempts to find those documents which are most relevant to the user's current context. That is, it searches this collection of text for the documents which bear the highest word-for-word similarity to the text the user is currently editing, in the hope that they will also bear high conceptual similarity and thus be useful to the user's current work." It "works in two stages. First, the user's collection of text documents is indexed into a database saved in a vector format. After the database is created, the other stage of the Remembrance Agent is run from emacs, where it periodically takes a sample of text from the working buffer and finds those documents from the collection that are most similar. It summarizes the top documents in a small emacs window and allows you to retrieve the entire text of any one with a keystroke."

You can still download it from this Web site (where you will also find further details about the program. It works with Emacs.

I do not use Emacs, but I am wondering whether it would not make sense in other contexts as well. In particular, I am asking myself whether it can be implemented in the context of my notes in ConnectedText. Perhaps this program is already implicitly serving this function, so the question really is whether the function can or should be made explicit, and if so, how.

Iris Murdoch on Word Processors (Again)

Iris Murdoch claimed that: "The word processor is... a glass square which separates one from one's thoughts and gives them a premature air of completeness". She also asked how anyone could possibly write with "a machine between you and the page". She insisted that she preferred "the particular closeness" of writing by hand.[1]

Strictly speaking, these three claims are false. A word processor is not "a glass square." And typing is just as much a use of the hand as writing longhand. And the pen or pencil and paper may be much simpler implements than a keyboard, but it can come "between you and your page" just as much as the keyboard or the screen. Ever written with a defective pen? Ever been blocked by an empty page? I have no doubt that these claims report her subjective experience, but I do find it rather doubtful that they are true for every writer. In any case, as I have said before, her claims to not accord with my experience.

Elias Canetti, who called Murdoch "an Oxford Ragout" and characterized her novels as "Oxford gossip," found that she "never had to suffer for the need of having to write."[2] He also thought that she was an unthinking eclectic. I am beginning to suspect he was right. What separated her from her thoughts was not a glass screen but her "slavish" adherence to Wittgenstein.

1. See alsso Murdoch on Longhand.
2. See Elias Canetti, (2005) Party im Blitz. Die englischen Jahre. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Verlag

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Processing Kindle Highlights in ConnectedText

During the past year or three, I have bought (and rented) more and more Kindle books. One of the reasons why I like to read on the Kindle has to do with the ease of note-taking. Highlighting a passage and pressing “highlight” is about as easy as it gets.

The question of how to deal with these notes after I have taken them is just as easy (to me). The notes are pretty much useless as long as they reside in the myclippings.txt on (some of the) Kindles, so I have to transfer them to my ConnectedText Notes project.

So, how do I do this? I bookmarked “” so that I can easily go to that website. When I am finished with a particular book, I will copy all the highlights and post them into the topic that I previously created for that book. Since I am reading at the moment Michael Graziano,l (2015) Consciousness and the Social Brain. Oxford University Press, let me use it as an example: The topic is called “(Graziano 2015)”, and like all my bibliographical topics it has the following structure


I usually also add the day I bought the book and when I finished reading it, that it is a Kindle book and other bibliographical information. So it looks like this:
Graziano, Michael (2015) //Consciousness and the Social Brain//.
Oxford University Press
Kindle book (book was originally published in 2013)
I then paste all the highlights underneath the the four dashes (which result in a line in ConnectedText’s viewer).

A single note (or highlight) will appear like this:

Add a note
I use the term consciousness inclusively. It refers both to the information about which I am aware and to the process of being aware of it. In this scheme, consciousness is the more general term and awareness the more specific.Read more at location 228

I search for “Add a note” and replace it with nothing. The same for “Read more”.

After this mechanical process, the real work begins: I will try to integrate these notes into the rest of my project. So the passage just described becomes [[Graziano’s definitions of consciousness and awareness]] and the passage itself becomes the content of the new note. It will also contain links to other definitions and observations about consciousness that are already contained in the project.

Some notes will not be as obvious, and I may leave those ones in the book entry for the moment, but they usually will be integrated with the rest of the notebooks as I read more about a certain subject matter. In any case, the integration of the notes with previous notes taken represents the main work of note-taking for me.

Cawdrey on Aphabetization

Alphabetization can be an important algorithm in storing and finding notes. It is somewhat amazing how long it took to take hold. One of the earlier instructions for how to use the alphabet can be found in Robert Cawdry's A Table Alphabeticall of 1604:
If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand, and to profit by this Table, and such like, then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand, perfecty without booke, and where euery Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) toward the end. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v *) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of that letter. And so of all the rest. &c.[1]
It's still true ...

1. See also Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By. The Computer Science of Human Decisions (New York: Henry Holt & Co., LLC, 2016).

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Smell of Books

There is a site advertising something "essential" missing from e-books, namely the "smell of book:" ... "Smell of Books™ brings back that real book smell you miss so much.Whether you read your e-books on a Kindle or a smartphone using your favorite reading app." It's an aerosol book enhancer.

I hope this is just a joke.

No further comment!

Friday, July 1, 2016

On Using Books

This is another post on a review of a book I have not yet read, but will most certainly read in the near future. It's called An Incomplete Eloquence. The book reviewed is The Reader in the Book. A Study of Spaces and Traces, and it is by Stephen Orgel. It takes its motto, “Using a book, not reading it, makes us wise”, from a 2005 Chicago exhibition. The idea is that "mere reading is not enough; rather, we must mark our texts lest we forget the wisdom so recently acquired. Inscription is a critical part of 'use'."

Perhaps, though not necessarily. To take notes from books does not necessarily mean marking up the book.
“At what point did marginalia […] become a way of defacing [the book] rather than of increasing its value?” asks Orgel early on. This proves to be a fundamental question, as the tensions he unearths between these two material understandings of books (and book use) are no small part of the lasting fascination of The Reader in the Book.
Perhaps marginalia were became less important when other writing materials became abundant and thinking about the book took more space than what the margins of a book provide. It certainly is also related to ownership of the book. Making marks in margins of books that don't belong to you is not rude, but also ultimately useless. "Using" a book can mean many things apart from inscription.[1]

That being said, I am looking very much forward to reading it.[2]

More later!

1. There is a reference to another review and the claim that “marginalia is a mournful expression of the loss of a body.” It's also worth a read, even though I find it difficult to make sense of the phrase (or the sentiment behind it).

2. But it won't be soon. I'll wait until I can find it in a library, as the Kindle edition is 35.99 and the hard cover 43.16 (!).

The Guardian Reviews A Literary History of Word Processing

The review comes to the conclusion that even though many writers have subjective aversions to the word processor, in all likelihood:
Such variety of attitudes and habits proves mildly less interesting than the history of the technology itself, because the former amounts to very little in the end. Writers used either to think word processing would make for seamless prose without colour or texture, or fear that everything would be overwritten, extravagantly qualified. ... In fact, nothing much happened: you can’t tell a word-processed novel from one dictated from the couch or typed on a vintage Olivetti. The tools fade away, as tools are meant to do. Kirschenbaum cannot prove that word processing affected any writer’s style, so he must make do with the banal observation of writing’s materiality: “Our instruments of composition, be they a Remington or a Macintosh, all serve to focalise and amplify our imagination of what writing is.” (Yes, Kirschenbaum’s grammar check seems to be switched off here.)
And I like this even more: "This review is being drafted with a German fountain pen of 1960s design – but does it matter? Give me this A4 pad, my MacBook Air or a sharp stick and a stretch of wet sand, and I will give you a thousand words a day, no more and likely no different."[1]

Couldn't agree more!

I am much less sure about the last sentence: "Writing, it turns out, happens in the head after all."[2]

1. Compare The New York Times on A Literary History of Word Processing.

2. Se the posts on externalization on this blog. In my view, it is very important to externalize thought, but less important what medium you chose. I know this is controversial.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Cleaning Fountain Pens

Here is a very thorough post (with pictures) on how to clean fountain pens. It's called "Zen and the Art of Fountain Pen Maintainance." I leave it to you to judge how much it has to do with Zen.

No further comment!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ars Vivendi

"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

“Un maître dans l’art de vivre ne fait pas de différence entre son travail et ses loisirs, son esprit et son corps, son éducation et sa distraction. Il met en oeuvre sa vision de l’excellence dans tout ce qu’il fait et laisse les autres déterminer s’il travaille ou se divertit. A ses yeux, il semble toujours faire les deux”. -

Francois Auguste René Chateaubriand

I wish I were ... but I have always been painfully aware of the difference between work and play.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

New Republic on Bullet Journaling

In this artcle, we hear that the "craze for bullet journaling shows that sometimes pen and paper is best—as long as the results can be Instagrammed." I am not sure that bullet journaling actually shows that "sometimes pen and is best," even though it seems undoubtedly true to me that pen and paper is sometime. Whatever may be the case, some of you will enjoy the article.[1]

No further comment!

1. On a related matter, see here and here. I am somewhat of a skeptic. Whatever you do or think changes the brain for better or worse. What it will be, depends on many variables--or so I would argue.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Oppenheimer on Selective Practice

Robert Oppenheimer wrote in 1958 in a review of a boook called A Study of Thinking by Jerome Bruner, Jacqueline Goodnow, and George A. Austin (Swanee Review, 66, 481-489):
Man has a great capacity for distinction. His capacity of otherness is almost unlimited. We are concerned throughout with the discovery and creation of order in man's cognitive life. Rational life begins with the selective practice of ignoring differences, failing in truth to perceive them; rational life begins with failure to use discriminatory power in anything like its full potentiality. It lies in the selection, arrangement, and appropriate adequation to the objects of perception and thought, of limited traits, of a small residue of potential wealth.
This has the greatest relevance to note-taking, or it seems to me. I would add "connection," though it might already be covered by "arrangement."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

William Boyd on Longhand

in the Guardian William Boyd said in an interview:
I write my first draft of a novel in longhand. I have found the perfect pen that goes by the bizarre name of a Rotring Tikky Graphic with a 0.2mm nib. It suits my tiny, near-illegible handwriting and I always write in spiral-backed marginless A4 notebooks – I try to keep my fetishes to a minimum.

One great advantage of a longhand draft is that, in transferring it to the computer, every single word is written at least twice. Then the computer draft can be endlessly revised. Writing in longhand is important, I think – and not just because I’m a pre-computer novelist (I bought myself my first typewriter, an Olivetti, for my 21st birthday). In handwriting there is a vital head-hand-page connection that a keyboard and computer removes. When you write in longhand you’re unconsciously aware of aspects of your prose – such as sentence length, cadence, rhythm, repetition, prolixity – that I find keyboard writing doesn’t alert you to in the same way. Also you can see all the litter of the progress you’ve made that day – the scorings-out; the arrows; the insertions; the bubbles; the second, third, fourth choices. The page reflects the mental effort that the screen doesn’t. It’s a toiling, messy business writing a novel. I go to bed knackered and sleep well.
All this sounds very sensible to me! You need more than one draft for any kind of writing--or so it seems to me. And how you write your drafts seems highly subjective.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Ulysses, Again

There is an enthusiastic review of Ulysses at Lifehacker. According to it,
Ulysses isn’t exactly a plain text editor. For a long time, the pitch for Ulysses was “plain text enhanced,” and while I hate to succumb to advertising catch phrases, that does describe Ulysses well. It’s a smarter version of plain text that can work as just plain text, or handle much more if you want it to. More than that though, Ulysses is an entire environment for writing. To use Ulysses well, you’ll want to dump everything, from your notes to your book manuscript, into Ulysses.
The author thinks it's also great for taking notes because
On top of having a solid system for organizing your writing manually, Ulysses also has an incredibly powerful little search program inside of it. Tap Command+O and type in your search. The results will include any text with that search term. Find the sheet you want, press Return, and Ulysses takes you straight into the text editor for that document. This doesn’t sound like much, but it makes so you can easily bounce between sheets without ever touching the mouse, which is useful when you just want to write.
In other words, it has simple search only. No "not", "or", or "and". No regex either.[1] So, how many notes is it good for? Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands? I would think it may be a few thousands.

Perhaps this is just my prejudice, but I am not interested in any application that supports just a few thousand of notes. A life-time of note-taking needs an application that can manage tens of thousands of notes or more.

There are too many apps that suggest they are capable note-takers but which are severely limited. Take Growly Notes, it is severely limited in the size of its notebooks: "For example, if you’re keeping class notes in Notes, don’t keep an entire semester’s classes in one notebook. Make a folder in the Finder for each semester and make one notebook for every course. This will keep the size of your notebooks down, which will make Notes faster. It also makes it possible to close the notebooks you’re not currently using, which will also make Notes faster."{2] This means it is not a serious alternative to OneNote, for instance.

1. I own a licensed copy of Ulysses, so I can add that it also allows you to chose formatting.
2. I am sorry to say that I own a licensed copy of this one as well. It's useless to me.

Pens and the Placebo Effect

There is a study showing that "Novices play better golf when they have expensive brand name equipment, research shows. Brand name products alleviate some performance anxiety but brands have no effect on better players."[1]

It may well be the other way around with pens and writing--I think. Experts may benefit more from their favorite tools than novices.

In any case, this "phenomenon" also deserves a study--or so I would argue!

1. See here.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Literary History of Word Processing

in the review of a new book on word processing: by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing and published by Harvard University Press, we find:
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Louis Simpson warned that the word processor “tells you your writing is not final. …  It enables you to think you are writing when you are not, when you are only making notes or the outline of a poem you may write at a later time.” By contrast, Jacques Derrida reflected on this mutability with delight: “Previously, after a certain number of versions, everything came to a halt—that was enough. Not that you thought the text was perfect, but after a certain period of metamorphosis the process was interrupted. With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking you can go on revising forever.” Simpson and Derrida agree on the formal features the word processor offers: They just disagree about whether the machines are good for writing.
Perhaps, but I doubt either one characterized the nature of the difference between writing on a typewriter and a word processor quite correctly. The word processor does not tell you anything. It does not radically erase the difference between making notes, outlines, and the final product. It appears to me that there is and always has been ambiguity about whether a certain formulation is just a note or whether it represents the final product, whether it is a penultimate or ultimate draft. And, yes, word processing makes revising much easier than the type writer, but only a fool thinks that you "can go on revising forever." You may go on for longer than you used to, but it is impossible to go on revising forever. You can't because your time is limited, and that is a brute fact, even if you are using a word processor.

The differences between traditional writing and word processing seem more gradual to me than either Simpson or Derrida suggest.

None of this reflects on the book (or even the rest of the review), of course. I am looking forward to reading Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing.

Materializing Thought

Cao Pi wrote in the third century AD in an Essay on Writing: "Life and body are limited by time, unlike writing which is eternal. Therefore writers gave over their bodies to ink and brush, and materialized their thoughts in tablets and collections."[1]

I like the phrase "materializing their thoughts," though I would perhaps prefer "externalizing their thoughts." The reason is that material to us is just as little eternal as our bodies. Tablets may outlast us, but they are far from being eternal. But tablets and collections allow us to manipulate thoughts and communicate them over the centuries.

There is a rather similar sentiment in Samuel Butler's Notebooks, even though it might seem to contradict Cao Pi.[2] Butler claimed that in pure thought we come "as near to God as we can get; it is through this that we are linked with God." But "the highest thought is ineffable; it must be felt from one person to another but cannot be articulated" (at location 1384). We cannot really do anything with such iintuitive thoughts. But, "the moment a thing is written, or even can be written, and reasoned about, it has changed its nature by becoming tangible, and hence finite, and hence it will have an end in disintegration (at location 1386). For him, words were "organised thoughts, as living forms are organised actions. How a thought can find embodiment in words is nearly, though perhaps not quite, as mysterious as how an action can find embodiment in form, and appears to involve a somewhat analogous" (at location 1391).

I have written many time about "exteriorization" before, of course.

1. Quoted in accordance with Alexander Monro, The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention (New York: Knopf, 2016) p. 31.
2. See also the previous post on Samuel Butler.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

John Berger on Translation

John Berger writes in the The Guardian:
true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.
This is not my experience. An I am bilingual (German-English), have translated from English to German (generally recommended, as that is my native language) and from German to English (not generally recommended, as it goes from the native language to the language I speak and think in now, that is, for the last 48 years).[1]

In fact, I don't know what it would mean to "return to the pre-verbal." I have never had any access to this level. Even when I dream, I dream in English or in German. Nor do I understand what he means by characterizing translation as a "binary affair." If he means that it is something that resembles Searle's "Chinese room," I agree. It's not a question of simply correlating a definite set of words in one language with some definite set of words in the other (in accordance with certain rules). It's much more complicated and involves reconstruction. If, however, he suggests that there is another kind of language between the source language and target language, I strongly disagree. But perhaps I am just more deficient than Berger.

1. Even though I have I have lived in English for much longer than in German, my English is weaker. It's like handedness. A left-handed person may become very good at using her right hand, but that does not mean that she will become right-handed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Essay and Self

From a recent review of books on essays by Harper's:
To throw in our lot with the essay — to place it at the center of our literary culture — is to accept the idea of a more or less continuous self that can make its observations, emotions, interpretations, and opinions intelligible to others. From Montaigne to Didion, essayists have shown that even questions about the very coherence of the self or the legibility of experience can be addressed from within the essay. Does this mean we’re walking away from the more recent modernist and postmodernist challenges to certainties about the self? Can everything important be filtered through a talking “I”? What do we do with our skepticism of the bourgeois subject and his abiding interest in his personal experiences, his foibles, his feelings?
Is that true? Is it even coherent?

I somehow doubt it. To use Montaigne's musings as proof for an abiding self seems rather strange--just as strange as the claim that essays are the center of literary culture, or the claim that literary culture is most central to our understanding of self.

Hume (and others) have shown--at least to my satisfaction--that there is less to "self" than this articles implies.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Samuel Butler on the Fundamental Principles of Note-taking

I had read Butler's Note-Books before. But this weekend I read them again in a Kindle Edition.[1] Here are some characteristic passage:
That our ideas are baseless, or rotten at the roots, is what few who study them will deny; but they are rotten in the same way as property is robbery, and property is robbery in the same way as our ideas are rotten at the roots, that is to say it is a robbery and it is not. No title to property, no idea and no living form (which is the embodiment of idea) is indefeasible if search be made far enough. Granted that our thoughts are baseless, yet they are so in the same way as the earth itself is both baseless and most firmly based, or again most stable and yet most in motion (at location 4389).
Butler gives in this note colorful expression to his belief that there can be no ultimate foundation in taking notes on any and all subjects. In his view, "the error springs from supposing that there is any absolute right or absolute truth, and also from supposing that truth and right are any the less real for being not absolute but relative" (at location 4404).

The most important thins is to take care "not to accept ideas which though very agreeable at first disagree with us afterwards, and keep rising on our mental stomachs, as garlic does upon our bodily" (at location 4414). In other words, "we should aim not at a supposed absolute standard but at the greatest coming-together-ness or convenience of all our ideas and practices; that is to say, at their most harmonious working with one another" (at location 4405). In other words, he accepted what has been called the coherence theory of truth. It's the connections that count (in this view), not the correspondence to some (ultimately unknowable) reality.

And the moral of the story seems to be: "The only thing to do is to glance at the chaos on which our thoughts are founded, recognise that it is a chaos and that, in the nature of things, no theoretically firm ground is even conceivable, and then to turn aside with the disgust, fear and horror of one who has been looking into his own entrails" (at location 4713).

I believe that this Nietzschean dramaticism is uncalled for.[2] Nor is looking at one's own "entrails" necessarily inducing fear and horror. Perhaps we should remember that he wrote before x-ray radiation and other non-intrusive ways of looking at our "entrails" became widely available. Whether Butler is ultimately right is, of course, still another story.[3]

1. Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler. transcribed from the 1912 Fifield edition by David Price. Apparently Butler was a great influence on James Joyce.

2. Apparently, Butler never read Nietzsche, even though his thoughts resemble those of Nietzsche in many ways.

3. Butler incessantly worked on his notes. From 1891 he "made it a rule to spend an hour every morning re-editing his notes and keeping his index up to date. At his death, in 1902, he left five bound volumes, with the contents dated and indexed, about 225 pages of closely written sermon paper to each volume, and more than enough unbound and unindexed sheets to made a sixth volume of equal size" (at location 11).

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lamy 2000 Mechanical Pencil

Here is a good review of the Lamy 2000 Mechanical Pencil. It's hard to believe the design dates back 60 years. I own one of these, but I have hardly ever used it.[1]

1. By way of Bleistift. The review site takes very long to load for me.

Smart Writing Set

Moleskine has created what they call a "new set of tools to write, draw and work with." It's supposed to allow you to "easily create digital text and images and share them right away with your smartphone or tablet."

In other words, "is a system made up of three objects – the special Paper Tablet notebook, the smart Pen+ and a companion App – that enable you to digitally edit and share what you create on paper in real-time without taking a photo, uploading files, or scanning documents." The notes application is available for the iPad and for Androids.

The entire setup costs $199.00.

It looks interesting, but I am not sure I need (or want) it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Textexpander, Again

Received another e-mail from Smile today. Among other things, it says:
You, and other current TextExpander customers, receive a 50% lifetime discount on the new TextExpander. This brings the yearly cost of the Life Hacker plan to $20, which is comparable to previous upgrade costs ($19.95).
This option still takes away my choice and makes payments automatic. Nor do I have any use at all for the "sharing feature." By the way, Netflix just increased their membership by about $2.00 a month for long-time members. I have a limited budget for both software and video. Sorry!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Textexpander now by Subscription only

Today, Textexpander introduced its new "Pricing Plans" for Textexpander 6.0. For a single user it will cost "$3.96/month billed annually or "4.95 monthly." I am sure this will not excite many of its users in the right sort of way. I am not sure what will happen to my installation of TextExpander 5.0 as a result.

Needless to say, I don't like the change.[1]

There is also a new version for Windows which I will not use given that I can do more with AutoHotKey already. In fact, what I would really like is a version of AutoHotKey for the Mac.

Added on April 6 at 7:51: MacSparky writes: "Smile has switched TextExpander to a subscription model. I know that makes some users nervous but, frankly, I think it is a good idea. As a fan of productivity software, I’d really like the companies that make my favorite tools stay in business. In order for TextExpander to continue to get the love and attention it needs to make my life so much easier, it needs ongoing support. TextExpander is so worth it." The subscription model does not make me nervous. It is too expensive for me (and I suppose many other people who are unwilling or unable to spend almost fifty dollars a year for just one piece of software). To say nothing about the precedent this sets, if it is successful.

Added on April 7 at 22;35: In today's e-mail from Smile, I read: "We'll continue to support TextExpander 5 in El Capitan and beyond to the upcoming version of OS X." I suppose that means support will stop with the next OS update. I am getting more upset with every new announcement! Is this the right way to treat customers?

1. Nor do I have any use for their new sync service!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

R.R. Martin on Readers

I am an avid reader. And I believe that reading is very important for anyone who wants to live a life worth living. Yet, I have to take issue with a quote that is supposedly from R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragon that is making the rounds on the Internet:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
At best, a reader leads a thousand vicarious lives; and she or he may not live any life at all, if reading becomes an escape from living. Reading does not substitute for living. It may enhance life, but, it may also damage it, especially if you only read certain kinds of fantasy.

I would be very careful from whom I take advice!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Cleartext is a text editor that will only allow you to use "he 1,000 most common words in English." I hope it is meant to be just a joke--especially because it comes with a "Trump mode." (By way of One Thing Well.)

I cannot believe that your thoughts or your writing becomes clearer by simply restricting you vocabulary.

No further comment!

Monday, March 21, 2016

One Way I Organize My Notes

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I use ConnectedText to organize my notes. ConnectedText is a "personal hypertext." Accordingly, links between notes play a large role. They are very important to me. However, they are not sufficient. I also use categories or tags to classify them. In my main project that has more than 10,000 topics, I have 223 categories or tags (ConnectedText does not sharply differentiate between the two). There are also properties and attributes which I use very sparingly.

One fundamental organizational device I use is what is called a "smart topic" in ConnectedText. It may be thought of as the "reverse" of a wiki category, and it is just a topic with an embedded search. So, if I would like to have an easy way of knowing how many topics I have on the medieval university and its institutions, I could create a topic called "medieval university" and put the following inline query into it: "[[$ASK:medieval and university|Index|]]" and it will list every topic on the subject. (If you are curious, there are 24).

Over the years, I have found three types of smart topics particularly useful, one belongs to the category "Person," another to the category "Concept," and the final one to the category "Theory." So, if I want to know how many and what topics I have, say on A. J. Ayer, I just put "[[$ASK:Ayer|Index|]]" into my Ayer page. If I want to know how many and what topics I have on the concept of "order," I do the equivalent for it, and if I want to know about "string theory" the same. (I assure you that there are not many notes on the last topic [I checked and found exactly 2]).

Some people, including Luhmann, think that classifying one's notes by persons is a deficient way of achieving order. As a Systems theorist, he is somewhat disdainful of this approach:
One possibility is to remember names: Marx, Freud, Giddens, Bourdieu, etc. Obviously most knowledge can also be ordered by names, eventually also by names of theories such as social phenomenology, theory of reception in the literary disciplines, etc. Even introductions to sociology and basic texts are conceived in this way. What one cannot learn from such works, however, are conceptual connections and especially the nature of the problems that these texts try to solve. Still, even candidates in exams at the end of their studies want to be examined on Max Weber or, if that is too much, on Humberto Maturana, and they are prepared to report on what they know about these authors.
Luhmann clearly thinks this is sub-par for the course. I don't disagree. That is why I also sort things according to concepts.

One might argue that this is still deficient. As Karl Popper claimed, "Theories may be true or false. Concepts can at best be adequate and at worst be misleading. Concepts are unimportant, in comparison with theories." And this is why I also have a category named "theory" under which I can find smart topics with searches for particular theories.

This is one way I organize my note-taking. It is by no means the only one, as I suggested at the very beginning.

Standing Up, Again

Not so long ago standing up was praised as being superior and having many health-benefits as compared with sitting down. Perhaps it was inevitable, but now there are many studies (and thus Websites) that express skepticism about such claims.

Here a few:
I'll just wait for the studies of the studies and withhold judgment!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Quiver, a "Programmer's Notebook"

I recently came across Quiver which is described as a "notebook built for programmers. It lets you easily mix text, code, Markdown and LaTeX within one note, edit code with an awesome code editor, live preview Markdown and LaTeX, and find any note instantly via the full-text search."

I downloaded the trial and played with it. There is much to like in this application. I am not a programmer, but I do like the way Quiver handles text, markdown, and pictures. I also like its search capabilities: "Quiver's full-text search is based on Search Kit, the same technology used to power Spotlight on your mac. That's how Quiver can search through thousands of notes in a blink of an eye." I also like that it "stores data in a well-documented plain JSON format. So it’s easy to write scripts to integrate Quiver notes with other tools you use. Common scripts are provided on the Quiver documentation site." Furthermore, "Quiver lets you sync all your notes across multiple computers via Dropbox, iCloud Drive, Google Drive, or any other file-based cloud services."

Most of all, I like that it is an OS X application. If I were to adopt it, I would no longer have to run Windows.

There is, however, one thing that keeps me from adopting it, and that is the somewhat cumbersome implementation of linking. You have to first copy the target note, move back into the note, into which you wish to insert the link to the target and the paste it into the note. It would be so much better, if you could just enclose the name of the target in double brackets, the way nValt, or OneNote, or ConnectedText allow you to do it.

The author seems to be aware of this, and implicitly promises to improve the linking behavior.

I will wait, but I am sure that the present version of Quiver (it's 3) will be good enough for many people, and not just for coders!

Atoma and Arc, Again

I have written about Arc and Atoma several times before. I don't really use it, as I prefer real notebooks for my paper notes. But I am fascinated by the system. Here is an interesting post on how someone has just adopted the system and finds: "What I have now is an infinite, and almost perfect, notebook, in a beautiful and very functional cover. What’s even better is I still get to tinker. There’s nothing worse than finding something that’s so close to what you want, you can’t think of ways to improve it."

This sentiment expresses almost exactly how I think of my personal hypertext system! One of the good things about "personal hypertext" as compared with loose leafs is that it is much more difficult to lose any of the pages in personal hypertext. It is also infinitely better at cross referencing my information.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Pomera DM100

There is another alternative to the Alphasmart Neo, namely the Japanese Pomera DM100. I obviously have not used it and cannot say anything about its virtues and vices, but there is a very thorough review of the device I have read. I am tempted, but I will not buy it, as the Neo does everything I need at this time.[1]

1. Here is a reference to an earlier version of a Pomera.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Freewrite

The Hemingwrite has morphed into The Freewrite. It is touted as "a single purpose, distraction-free writing composition device. It combines the simplicity of a 90s-era word processor with modern technology like an e-paper display, mechanical keyboard, and cloud backups." Its price at the moment is $499.00.

It looks interesting, if a bit clumsy. It should be thinner--or so it seems to me. It's probably the mechanical keyboard that is to blame. I am not sure why I would need a "mechanical" keyboard.

Functionally, it seems very similar to the Alphasmart Neo which is now defunct. It can be had for less than $100.00 on Amazon and eBay. There may be some affluent people who are willing to pay five time that much for integration with Dropbox and Evernote, I am not among them. "'We are quickly seeing people becoming more disenchanted than ever with the nag of constant consumption,' explains Adam Leeb, cofounder of Freewrite manufacturer Astrohaus." Indeed!

The Freewrite weighs four pounds. The Neo2 weighs half that much. To repeat: "It's probably the mechanical keyboard that is to blame. I am not sure why I would need a 'mechanical' keyboard."

I am not sure why it is referred to as a "typewriter," as it does not seem to type or print on paper.

That being said, it is an interesting phenomenon.[1] I am sure some people will take to it. I am probably just too old (and would find it difficult to lug around four pounds on a fairly regular basis). And looking "cool" using it is no longer a real option either. So, please discount my negativity!

1. I became aware of The Freewrite through David Bosman
2. Tuesday, March 8, 2016 I have now done a search about "The Freewrite" and discovered that I am not the only one who felt moved to compare it to the Neo. It's not important, but I did not know of those previous posts when I wrote this. It's clearly an obvious association for anyone interested in a minimal word processor. I'd wish that someone developed a decent successor to the Neo.

Using Business Cards for Notes

Here is an interesting post on how to use business cards for notes on the road. It inspired me to order this from Amazon:

It's a "Blank Flash Card Dispenser Box Card Size 2'' x 3''" 1000 cards, and it will probably last me a life time. I like the small size, as two, three or five cards will easily fit in my wallet. (They are a bit smaller than credit cards.

You can never have too many ways of capturing notes.[1]

1. The blog has other interesting ideas for "analog note-taking." I use both analog and electronic means, however.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Fountain Pen Mistakes

Some people seem to think that buying and using fountain pens already represents a mistake. I obviously don't think so. At Goulet pens, you can find a list of the seven most severe mistakes you can make with fountain pens. There are more in the comments.

Recommended reading, even if you don't (yet) own a fountain pen!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What about Second Drafts?

Another strange result from a psychological study: Typing too fast can interfere with your thinking. Can it? Of course it can! It seems true that "People who type quickly may use the first word that comes to hand. Slowing down allows the mind more time to find the right word. This could be why forcing yourself to slow down a little improves the sophistication of vocabulary used." And this Website that comments on the study finds: "Slowing down your writing could help writing quality no matter what input method is used, the authors think."

Well, it could. But editing and producing a second, third, and fourth draft certainly will help "writing quality," or perhaps better the quality of what is written. The authors of the study (which I could not read, as it is behind a pay wall) might have more seriously considered the possibility of a preliminary draft, or the attempt to get down one's thoughts as quickly as possible with a view to later editing and re-editing. It seems from the summary that they were mainly interested in one-draft writing which is to be discouraged.[1]

1. I may be unfair to the authors of the study, as I don't know whether the PsyBlog entry ssummarizes the results correctly. For one idea about preliminary drafts (called "shitty first draft"), see here.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Apple Notes, Again

MacSparky also likes the new Apple Notes application:
Then I stated using Apple Notes and the strangest thing happened. I liked it. Not only is Apple Notes a contender, Apple has continued to refine the product. Just last week we got a new beta of an upcoming Mac OS X release that includes additional Apple Notes features. One of those new features is the ability to import Evernote and plain text files. It seemed to me like a perfect excuse to slurp in the rest of my nvALT database so I could really push the application's limits. Now I've got 787 notes in my Apple Notes database. It's growing daily.
I am not using that many notes, as they always get incorporated into ConnectedText.

I recommend that you read the rest of the post!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Making the Garden?

In doing further research on pattern language, I came across this recent post by Christopher Alexander. Towards the end he claims
We cannot make an architecture of life if it is not made to reflect God—an objective condition. And, by a surprising twist, the search for a true architecture, that is to say, a real architecture that works, and in which this feeling of rightness is present in every bone, in an irreligious era has the unique power to bring back the reality of God to center stage in our concerns.
The capacity to make each brick, each path, each baluster, each windowsill a reflection of God lies in the heart of every man and every woman. It is stark in its simplicity. A world so shaped will lead us back to a sense of right and wrong and a feeling of well-being. This vision of the world—a real, solid physical world—will restore a vision of God. Future generations will be grateful to us if we do this work properly.
This worries me. I am not opposed to theology per se, but I have problems with this theology of architecture, as I would have problems with a theology of programming, or a theology note-taking. It's just too much.

I take it that Pattern Language and theology are connected in this way only in the mind of its creator, and there is no necessary connection here. Theologically speaking, the attempt to "make the garden" is suspect anyway, as we were (supposedly) expelled from it by God for a good reason. Some theologians would argued that Alexander's view is a manifestation of the very sin that led to the expulsion.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Wiki and Pattern Language

Pursuing the connection between wiki and pattern language, I came across Wiki as Pattern Language by Ward Cunningham and Michael W. Mehaffy. It's an interesting paper, but I have only skimmed it so far. More later, perhaps much later ...

On Blogs and Wikis

Mike Caulfield argues in an interesting post that Blogs and Wikis have not only a different history, bu also obey different laws. "Wiki and blogs have two different cultures, two different idioms," they embody "different sets of values." Thus "Blogs are, in many ways, the child of BBS culture and mailing lists. They are a unique innovation on that model, allowing each person to control their part of the conversation on their own machine and software while still being tied to a larger conversation through linking, backlinks, tags, and RSS feeds." Whereas "Wiki is perhaps the only web idiom that is not a child of BBS culture. It derives historically from pre-web models of hypertext, with an emphasis on the pre."

Therefore, Caulfield thinks, it is perhaps not surprising that "Wiki values are often polar opposites of blogging values. Personal voice is meant to be minimized. Voices are meant to be merged. Rather than serial presentation, wiki values treating pages as nodes that stand outside of any particular narrative, and attempt to be timeless rather than timebound reactions." Indeed, the believes "Wiki iterates not through the creation of new posts, but through the refactoring of old posts. It shows not a mind in motion, but the clearest and fairest description of what that mind has (or more usually, what those minds have) arrived at. It values reuse over reply, and links are not pointers to related conversations but to related ideas." I do find this point interesting. I think that Caulfield is on to something, even though I think that wiki does not always lead to the approximation of truth. "What the mind has arrived at" in many wikis may just be a consensus of many people with the same prejudices. Nor am I convinced that the wiki experience shows our angelic side. Just look at what is happening over at Wikipedia.

On the other hand, I have actually little interest in public wikis. I may not be able to count my contribution to wikis on one hand, but it certainly amounts to no more than four hands. Therefore, my interest in Caulfield's post about the historical origin and the values embodied in wikis concerns something that is only an aside in his post. He notes that "[t]he immediate ancestor of wiki was a Hypercard stack maintained by Ward Cunningham that attempted to capture community knowledge among programmers. Its philosophical godfather was the dead-tree hypertext A Pattern Language written by Christopher Alexander in the 1970s." I am stuck at the "pre-wiki' level, it seems. In any case, I am almost exclusively interested in what is nowadays called "personal wiki." While I hope this is not a moral shortcoming, I am fairly sure that my personal wiki grows not just through the creation of new entries, but also "through the refactoring of old" entries. Furthermore, it does show a mind in motion to the clearest and fairest description of what this mind can arrive at. It's only my mind interacting with the ideas by others and by myself. I like it that way!

I am thankful for Mike Caulfeld for giving me the occasion to reflect on this fact. I am also thankful for reminding me of A Pattern language. I had never thought of it in connection with wiki, and I will now pursue this idea further.