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.