Thursday, December 28, 2017

Tuchman on the Mechanics of Research

Barbara Tuchman in Practicing History (1982) explains her methods of research. Index cards play an important part in her approach:
I take notes on four-by-six index cards, reminding myself about once an hour of a rule I read long ago in a research manual, 'Never write on the back of anything.' Since copying is a chore and a bore, use of the cards, the smaller the better, forces one to extract the strictly relevant, to distill from the very beginning, to pass the material through the grinder of one's own mind, so to speak. Eventually, as the cards fall into groups according to subject or person or chronological sequence, the pattern of my story will emerge. Besides, they are convenient, as they can be filed in a shoe box and carried around in a pocketbook. When ready to write I need only to take along a packet of them, representing and chapter, and I am equipped to work anywhere, whereas if one writes surrounded by a pile of books, one is tied to a single place, and furthermore likely to be too much influenced by other authorities.
The limitations of physical index cards she lists as advantages do not exist for electronic index cards. You cannot store them in shoe boxes, you cannot carry them around in your pockets, and you are not limited by the size of the cards. But I don't think the lack of these limitations makes the approach to store research in discrete bits of information any the less important. It just means that you have to use even more self-control. Don't let your topics or records increase to unwieldy length and summarize rather than quote (unless you really want the verbatim record).

Friday, December 8, 2017

William Gass on Writing and Rewriting

William Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of 93. I was drawn to him (or his work) for all the wrong reasons, at least at the beginning. Like him, I taught at Purdue in the Philosophy Department for many years. Like him, I ultimately moved elsewhere. He taught "Greek Philosophy," I taught "German Philosophy with special emphasis on Kant." He became I writer, I didn't. But I really appreciate his essays, and I wish I could write the way he does [did].

Gass had to say the following about Purdue: "I was at Purdue [1955-1969], which was a good school if you were in engineering or things of that sort. It had a really weak humanities group. But by the time I left Purdue, there was tons of money, because of Sputnik, coming into the university for a period of time. We had a graduate program, but when I came to Purdue it was just two other guys, and the department was called “History, Government, and Philosophy.” I mean, it was just nothing. And when I left, it was a Ph.D. program. So it was lucky that it was an expanding program." So much for Gass. I was myself hired by Purdue in 1983. It was—and is—still a good school "if you are in engineering." Philosophy was—and is—a relatively strong department in the Humanities.

About his writing process he said: "Something gets on paper, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised. And then I’m finally at the end." That also resonates with me, though I find it hard to determine when I am "at the end."

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Foucault on Index Cards

There is a remark by Foucault on index cards that escaped me, even though I came across it several times. The Atlantic article referred I called attention to in the last post reminded me. Apparently, Foucault "ironically" remarked that the “appearance of the index card and the constitution of the human sciences: another invention little celebrated by historians.” in Discipline and Punish. It is not much of a remark—more like a throwaway line. It's true but trite, even though this book review claims that Foucault's "ironic remark" has been moot by Markus Krajewski's on work on index cards.

In researching whether there was anything more substantial in Foucault's attention to index cards, I came across this passage in a book:
Foucault had [sic] often been accused by critics of being cavalier in his research. The French historian Jacques Léonard asks in relation to Discipline and Punish for example: When a philosopher engages with historians, they wonder ... whether he is a sufficiently erudite scholar to dare to talk this way: does he have enough index cards, are they comprehensive, well-catalogued? Are his files as thick as our own?
The author obviously thinks they are. I am less sure, but I would like to know more about whether Foucault used index cards, and if so, how?

On the History of the Index Card in the Atlantic

How the Index Card Cataloged the World. The claim is that "Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy, also had a hand in inventing this tool for categorizing anything." It's interesting, but there is not much that is new in the article. It perpetuates false claims. See also History of the Index Card.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

One Dumb Note?

I know I got burned criticizing OneNote some time ago, but, I can't help my self. See here. Even if you like OneNote, it might be interesting reading.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Does Social Media Endanger Knowledge?

If you believe this article, knowledge is endangered by social media:
Social networks, though, have since colonized the web for television’s values. From Facebook to Instagram, the medium refocuses our attention on videos and images, rewarding emotional appeals—‘like’ buttons—over rational ones. Instead of a quest for knowledge, it engages us in an endless zest for instant approval from an audience, for which we are constantly but unconsciouly performing. (It’s telling that, while Google began life as a PhD thesis, Facebook started as a tool to judge classmates’ appearances.) It reduces our curiosity by showing us exactly what we already want and think, based on our profiles and preferences. Enlightenment’s motto of ‘Dare to know’ has become ‘Dare not to care to know.’

It is a development that further proves the words of French philosopher Guy Debord, who wrote that, if pre-capitalism was about ‘being’, and capitalism about ‘having’, in late-capitalism what matters is only ‘appearing’—appearing rich, happy, thoughtful, cool and cosmopolitan. It’s hard to open Instagram without being struck by the accuracy of his diagnosis.
I believe all of this is essentially correct, but it is not knowledge that is endangered or threatened. Rather it is the role of knowledge in society. It is not that this threat is new, but rather that it has grown stronger. We will ignore it at our own peril, and, judging by recent developments, we will ignore it. And it will not be the first time.

Nabokov's Dream Diary on Index Cards

It's well know that Nabokov wrote many of his novels on index cards (see here). The Guardian reports that a 1964 dream diary of his will soon be published. It consists of 128 index cards like this:

Apparently, one of Nabokov's main purposes in recording his dreams was recording experiments in "backwards time flow," a rather questionable notion developed by John Dunne. His book An Experiment With Time presents the view that "the human mind has the ability to rove back and forth along the time-line so that precognition is a physical possibility."[1] Not surprisingly, Nabokov's dream diary fails to establish that possibility, but it does shed light on his own rather strange theories about time in the novel Ada, for instance.

I find his use of index cards more interesting than his musings about time.

1.The book can be had at Amazon. Before you buy it, you might also look here.

Friday, October 20, 2017

RedCircle in Gold

I wrote before of RedCircle pencils (aee here). I recently purchase RedCirle pensil in gold:

I do not know whether the innards of the pencil have changed from previous models or colors.

There is a very good review of redcircle pencils here. The main problem, as I see it, is this: "To keep the lead from falling out of the pencil when the button is clicked, there is just a random piece of rubber in the tip of the pencil. It is not glued or otherwise held in place, just resting in the tip of the pencil." I did not see any "discoloration due to oxidation (rusting)". The random piece of rubber presents a problem, if you take apart the pencil--I lost it.

I have been using the silver version without a problem for at least two years.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Didion on Her Notebooks, Again

In an interview with the Guardian, Joan Didion, says:
I have kept notebooks since I was a child. They are a fundamental part of my process. The next stage is to polish them, to retype them and see what’s there. If I’m very lucky, something is there. If I’m not very lucky, I do another draft of them. I still keep notebooks. I don’t have plans to publish others, but that may change.
I like the idea that you have to engage what is written in the notebooks to "see what's there", and that you should not give up if at first nothing seems to be there. The typewriter seems to play for her an essential role in this rewriting. I don't think this has to be the case for everyone--but what do I know?

Friday, August 11, 2017

Ulysses, One More Time

David Hewson writes that the Ulysses subsription plan is a good idea. He also finds:
Some of the moans out there also remind me of a curious fact I noticed years ago. There are lots of people who want to write and expect others to pay for their writing. But when it comes to paying for the intellectual property they use themselves… well that’s different.
I cannot share this feeling. The moans are for the most part not by people who have not paid and who are not willing to pay but by those who have already paid and who would be willing to continue to pay for updates whenever they become available. I would certainly fall into that category.

Nor am I against subscription per se. I do subscribe to some services, journals, and newspapers. I might even be willing to pay a subscription fee for some software, but I resent the fact that when I bought a license for a certain program, I am forced at some point (without prior consultation) to switch from a straightforward license to the subscription model. It used to be my free decision whether to upgrade or not, now I would be forced to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use it. As I try to keep my monthly outgo to a minimum, I will not subscribe. My budget for software is limited. And whether or not spend more money on Ulysses has to be weighed against other needs.

Nor is the price of software of 20 years ago relevant to the consideration of whether Ulysses has enough value for me to justify the expense.

I also understand that some software is more important to others than it is to me, and that they might be willing to pay more on a regular basis. I am not one of those. Nor do I consider this change a "wonderful idea" for the user. A carpenter needs a hammer to conduct his business. That does not mean that s/he should pay a subscription for a hammer. (I do understand that you never really own a piece of software, but get a license that allows you to use it, but this does not change the fundamental fact that the move to a subscription model changes the cost structure and is far from "wonderful" for the user. I have written books, and I have made money from them, but I would not consider it fair if my readers were all at once forced to pay a subscription" for being able to continue to read them because there might be new editions in the future.

Software developers have, of course, the right to charge as much they want, or better: as much as the market will support. But I reserve the right to reject the subscription. You may call this a "subjective" reaction, but it is no more subjective than my (and anyone else's) decision to buy, say, a robotic vacuum cleaner.

That being said, I wish the developers of Ulysses all the luck in the world.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Ulysses Has Lost its Way

As you can read on Daring Fireball (

Max Seelemann, development lead for [Ulysses]:

Before getting into details, though, you should know that this switch was neither a quick decision, nor did we take it easily. We have been talking about it for over 2 years now. We’ve had uncountable discussions, and the topic came up at least once every month — yet we always postponed a decision. The sheer complexity and far reach of this change were too intimidating. I am not exaggerating in saying that this was the hardest decision in our whole time as professional software developers. After all, we have a system which currently works — after 14 years we are still around, Ulysses is still “a thing”, it’s even going better than ever before, and there are no immediate signs which hint at a change coming soon.

So why bother at all then? Well, we need a good way forward before we run into trouble. We want to make sure the app will be around for years and years to come. We want to heavily invest in its development, and this requires the right setting for our team, our families and our users. Writers want to rely on a professional tool that is constantly evolving, and we want to keep delivering just that.

This is a really thoughtful article, and I fully support their decision. I think subscription pricing is an excellent option for truly professional apps like Ulysses, particularly ones that are cross platform (Mac and iOS).

There are, of course, several other places, including the Ulysses Blog, to find out about this "improvement." I chose the one from Daring Fireball because Gruber thoughtlessly, albeit "fully," supports their decision without telling us why "subscription pricing is an excellent option for truly professional apps like Ulysses, particularly ones that are cross platform (Mac and iOS)." I don't think any: "truly professional app" (whatever that may be) should be based on the subscription model. I'll supply a reason when I hear one from Gruber.

As to the claim that subscription guarantees that the subscription model "will be around for years and years," I have my doubts. Good luck, but I will not subscribe (just as I did not subscribe to TextExpander)!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Thieves' Fondness for Philosophers

The Guardian reports: "At the London Review Bookshop, John Clegg reports a fondness for philosophers. “Our most-stolen authors, in order, are Baudrillard, Freud, Nietzsche, Graham Greene, Lacan, Camus, and whoever puts together the Wisden Almanack. The appetite for Greene (which seems to have died down a little now) was particularly surprising, but I suppose they identify with Pinkie,” said Clegg." I wouldn't have considered Greene a philosopher, but Baudrillard, Nietzsche, and Lacan surprising--especially as most of these thieves sell them again on "the internets" (and probably don't first read them).

Friday, June 23, 2017

Book of Books

I just read Pamela Paul's My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. From the blurb:
Imagine keeping a record of every book you’ve ever read. What would this reading trajectory say about you? With passion, humor, and insight, the editor of The New York Times Book Review shares the stories that have shaped her life.

Pamela Paul has kept a single book by her side for twenty-eight years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand, from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully removed from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk – reliable if frayed, anonymous-looking yet deeply personal. This book has a name: Bob.
I enjoyed the book, though I would have liked to find out even more about Bob and I would have been satisfied to know somewhat less about Pamela. But it is a package deal, I guess.

Her practice reminds me of Walter Benjamin who also had a book in which he listed every book he ever read in its entirety. I find the practice intriguing and have emulated it half-heartedly, as you can see here.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Outwiker 2.0

OutWiker is often advertised as a personal wiki. On the Web site you find: "OutWiker is designed to store notes in a tree. Such programs are called "outliner", personal wiki, or tree-like editors. OutWiker's main difference from the other similar programs is keeping the tree of notes in the form of directories on disk, and encouraging changing the base by external sources and programs." This is at the very least misleading. Outliners and tree-like editors fall into a different category from wikis.

This is not to say, of course, that a program may not fall into both categories. Wikidpad obviously does both. And you might think that OutWiker does so as well.

However, I do not think that it really is a wiki. My main reason is this: While OutWiker allows for internal links, they are really just file links enclosed in double square brackets, like this: "[[other page -> /Projects/Outwiker/Screenshots/Page Example - 21]]".[1] This is really cumbersome and has none of the advantages of wikilinks (or free links). Straight file links would have been preferable. You could probably simplify it with an AhK script, but it would still be much more complicated than it should be.

I like the idea that the entries are text files, and I find much of the wiki markup acceptable, but I cannot live with the way links are implemented. Perhaps others can ...

1. There are other ways of doing the link, but they are all overly complicated, and I could not get most of them to work (which may have had to do with the fact that I ran the program in Parallels).

How Many Books Do You Need To Be A "Bookhoarder."

This site on famous book hoarders implies that 1,000 books are enough. But Karl Lagerfeld--who woul have known?--owns 300,000 and Hannah Arendt 4,000.

I would have liked to know what kind of books Lagerfeld owns. I know the kind Hannah Arendt owned. My own "collection" is very close to Arendt's in number and kind.

Oh ... and the article has beautiful pictures of libraries.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jarte Plus 6 and Autohotkey

Jarte is a capable word processor based on the Wordpad engine. It has some interesting feature, and the plus version is especially useful (even though I have not used it as much as I might have because it does not do footnotes. The new version still does not do footnotes. However, it now tightly integrates Autohotkey. As they say, "AutoHotkey is general purpose scripting tool and can be used be used with any Windows program, including both Jarte and Jarte Plus. However, Jarte Plus provides special features
that allow you integrate your AutoHotkey scripts seamlessly into Jarte Plus. Specifically, Jarte Plus allows you to do the following:
  • AutoHotkey scripts can be assigned to custom shortcut keys.
  • AutoHotkey scripts can be assigned to custom Quick Bar buttons.
  • Jarte templates can include special tags that automatically run scripts when a new document is started from a template.
  • Jarte Plus provides special Jarte script helper functions that make it easier to write scripts for performing tasks in Jarte."
It's the use in templates that interests me most.

Another new and interesting feature is that Jarte now supports attaching note hyperlinks to selected text. When you hover the mouse cursor over the link, it displays a freeform text note. It does not quite replace a footnote function, but it is a beginning!

I will have to play with it some (and might report on my experience at some later date). If you are interested in the plus version, it will set you back $19.95. The basic version is still free.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Didion on Her Notebook

Joan Didion wrote a famous essay "On Keeping a Notebook
... the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day's events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about "shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed"? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this "E" depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?
In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry; instead I tell what some would call lies. "That's simply not true," the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. "The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn't that way at all." Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.
Notebooks are kept for many different purposes. Let's call Didion's notebook a "literary notebook," that is a resource for stories and essays. Insofar as I have kept and do keep notebooks, they have a different purpose: they are scholarly notebooks. I also tried (try) to keep "pointless entries" to a minimum, nor am I primarily interested in having "an accurate factual record of what I have been doing and thinking," but I try to avoid what Didion calls "lies." The distinction between "what happened" and what "might have happened" matters for my purposes, even if (or perhaps just because) it is difficult.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Can Spiderwebs Think?

The idea of "thinking spiderwebs" is suggested by the title of an article: The Thoughts of a Spiderweb. Based on an article in Animal Cognition, they suggest that some spider webs are "at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system." This, it is further suggest: "would make the web a model example of extended cognition, an idea first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998 to apply to human thought. In accounts of extended cognition, processes like checking a grocery list or rearranging Scrabble tiles in a tray are close enough to memory-retrieval or problem-solving tasks that happen entirely inside the brain that proponents argue they are actually part of a single, larger, 'extended' mind." Apart from the fact that the idea of an "extended mind" or "extended memory" does not originate with Clark and Chalmers, it is also questionable whether talk of "thoughts" is appropriate with regard to spiders, let alone with regard to their webs.

The author of the article knows these criticisms and suggests that we "more traditional theorists label these structures and spiderwebs alike as extended phenotypes, a term proposed by Richard Dawkins. Extended phenotypes are information from an animal’s genes that they express in the world. For example, bird nests are objects that are somehow encoded in the avian genome. And as with niche construction, natural selection affects the structure — different kinds of birds have evolved to build different kinds of nests, after all. But in the extended phenotype perspective, that selection ultimately just works inward, to tweak the controlling information in the animal’s genome."

I would put in my lot with the more traditional theorists, but I tend to agree with the critics who say "the only really strong case is the one with the most metaphysical baggage: us. “It is conceivable for cognition to be a property of a system with integrated nonbiological components.” I also agree that seems to be "where Homo sapiens is headed” or rather has been heading in this direction for a long time.

Luhmann's idea of "communicating" with Zettelkästen that has pre-occuupied this blog since its beginning is certainly one iteration of this idea.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Uploading and Dowloading Thoughts

Elon Musk's new company "Neuralink is pursuing what Musk calls the "neural lace" technology, implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts, the Wall Street Journal reported." This is interesting, if only because it presupposes a rather naïve view of what thoughts are, namely that they are discrete (software) objects or data structures "in the brain" that can be manipulated in the way in which any digital information can be manipulated.

Biologically speaking, thoughts may well be described as neurons firing together in certain patterns with certain brains. And there may be different patterns for the "same" thought in different brains. These patterns may be more dependent on independent external objects than this view suggests. As Howard Rheingold suggested "[T]he human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right. All the components in the system play an active causal role, and they jointly govern behavior in the same sort of way that cognition usually does. If we remove the external component the system’s behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain. Our thesis is that this sort of coupled process counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head."

This may mean that notes on paper or the computer are at least as important for "uploading" or "downloading" thoughts than what's in the brain. I am sure this will be figured out eventually.

Just a thought!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Read Today

I read about Gaussian processes today on Wired: "deep neural networks" and "Gaussian processes". The following quote caught my attention: "Gaussian processes are a good way of identifying uncertainty. 'Knowing that you don’t know is a very good thing,' says Chris Williams, a University of Edinburgh AI researcher who co-wrote the definitive book on Gaussian processes and machine learning. 'Making a confident error is the worst thing you can do.'"

This is obviously also very important for note-taking. Any relevance to recent political developments is, of course, purely accidental.

Back Links

Back links are a standard Wiki Technology. A list of back links is the same as the list of all pages that refer to the page you are viewing. This makes the navigation in the Wiki much easier. See here.

There are quite a few "wiki" apps that do not have this capability.[1]

1. See previous post (plus comments).

Saturday, January 28, 2017


Bear is a relatively new application. It seems to be very popular.

I have fooled around with the desktop application, but I have no real need for the iPhone and iPad apps at this time. This might be the reason why I find it less than compelling.

It has a clean interface, and I like it. Whether it is "beautiful," as they claim, I do not know. To me, it looks like many other note-taking apps on the Mac.

They claim: "Link notes to each other to build a body of work. Use hashtags to organize for the way you think. All notes are stored in portable plain text. Yes, it allows you to link notes--very much the way that nvAlt allows you to do it: You enclose words in double brackets, and if those words correspond to a note title, it links to the note. This looks like a wiki-link, but it has only some of the characteristics of a wiki-link. Chhange the title of the note and the link is broken. No back links either.

Bear supports its own version of Markdown and has a "Markdown compatibility" mode. It handles pictures very well, and it also exports to PDF and Word, and it has many other interesting and useful functions. It is a good applications. I recommend it, but I myself would have liked a stronger linking capability.

I would very much like to see something like "ConnectedText for Windows," and I had some hopes "Bear" might be it. But it isn't. To be sure, this is a very esoteric expectation, but I cannot help myself.

If you would like to see a more thorough review of Bear, see here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

20,000 Notes in Evernote

It appears that Evernote can handle 20,000 notes with relative ease. That is good to know, even if I don't use Evernote extensively. I am very worried about putting that much trust into an online system that is under someone else's control.

Still, it is interesting that it can be used as a heavy-duty note-taking system.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Searle on Writing

Writing "has enormous meta-cognitive implications. The power is this: That you cannot only think in ways that you could not possibly think if you did not have the written word, but you can now think about the thinking that you do with the written word. There is danger in this, and the danger is that the enormous expressive and self-referential capacities of the written word, that is, the capacities to keep referring to referring to referring, will reach a point where you lose contact with the real world." (Interview)

I'd prefer to aay "can reach" a point where you lose contact with reality. But that does not indicate deep disagreement.

Monday, January 9, 2017

OneNote Links

OneNote is another application I don't use much. In fact, I have never really used the latest Windows version. But my last post motivated me to try and see what happens when I rename the target of wiki links in this application. Anyone who really uses OneNote probably knows the answer: The referring link does not get changed when you rename the target, but the link does not break (as it does in TiddlyWiki. So [[xyz]] continues to link to "xyz" even when it is called "abc". I suppose that is better than TiddlyWiki, but I think it would be better still if "[[xyz]]" became "[[abc]]".

I would find the behavior disconcerting in the long run. But that may just be a sign of my limitations.

A TiddlyWiki Limitation

When you talk about a personal wiki in any context, it does not take long for someone to mention "TiddlyWiki" as one of the best and most useful implementations of this concept. I have never had any serious reason to doubt such claims, even though I personally never took to any kind of TiddlyWiki because they seemed to "busy" to me. That's very subjective, I know. I was also worried by the fact that TiddlyWikis usually consist of just one file that needs to be opened in a browser. I am told that this does not present a big problem, as even large files can be navigated quickly, but it was a worry.

In any case, neither one of these would have been the biggest worry. I found out today that a TiddlyWiki does not keep track of all the tiddlers that refer to a renamed tiddler. Renaming a tiddler breaks all the links.[1] But, one of the most important things of any wiki-like application for me is just this: the application keeps track of everything that links to a particular topic or entry, and I do not have to worry at all about what happens when I rename it. This seems to me an essential part of any "wiki." I am glad, therefore, that I never seriously tried to make TiddlyWiki work for me. I also think that anyone thinking about adopting TiddlyWiki should seriously think about this. Can you imagine what happens in a wiki with more than 10,000 entries, if you have to keep track of such changes.[2]

1., for instance.
2. Nor does this seem to be a superficial and easily fixed problem. I suppose it will eventually be solved ... but as far as I can tell, it hasn't so far.