Thursday, December 20, 2018

It Needs Wiki-Like Superpower

Tim King in a post on note-taking makes the following observation:
If there is one feature that excels above all others in information software of the past two decades that deserves its place in the note taking pantheon, its the humble double bracketed internal link.

We all recognise power to store and retrieve information at will, but when you combine this power with the ability to successfully create new knowledge trees from existing documents, to follow thoughts in a ‘stream of consciousness’ non-linear fashion then individual notes transform from multiple static word-silos into a living information system system.

Sadly, this is the one major feature that is always neglected, or is piecemeal at best… and one time note taking king Evernote is to blame.

Evernote had long been the gold standard of note taking, flexible, functional and best of all affordable. While its user interface was a little odd at times, the features were excellent, but they made the simple mistake of not enabling wiki style internal links. Instead, they required a user to copy a note link from one note and paste it into another.

This is a trend that other note taking software developers have seemingly taken to heart as quite a number of top-tier apps now emulate this somewhat novel but far from useful feature.

While this seems to give the same end result, it doesn’t achieve the effect that Ward Cunningham intended when he began to develop some of the first Wiki Software.

Cunningham first developed the ability to automatically create internal links (read: new notes) when typing text in CamelCase. This meant you could easily be typing a sentence while describing a piece of information and simply type a word (or series of words) in CamelCase which would create a link to another piece of information (even if its page hadn’t already been created).

This was quickly superseded by the double square bracket links most wiki’s use today to achieve the same results, and its the staple creation method in both wiki’s and other premier information systems today.

Quickly typing in double square brackets [[ This would be a link ]] lets you get on with the text you’re currently typing, while also recognising another important subject you also want to write about later. Clicking on the resultant link creates and visits a new document to which you can immediately add information.

The only piece of note taking software on the market that currently supports this feature (that I’m aware of) is Microsoft OneNote.

If I could have only one note taking wish fulfilled is that this wiki-like feature be first on the minds of developers, copying a note link and pasting it in just doesn’t cut it. (I’m staring at you Ulysses, Bear, and Apple Notes devs.)

I couldn't agree more with this observation. He seems to be on the Mac and is therefore excused for not knowing ConnectedText.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

George Steiner on Readers and Intellectuals

George Steiner said abbout Chardin's "Le Philosophe Lisant":
He has his pen next to his reading. Serious reading means you read with a pen. What do you do with a pen? You underline, you take notes on the page, you write around the margin. What are you really doing? You are in dialog with the book, you are answering it, you are speaking to it, and if you are very arrogant and very ambitious, you are saying secretly, you can write a better one. And that is the beginning of a certain relationship of passionate joy and love with the text.
He defined an intellectual as "quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book." I like it, even if it is a bit simple-minded.[1]

2. See George Steiner, No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995 (New Haven: Yale U Press, 1996), p. 8. For an interesting take on pencils, see here.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Pen, Pencil, Typewriter, or Computer

John Gardner once said that the question he was most often asked by beginning writers was what tools he used: pen, pencil, or typewriter, and he said that this question has no right answer and is also a question that should not be answered at all. For more on this, see Austin Kleon who does not seem to be able to resist the urge to answer.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Linking Textfiles with Backlinks

Here is a very simple AhK script that opens up or creates text files from their names in a file. It also inserts a back link to the file from which it is created.

^+o:: ;link text files in D:\Texts

SetWorkingDir, D:\Texts

WinGetTitle, Title, A
StringReplace, Title, Title, - Notepad, , All

clpboard =
Send, ^c
thefilename := clipboard

IfExist, %thefilename%
run %thefilename%
IfNotExist, %thefilename%
FileAppend, %thefilename%, %thefilename%
run %thefilename%
sleep, 500
Send {End}`r`n%Title%{Up}

Just select the entire file name, like "start.txt" or "start.rtf", and press ^+o.

You can, of course change the hotkey as well as the directory. It should also work with other file types, as long as they are registered in Windows. The script is not a wiki, of course, but its linking behavior comes close. If you use a rtf files, you have other markup as well. In fact, it is a very rudimentary wysiwyg wiki.

Postscript, Friday, November 16, 2018 at 20:29: I tried a slightly changed version of the script (different hotkey, different directory, changed StringReplace in line 4) with Jarte. It worked, but not reliably, that is, not always. Every once in a while it would not launch the file selected (even though it had done so before) In one sense that does not bother me, as I am more interested in connecting text files. What bothers me is that I cannot explain why Jarte and rtf files don't always work.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Sign of the Times?

TrunkNotes is being discontinued, as I just found out. The author of the program openly states his reasons in his blog post:
Trunk Notes has been in development since 2009 and unfortunately it has come time to say goodbye. Revenue from Trunk Notes in the past couple of years has been very low. The interest in personal wikis, especially when lacking a companion web or desktop app, just isn’t high enough to generate the sales needed for further development. To give an idea of monthly income from Trunk Notes - it is equivalent to about one hour worked on projects for clients. The lack of competitor personal wikis on the App Store is a very clear indication that not many people are looking for one.
I am sorry that he could not make a go of it. I am even more sorry because he seems to be right. The interest in personal wikis, while never really as enthusiastic as I would have wished, definitely has diminished over the last few years. "[N]ot many people are looking for one."

In my view, many people unfortunately don't know what they are missing. In any case, I continue to find personal wikis—and especially ConnectedText—most useful, but I obviously am in a fairly small minority—or so it seems. Too bad! I just hope that ConnectedText will continue to work for a long time.

Recently, in the spirit of "future-proofing," I have been playing around with personal wikis based on text files. LoneWiki is the winner in this department. It takes 15,000 entries exported from ConnectedText without the slightest problems, and while it is missing many of the functions of ConnectedText, it has enough of them to make me happy. To be sure, I am not using it as a replacement as of now, but it is good to know that it will be there, should it ever become necessary.

Saturday, September 15, 2018


wik, a wiki in a browser.

No further comment!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Popper on Writing and Objective Knowledge

Sir Karl Popper made a sharp distinction between subjective and objective knowledge. Subjective knowledge is, he thought, deficient. It is expressive of our concrete mental dispositions and expectations; it consists of concrete world 2 thought processes. Objective knowledge is far superior. But how do we get from subjective to objective knowledge?

Popper believed that objective knowledge comes about by writing ideas down:
Putting your ideas into words, or better, writing them down makes an important difference. For in this way they become criticisable, Before this, they were part of ourselves. We may have had doubts. But we could not criticize them in the way in which we criticize a linguistically formulated proposition or, better still, a written report. Thus there is at least one important sense of "knowledge"—the sense of "linguistically formulated theories submitted to criticism." It is what I call "knowledge in the objective sense". Scientific knowledge belongs to it. It is knowledge which is stored in our libraries rather than in our heads.[1]
Knowledge stored in libraries and in our notes is much more important than knowledge stored in our heads; it leads to the growth of knowledge in the objective sense of the word because it allows of and enables serious criticism. That is one of the reason why I consider it so important to take notes.

1. See Bryan Magee, Modern British Philosophy. Dialogues with A.J. Ayers, Stuart Hampshire, Alisdair MacIntyre, Alan Montefiore, David Pears, Karl Popper, Anthony Quinton, Gilbert Ryle, Ninian Smart, Peter Strawson, Geoffrey Warnock, Bernard Williams, Richard Wollheim. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1971), p. 74.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

One Notecard at a Time

How I Wrote My Memoir One Notecard at a Time is an intersting account by Melissa Stephenson of how she wrotee Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back.

It's an interesting account, not a new approach. Still ...

Friday, June 22, 2018

Reading versus Writing

I noticed this claim today in Christian Tietze's blog:
Some software nudges you, sometimes even pushes you, towards system design decisions. Take Wikis as an example. Most of them have two different modes:
  • The reading mode.
  • The editing mode.
The reading mode is the default. But most of the time you should create, edit and re-edit the content. This default, this separation of reading and editing, is a small but significant barrier on producing content. You will behave differently. This is one reason I don’t like wikis for knowledge work. They are clumsy and work better for different purposes.
This is, unless I am very much mistaken, a subjective reaction not an objective observation. It isn't my experience, in any case.
  1. "The reading mode is the default." There may be some wikis that make reading mode the default. The personal wiki I chose, ConnectedText, let's you decide whether you want to always view topics in view mode. I did not turn on that option. But even if I had, hitting Alt-E for edit (or getting out of edit) is automatic. There is no barrier in my experience.
  2. {Wikis] "are clumsy." Not my experience either. On the contrary, I find the separation between topic names and topic identifiers that is a basic feature of The Archive much motre clumsy. It may be true that "to create links between notes" in an application like nvALT, "you need to define how to target a note first. One response is to use file names. If you want clickable links the full path to the note could be used. However this is a fragile solution. It breaks when file names change or the location of the file changes. A better answer is to use an unique ID for each file. The Archive uses a timestamp ID. These timestamp IDs are by definition unique" (from a review). In a real wiki, the program keeps track of name changes for you.

I do not want to knock The Archive: to each his or her own. I would find the opaque first layer a much larger problem.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

CintaNotes, One Last Time?

I recently downloaded a free version of CintaNotes, just because it appeals to me on so many levels. When I activated Simplenote synchronization, almost 11,000 notes appeared in it. And I can testify that it has absolutely no problem dealing with that many notes.

The notes must have come from previous nvAlt adventures with my ConnectedText exports. I thought I had deleted them, but I must not have. So they did show up in CintaNotes. However, the joy did not last long, as I managed to hose the database by trying to do massive changes to entries, using a keyboard macro program.

In any case, I would suggest that the author of the program look more deeply into SimpleNote synchronization for getting stuff into CintaNotes. The only reason someone like me cannot use it as a serious alternative is that I have many electronic notes that I cannot import into the program's database. (Nor will it be possioble to export them in a format usable in another program.)[1]

1. Export also may be a major problem with TiddlyWiki, but I was still not able to test it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Review of InfoQube

Paul J. Miller has written a real review of Infoqube. It's the first one I have read, and it is well worth reading.

Did it make me want to go out and try the program? No, and that even though I liked Ecco (which it tried to emulate and expand on). The reason is that I have come to believe that outlines are not the best way to store long-term information, and that I therefore like better a hypertextual approach (say wiki).

But I admit that not everyone will feel that way and that there are some that will brave the steep learning curve of InfoQube. I am too old for it.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Notebooks in The Guardian

There is today on interesting post in The Guardian on the notebooks of Henry James, Paul Theroux, Susie Boyt and Amit Chaudhuri. Two quotes stand out for me, one by Henry James, the other by Paul Theroux.

James found "the only balm and the only refuge, the real solution of the pressing question of life, are in this frequent, fruitful, intimate battle with the particular idea, with the subject, the possibility, the place.” And thus found his notebook almost a necessity of life.

Theroux claims: "Note-taking is not just a method for remembering. It is a way a writer tells himself, or herself, a story – and this becomes a process of life, a mode of being. Writers are constantly talking to themselves."

I find myself in my own practice closer to to Henry James. My notes do not tell a story to me—at least not directly—but then I am not a "writer", even though I write daily.

The Archive

I have more or less given up on the Mac. The Mac Mini will probably not be updated again, and running ConnectedText on Parallels became more and more difficult. (More precisely Parallels became more difficult. Every time my Internet connection broke, Parallels would not start. I eventually got it to work, but I never understood what it was that made it work. My best guess, it had to do with the keychain function of OSX). But whatever may have been the reason, I now use a NUC7i5BNK with 8 GB of memory and Windows 10 (64 bits) and have no problems.

I can still run the Mac mini I have (It's hooked up to the same monitor as the NUC), but I rarely do. Therefore, I have not tried The Archive and I cannot review it myself. But there is a very informative review on Welcome to Iherwood. As far as I can see, the most important feature of The Archive is
The Archive will automatically set a unique number to each note you create in the format of yearmonthdayhourminute that the note was first made. Call that the note ID. You can append a note title to provide a clue as to the content of the note. Together those will make up the file name of the note — each note is saved as a separate plain text file in the designated folder.
As people who regularly read this blog know, I think the unique number is superfluous in modern database systems. I use direct links to entries (in ConnectedText). Luhmann who used unique numbers in his paper-based system, thought the numbers were in themselves beneficial because they allowed for branching and continuation of notes.[1] He may have been right, but the simple unique numbering of the Archive does not seem to allow for this—unless there is something I miss.

It is, by the way, fairly easy to furnish a program like ConnectedText with this capability through AtoHotkey. I think that some users have adopted "yearmonthdayhourminutesecond for this purpose (to allow for notes that are only seconds apart).

As I said, I don't find I need it, but I understand that different people have different needs.

I recommend the review.[2] And, on the base of it, the program (as long as you understand what you get into.[3]

1. See also Different Kinds of Links on this blog.
2. One nitpick: Luhmann did not "invent" or "develop" the slipbox. He only developed a numbering system for the notes (that is most certainly intriguing.
3. But see also the newest post (on the three layer structure of notes in: The Archive. "My archive became opaque like the sea: You can see a couple inches into the deep but you know there is much more that you can’t access. You can dive deep, but still you just see a couple of inches at any time. Therefore, I thought of it in terms of unexplored territory for which I need mapping methods and such." It would be my claim that direct links to topic names would be less opaque, even though it also benefits from structural notes.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

From ConnectedText to Zim?

It is always good to look for alternatives—or so it seems to me. I have been exclusively using ConnectedText for my notes since 2005. Recently, there have been rumors that ConnectedText won't be updated in the future, and some of us were considering alternatives to ConnectedText. It seems that these rumors are not correct. Connectedtext may be in "maintainance mode, but it will be updated as needed.

Still, I wanted to see what other options there are. So, I tried to determine whether and how compatible ConnectedText's files are with Zim. I had considered it before, but I decided to give it another chance. (I will never give Wikidpad another chance, as I found it highly unreliable, even if it was quite easy to change its markup to something closer to that of ConnectedText [see here for a start]).

I was able to transfer more than 11,000 ConnectedText topics into Zim. I used ConnectedText's backup files (*.cbk) and transformed them with the first AhK script I made (i.e. I gave the entries more friendly titles).[1] I did not use the second script (to remove the first line with "#CT#" as that produced files Zim had difficulties recognizing. (May have to do with UTF-8, but I don't know. I then cleaned up the text files with fnr.exe ( (Find & Replace Tool). But be careful, it's easy to make mistakes that spoil the files.

The titles of Zim's text files do not allow spaces. I used Advanced Renamer to replace the spaces by underscores (see I probably could have done all this with AhK, but was to lazy. You should also note that Zim is very fussy about what character it recognizes in titles. It does not recognize question mark, for instance. And a bracket at the beginning of a file name does not get recognized (so you have to remove brackets in topics like (Kuehn 2002) which I extensively use in ConnectedText for bibliographical entries.

The resulting files work, as Zim uses text files, not a database. But there are some problems:
  1. the load time is about 3 minutes on my system (off a SSD with 500MB per second transfer time). After that, it is reasonably fast in loading pages, etc.
  2. every time you change the underlying text files, it needs to re-index which can take up to 20 minutes
  3. many of ConnectedText's more advanced functions are not available
  4. I did not succeed in transferring pictures automatically
  5. it's impossible to print directly from Zim. You can only print to your browser
  6. I don't like that I have to use underscores in naming pages

Zim is clearly is not a good replacement for ConnectedText, but it is a replacement, if such is needed. It would do. in a pinch, and some of the plugins might provide more functionality that I can use. But for now and the foreseeable future, I will stick with ConnectedText. (See also my Reassurance.)

The transfer took about half a day to accomplish (and is still a work in progress, as I discover new things that need to be changed, like properties I had forgotten).

The other thing I recommend as a limited replacement for ConnectedText are Notetab outlines. They also work and are much faster. But they have even fewer features. I have written about them before as well (on this blog; just search for notetab). I use them as another "backup" for ConnectedText, that is, I create yearly files, like "Notes 2016.otl", "Notes 2017.otl", etc.

1. For the scripts, see here.
2. I first published this on the ConnectedText Forum, but I thought even people who don't frequent it, might have a passing interest.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Umberto Eco's Library

Here a video of Umberto Eco taking a walk through his private library. I can only wish ...

Monday, February 12, 2018

Luhmann's Alternative to the Zettelkasten

I recently bought to volumes of late Luhmann interviews, namely Niklas Luhmann, Archimedes und wir (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1987) and Wolfgang Hagen, ed. Warum haben Sie keinen Fernseher, Herr Lumann? Letzte Gespräche mit Niklas Luhmann (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2004). In the latter volume, in the interview with Wolfgang Hagen, entitled "Die Ralität der Massenmedien" (pp. 79-107), Luhmann reveals that he has an alternative to the Zettelkasten. Hagen notess: "[The Zettelkasten] is, so to speak, the basis of your work. If it were taken from you, then it [your work, that is] would be difficult. Luhmann answers:
Yes, it would be difficult. But I now have an alternative, namely half-finished book manuscripts which are found in boxes under the desk, and then I can of course ... When I discover something somehow interesting for "sovereignty," I can write it directly into the manuscript where "state" and "soverignty" is discusse.
It is interesting to ask how different this alternative really is, since you could also look at the Zettelkasten as a collection consisting of manuscripts that are in varying degrees unfinished.

Luhmann would not be the only one with such Zettelmanuskripts. Nabokov and Arno Scmidt used such a method as well.

In this incarnation, Luhmann technique is perhaps closer to working with Scrivener or Ulysses.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Different Kinds of Links

My own implementation of a Zettelkasten does not make a distinction between continuing topics (or weiterführende Zettel) and branching ones (also called ergänzende Zettel). I did not think that this was important for two reasons
1. an electronic topic or Zettel can be as long as I want it to be, and
2. it does not seem to be really important for the praxis of taking note to differentiate between supplementation or branching and linear continuation. For one thing, you can always add new stuff to any particular topic as you need to. No acrobatics in numbering seem necessary. And linear sequence is in some sense just as much a link as is branching off. [[Kladde|Heft]]

But what if I wanted to make such a distinction between different sequences? It is, of course possible. Linear sequences can be indicated by either linking the end of one topic to the topic that follows. (You could use something like [[following topic|blah, blah, blah]]. You could, of course, also use the name of the topic followed by a number from 1 to n. And you could reserve textual links for branching topics.

There are other ways of doing this, as with properties, for instance.

The only question is whether it would be worth my while. I am not sure it is, but I am willing to be convinced that it is.[1]

1. Luhmann's numbering system represented, as it were, the exoskeleton of the Zettelkasten. A wiki database does not need it, as any entry in it represents a fixed location in a database. Textual implementations, like nvALT and other do not have this advantage. If you rename either the link or the linked item, the connection is broken. They might need an exoskeleton as well.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Zettelkasten Nonsense

Just read this, but won't give you the link because that would defeat the purpose. You can search for it, if you really want to see it. In any case, I found a blatant piece of distortion that MUST be based on complete ignorance about Luhmann's Zettelkasten:
Luhmann war ein sammelnder Denker und denkender Sammler. Er begann in den 1950er Jahren einen Zettelkasten aufzubauen, der zu einem rasant anwachsenden, dynamischen Katalog mit einem Register wurde. Mithilfe manövrierbarer Zettel setzte er unterschiedliche Begriffe, Theorien und historische Dokumente in Beziehung, verschob sie und arrangierte sie wieder neu. Am Ende umfasste der Kasten insgesamt 90.000 Zettel.
Luhmann's Kasten was not about moving and arranging topics. It was about giving them a fixed positions. Nor did Luhmann understand himself as a "mere" collector. Rather than being an unsystematic "collecting thinker and a thinking collector", he was a systems thinker—to say nothing about the "lightning fast" increase of the number of Zettel and the "historic documents" found among them. These fundamental mistake may make no difference to the advertisers of office equipment, but even a little research might have made a difference to accuracy.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

An Ordinary Zettlkasten

This is an ordinary commercial product for a Zettelksten (by Herlitz). It's nothing magical.

Nor is Luhmann's Zettelkasten magical. He wrote on Zettel 9/8,3: "Menschen kommen. Sie bekommen alles zu sehen, und nichts als das—wie beim Pornofilm. Und entsprechend ist die Enttäuschung." People come [to look at the Zettlkasten]. They get to see everything, and no more than that-just as in a pornographic movie. And they are equally disappointed.

On Zettel 9/8a2 he called the Zettelkasten "eine Klärgrube" or a "septic tank;" (perhaps even "cesspool"). Waste goes in, and gets separated from the clearer stuff.

Also Zettel 9/8i "Zettelkasten mit dem komplizierten Verdauungssystem eines Wiederkäuers. Alle arbiträren Einfälle, die Zufälle der Lektüre können eingebracht werden. Es entscheidet dann die interne Anschlussfähigkeit." Or: "The Zettelkasten [is] like the complicated digestive system of a ruminant animal. All arbitrary ideas, the accidents of reading can be brought in. What afterwards decides is their internal capability of connecting up."

See Luhmann Handbuch.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Card Index System

The card index system; its principles, uses, operation, and component parts is a 1911 book by one R. B. Byles on the advantages of card indexes for businesses. It's an interesting read, if you are interested in the history of this technology.

The Introduction starts with the claim that "[r]oughly speaking, the world is divided into two classes: those who use the Card Index System and those who do not." The short book is meant to convince those who do not use the system to change their minds.

Gershom Scholem's Zettelkasten

See also Guide to Using the Card Index and Gershom Scholem's Milon HaZohar Card Index – Yehuda Liebes. We are told that "[t]he notes are in the form of white cards, which Scholem stored in impeccable order in a long narrow wooden drawer that fit them perfectly, in his impressive writing desk (which today serves as the Scholem collections librarian's desk at the National Library)." It would be nice to know the format of the "cards" or, perhaps better, "slips."

It is more than likely that he learned this technique before he changed "Gerhard" to "Gershom."

Friday, January 19, 2018

Lesage's Notes on Playing Cards

Georges-Louis Lesage (1724-1803), like some of his contemporaries, took notes on play cards.[1] Here is one card:

Two other persons who used playing cards are Gibbon and Rousseau.

1. See here

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Luhmann's Zettelproblem

This photograph illustrates one of the limitations of a paper-based Zettelkasten. You could say it illustrates only the problems created by a cheapskate like Luhmann. For more on this, see Luhmann's Frugality.