Sunday, December 30, 2007

What we Remember

I bought today a book by Stefan Klein, called The Secret Pulse of Time. Making Sense of Life's Scarcest Commodity (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2007). It was first published in German in 2006 under the title Zeit. Der Stoff, aus dem das Leben ist. Eine Gebrauchsanleitung, and it is a "good read." I especially like the way in which the author connects recent discoveries in neuroscience with more prosaic things, such as why some people are "morning persons" and others are not.

One of the things that seems to me important in the context of note-taking is his description of an experiment about memory the Dutch psychologist Willem Wagenaar conducted. Beginning in 1978, he would write down every evening one or two of the most interesting events he had experienced that day, using four index cards. On the first he recorded where the event had taken place, on the second when, on the third what kind of an event it was, and on the fourth who was with him. An example might be the consumption of a particularly good bottle of wine. "Six years later, he tested his memory," drawing one of the cards stating the nature of the event (like "enjoyed a good bottle wine"), and then tried to remember what was on the other cards (when, where, with whom). If he could not remember, he would draw a second card, and so on. It turned out that the cards stating the "What?" were most useful, though those with information on "Where?" and "Who?" were also useful. But the "When?" was "useless in every instance" (p. 116).

This seems to show to me that noting down the time at which one has made a note is not important, if we are worried about how best to remember some information. It would also seem to mean that the temporal order of notes, as it would naturally be found in a Notebook or Journal, is not the most effective way to organize information for later recall. Systematic connections of the material seem to be far superior. This is why a hypertextual system, like a personal wiki, might in fact be the best and most "natural" way to store one's notes.

This does not, of course, mean that it is unimportant to store the time when the note was taken. On the contrary, because this is something that we are most likely to forget, a good Note-taking system should record the time when the note was taken, just because this might become important at a later time. Automatic recording of time and any eventual changes might be best, and this is where a program like ConnectedText excels, keeping an automatic record as to when any note was created and revised, allowing you to reconstruct when you took what note or conceived of which idea.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

AutoHotKey

The best Keyboard Automator, Application Launcher, and Script Language for daily use is AutoHotKey:

AutoHotkey Home Page

It will make your note-taking life easier.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Critique of Zettelkästen

Karl Kraus, one of the cult figures of twentieth-century literature and criticism, wrote:

"Anyone who writes in order to display education (Bildung) must have memory; and then he is merely an ass. If he also uses the scientific disciplines or the card index (Zettelkasten), he is also a fraud" [Die Fackel , Heft 279-80 (1909)].

In this spirit he castigated Alexander Harden as "an enemy of the spirit that was fed by a small mind with a large card index," taking up what appears to have been a common criticism of the author, who because of his style that relied overly much on quotations [Die Fackel, Heft 360-62 (1912)]. In "Desperando or the Language of the Future," he rendered Harden's phrase "to dream of the teachings of ancient history under the sail of the sun" as "becoming sea-sick from a card index" [Die Fackel, Heft 251-2 (1908)]. And in his entries on Freiherr von Berger (Alfred von Berger), a friend and defender of Harden's, he accused him of naivité. Von Berger would explain the miraculous phenomenon of Harden's "apparently truly inexhaustible knowledge that he has whenever needed ready at hand" by "denying the existence of card indexes" altogether. While von Berger "never believed" in Harden's card index, the real question for Kraus was whether "Harden possesses anything apart from the card index, which he does not possess" [Die Fackel, Heft 311-12 (1910)]. And in another context, he sarcastically admitted that Harden might not have had an external card index, but that his brain was nothing but a card index. His mind had been reduced to the tool he did not use.

While Kraus was talking in the quoted passages about the use of index cards in the creation of literary texts, his contempt for the application of such an instrument seems to have been pervasive. It characterized for him a "specific" kind of memory that characterizes the "daily writer" (Tagschreiber) and consists "of names and sayings one has heard, of mis-heard [i.e. misunderstood] judgments and badly-read reports, of concepts and histories without context, of facts seen distortedly, of fifty fashionable expressions, and of the additional feature of one's own fragmentary knowledge (Fetzenwissen)" [Die Fackel, Heft 230-31 (July 15, 1907)]. Kraus believed that this kind of "jargonist knowledge" was favored by the schools of his time, which mistake true education with worthless memorial ballast and the knowledge of parakeets.

Kraus was neither the first nor the only thinker who criticized the card index in this way. In fact, it is one of the standard devices in criticizing scholarly books. If an author adduces too much documentation and does not reflect enough on the materials, he is likely to be criticized for having emptied his card index: The book reads like a dumped card index ("wie ein ausgeschütteter Zettelkasten"). My Doktorvater once criticized a book by saying that he could still see in the text where one 3x5 card ended and the other one began. It struck me as an appropriate - and devastating - criticism of the author.

Luhmann's books, for instance, are not completely free of this "feature" either. But someone's criticism is someone else's preference, just as some program's bugs become features of the program. Much of what passes for "non-linearity" in scholarly (and other kinds of) literature belongs here. We should be careful that we do not become our own tools.

My view: "non-linearity" may be good for note-taking process, but it is not good for the presentation of the material. And yes, I agree with Kraus, that a card index is a tool with inherent dangers. But the same may be said about any sharp instrument.

I could not have written this post without access to the electronic version of The Fackel by the Austrian Academy. See Die Fackel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Luhmann on Learning How to Read

There are not many books or articles that purport to teach critical reading. One of the more famous attempts is Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book of 1940, which is, perhaps too closely bound up with the "Great Books Program." There is a short description of the book here:

Wikipedia on Adler's How to Read a Book

There is also a very short (German) essay by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann of Zettelkasten-fame on reading. It seems to be intended as advice to beginning university students. since it contains some interesting observations, I would like to present his advice her in English:

Luhmann begins with the trite observation that "modern society produces very different sorts of text that require very different kinds of reading," and then differentiates between three main types. There are poetical, narrative, and theoretical (wissenschaftliche) texts. He is, of course, most interested in the last sort. Excluding those, which are composed in what he calls the "secret code" of mathematics or logical calculus, and concentrating on those written in more or less ordinary language, he finds that even scientists and scholars
must form sentences, if they want to publish. However, the degree of randomness in the choice of words that is necessary for this is unimaginable for most readers. The practitioners of science also fail to realize this most of the time. The largest part of the text could have been formulated differently. Indeed, it would have been different, if it had been formulated the next day. The mass of words that are fillers, necessary for forming sentences, escapes any conceptual control. Take for instance the word "escapes" in the previous sentence. This cannot be avoided even if we take the greatest care in differentiating and recognizing words that are laden with conceptual significance. They make up only a small part of the body of the text. And how is the reader to identify those words, which make the difference?

This problem takes an especially drastic form in two cases: those of translators and those of beginners. In any case, I noticed how much my writing is determined by accident when I considered these two groups of readers - and this in spite of the care I took in sustaining and refining theoretical connections ...

Beginners, especially beginning students, find themselves first confronted by a mass of words, arranged in sentences, which they can read sentence by sentence and can understand at the level of the sentences. But what is significant? How should one "learn"? What is important, what is merely secondary? After several pages of reading, one can hardly remember what one has read. What advice can be given here?

One possibility is to remember the names: Marx, Freud, Bourdieu, etc. Obviously most knowledge can be ordered by names, and eventually by the names of theories, like social phenomenology, theory of reception in literary criticism, etc. Beginnings [of texts] and introductory textbooks are organized that way. But what you don't learn in this way are the conceptual connections and especially the problems which the texts attempt to answer. Even candidates in the final exams at the end of their studies wish to be tested on Max Weber, or, if that's too much on Humberto Maturana, and they are prepared to tell you what they know of these authors.

Another possibility is to read much in certain areas ... theory of socialization, research on risk, etc. In this way, one develops gradually a feeling for what is already known or what is the status questionem in a field. Something new is thus noted. But this approach leads to learning things that will soon be obsolete and must be unlearned again. This, by the way, reveals the advantage of learning ancient languages. They don't have to be unlearned, they only need to be forgotten.


Luhmann then identifies long-term memory as most important problem in reading theoretical texts and as the necessary condition of the possibility of differentiating between "the essential and the unessential, the new and the mere repetition." Because we cannot remember everything, we must by highly selective [hochselektiv] in our reading and extract "widely networked references." We must take notes - not mere "excerpts, but condensed reformulations of the reading. The re-description of what has already been described leads almost automatically to the training of attentiveness to "frames" [English in the original], to schemata of observation, or to the conditions, which allow the text to offer some solutions, but not others. In doing this, it is advisable always to reflect also on what is not meant, what is excluded, when something is asserted." All this should be written down. And in this way, we may develop our own "system of notes" [Aufschreibsystem], which teaches us what is important to know and how to read.

This leads to another question: What do we do with what we have written down? We will certainly produce mostly garbage at the beginning, but since we have been trained to expect something useful from our activities ... we should ask ourselves whether and how we transform our notes in such a way that they will be available for later inspection ... this may at the least be envisaged as a comforting illusion. And this requires a computer or a slip box with numbered slips and a register of keywords. The continual "filing" [Unterbringen ] of the notes is a further step in our work that costs time, but it is an activity that goes beyond the mere monotony of reading, and incidentally it trains the memory.


So Luhmann's answer to the question of how we learn the reading of theoretical texts is that we need to be able to refer back to what we are already acquainted with, that is we need a long term memory, which of course does not spontaneously come into existence. "Perhaps, written reformulation [of what we read] is a suitable method."

This method to establish such a long term memory may lead to a system of notes that might be described as a secondary or external memory, something that has in other contexts been described as a "prosthetic extension of ourselves."

Based on Niklas Luhmann (2000) Short Cuts Herausgegeben von Peter Gente, Heidi Paris, Martin Weinmann. Zweitausendeins, Frankfurt/Main, pp. 150f.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Grafton on the Future of Reading

Anthony Grafton makes some predictions about the future of reading in the November 4th issue of the New Yorker, see

Grafton on Future Reading

He argues that the Google Book Search, billed as "a comprehensive index of all the books in the world," the Google Library Project, which is a collection of digitized books, and other efforts on the Internet, "will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience." He thinks that the admittedly rapid developments that are going on as read this, will not eradicate our need for "libraries and archives." Scholars will still have to visit them. "For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously." True, you can "sit in your local coffee shop, and your laptop can tell you a lot. If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path that leads between the lions and up the stairs."

I consider this to be a good thing. Like Jorge Luis Borges, I tend to think of paradise as "a kind of library."

I don't know whether Grafton's "narrow path" to "crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books" was designed to evoke that image.

What I do know is that the Internet and electronic libraries may seem to make note-taking easier, but that this will largely be just an appearance. Serious reading will require just as much effort as it has always required. It's just that the obstacles and opportunities will shift.


See also

Adventures in Wonderland

and

Digitization in History

Monday, December 24, 2007

Seneca on Gathering Ideas

Seneca gives an account of his ideas about note-taking in the 84th letter to Luculius ("On Gathering Ideas"). [1]

The letter starts from what "men say" (ut aiunt), namely that we should imitate the bees in reading. As they produce honey from the flowers they visit and then "assort in their cells all that they have brought in" (277), so we should, Seneca himself says "sift (separare) whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading" because things keep better in isolation from one another.

He goes on to say that this is in his view only the first step in what is essentially a two-step process. The second step consists in compounding the separate "flavors" into a new delicious blend (279). "We must digest it, otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power" (281). In fact, what "our mind" should do is to "hide away all the materials by which it has been aided, and bring to light only what it has made of them" (281). And: "I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, and many precepts and patterns of conduct, taken from many epochs of history; but all should be blended into one" (283). This can be brought about only by "constant effort" and "by doing nothing without the approval of reason" (283).

While the analogy between knowledge, food, and digestion, would have struck Plato as abominable, because he thought that it was only Sophists that should be compared with cooks and bakers in catering to the merely sensual appetites, it is not unusual. Francis Bacon, for instance, thought that "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." But be that as it may, what is more important for Seneca's idea of note-taking is that we should

  • first collect and "separate, treat apart or separately" what we take note of - for, I think these would be better translations of "separare" than "sift" - and then store these bits in separate cells or compartments,

  • and secondly reconstitute the information in a form that is, if not entirely, then to a large extent, our own.

There are shades here of the distinction between analysis and synthesis that is so characteristic of modern science and philosophy (Galileo and Descartes, for instance). There are also affinities with Luhmann's idea of constructive fragmentation or the approach of reducing a problem or theory into (its?) parts in order to build up another complex structure. Note-taking belongs to this analytic step. And while Seneca assigns this step to memory alone, I would argue that it, just as the second step, cannot be done without the guidance of reason either. In fact, it is a preparation of the second step, which is in many ways dependent on the first. The passage is also important for understanding the tradition of keeping notes in commonplace books (about which I hope to say more in a future post).

Seneca's account of note-taking shows that he was an eclectic, i.e. someone who thought that one should not cling uncritically to a single school and its assumptions, but that one should instead draw upon as many theories, styles, and ideas as possible, with the hope that this leads to deeper insights into the problems that we all face. He was a Stoic, but he was the first to admit that he learned much from other schools, perhaps most importantly the Epicureans.

It is also clear that this eclecticism was for him not just a theoretical concern, but a way of life. His way of note-taking also characterizes his way of living. Reading and writing are not just two activities among many, they are central concerns. Thus he reads because it is "indispensable" for two reasons:

  1. "to keep [him] from being satisfied with himself alone," and

  2. "to enable [him] to pass judgment" on the discoveries of others" and to "reflect on discoveries that remain to be made" (277).

Reading "refreshes," but it must lead to writing. Neither activity should be pursued at the exclusion of the other. "Continuous writing will cast gloom over our strength, and exhaust it," while continuous reading "will make our strength watery and flabby. It is better to have recourse to them alternately, and to blend one with the other, so that the fruits of one's reading may be reduced to the concrete form by the pen" (277).

While I could do without the "flowery" details - no pun intended - I agree with Seneca for the most part.

[1] I have used the following text: Seneca (2006) Epistles 66-92. With an English translation by Richard G. Gummere. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library), 277-285.

Fifty Ways to Take Notes (Online)

I am not sure whether the benefits of keeping notes online outweigh the (security) risks, but it seems to be a popular way of doing things these days. Here are two interesting posts about some of the better ones:

Fifty Ways to Take Notes

Web Applications for Students

Personally, I prefer to keep my notes behind the security of a firewall on a Personal Wiki (in particular, in Connectedtext). For other versions of Personal Wikis, see:

Personal Wiki

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Planning for Unexpected Discoveries

Much is being made of "serendipity" these days. While the term has many meanings, at its core it seems to refer to the phenomenon of accidentally discovering something fortunate while looking for something entirely different. This appears to be the same phenomenon that causes some to describe their application or note-taking system as an intelligent partner. See the first entry in this blog, for instance:

Luhmann's Zettekasten

Because I would like to understand this phenomenon better, I recently read the following book, which promises a discussion of this phenomenon from a sociological point of view:

Merton, Robert King and Barber, Elinor (2004) The Travels And Adventures Of Serendipity : A Study In Sociological Semantics And The Sociology Of Science Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2004

However, the book offers less a discussion of the phenomenon and more a historical account of the vicissitudes of an invented word. After along discussion of the history of the conceptual history of "serendipity" from the time of its invention by Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century - which I found rather unexciting - Merton introduces some interesting notes and discussions of the true role of serendipity in science. Thus he discusses the relation of planning and research in a most interesting way. 1

Relying on the discussion of some scientists employed by laboratories in industry, he comes to the conclusion that the "art of profiting from the unexpected, then, that art, to return to Poe's phrase, of 'calculating upon the unforeseen,' is an art of general planning. The scientist lays out a general area of problems in which he is interested, but he stays clear of formulating specific problems too far in advance. One thing leads to another, and who can tell what will turn up in advance. It is foolish as well as presumptuous to make precise plans for future plans. ... The crowning reward of general planning is that it will preserve a freedom of inquiry, a freedom of opportunity, that it is not only rational and efficient, but is also a part of a good way of life" (192).

He also quotes another scientist, who speaks of "controlled sloppiness" as a principle that "permits the occurrence of fruitful accidents", tracing this idea to the fact that scientific work is never without loose ends and that in the absence of a rigid plan it is possible to pay attention to the untidy ends, which ultimately "may turn out to be of considerable importance." Indeed, "compulsive tidiness in experimentation" may be even more crippling than in other areas of life (193).

I would agree that this is at the root of the phenomenon of fortuitous and unexpected discoveries, namely that in our research we must formulate a "general plan" but refrain from defining the specific problems in advance. It is, in fact, important that we do not decide ahead of time what the outcome or result of inquiries must be. We leave this open, and organize our research without any preconceived systematic idea or classify the data in a rigid way. This is precisely what Luhmann's Zettelkasten method does. It does not super-impose an a priori systematic order on the observations and excerpts made in the course of one's research, leaving as much as possible open the possibility of viewing the information in all kinds of different contexts.

Merton also adduces an observation by Herbert Butterfield to the effect that of "all forms of mental activity the most difficult to induce ... is the art of handling the same bundle of data as before, but placing them in a new system of relations with one another by giving them a different framework, all of which virtually means putting on a different thinking-cap" (265). If this is true - and I think it is true (at least to some extent) - then the way we organize or plan our research is indeed much more important than most scholars and researchers think. It is therefore also more important to reflect on such a mundane thing as taking notes.

[1] This all has to do with for Merton with what he identified in 1948 as the " serendipity pattern," which, he thinks, "refers to the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory" (196). By the way, I would be very surprised, if someone like Luhmann (or his partner in communication) had not taken notice of this presumed pattern and found that it was important for his own purposes. Asking himself whether such an approach makes discovery the product of mere chance, he argues that "the real problem ... [concerns] the generation of chances with a sufficiently increased [verdichteten] probability of their actual selection." That is, we have to plan for the possibility fortuitous discoveries.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Neo Alphasmart


I am using a Neo Alphasmart for Notetaking in the library and on the train. Why?

It is Affordable. At $219, it's only a fraction of the cost of a standard laptop (though one might argue it is still a bit pricey).

It is Flexible. I can send text directly to a PC, Mac, or USB printer by USB cable.

It has incredible battery life. Up to 700 hours on 3 alkaline batteries, or up to 300 hours using the rechargeable battery option. The last set of batteries lasted almost a year!

It is simple. Instant on/off, autosave, one-touch file access keeps you on task. I especially like the instant on/off. No boot-up, no waiting, just start writing. And nothing to distract you. No Web-Access, no games.

It is small. About half the size of a normal laptop. (It is also not very heavy.) The screen may be small, but it's more than enough for taking notes and writing small scraps of text. What is more important than having a big screen is that it has a real full-sized keyboard.

Now, it does not do much, except allowing you to write text, but that's all I want for note-taking. It does not do italics, bold or other formatting, but since I use the wiki-markup for later inclusion in ConnectedText, it does everything I need to do on the road or in the library. While it was designed for kids in grade school, it is used by many serious writers .

The company also has something fancier, called "Dana," which has almost all the distractions the Palm operating system has to offer, and that I don't need.

I used to own a Tandy WP 2, which did everything the Alphasmart Neo does - and more. But exchanging information between the computer and the WP 2 was never easy, and it got more difficult as more advanced operating systems emerged. So I stopped using it, and gave it to one of my nieces. This is a perfect replacement.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"How to take notes like an 'alpha-geek'"

There is a post by Timothy Ferris, the author of The Four Hour Work-Week, who seems to understand himself as "a note-taking geek of the first class."

He does not use any "digital notetaking tools," saying: "call me old-fashioned, but I’ve noticed that some of the most innovative techies in Silicon Valley do the same, whether with day-planner calendars, memo pads, or just simple notecards with a binder clip. It’s a personal choice, and I like paper. It can be lost, but it can’t be deleted, and I find it faster."

Without further comment:

How to take notes like an alpha-geek

St. Bonaventura on "Making Books"

St. Bonaventura (1221-1274) found that there are basically four ways of 'making books' (modi faciendi librum):

  1. "A man might write the work of others, adding and changing nothing in which case he is simply called a 'scribe' (scriptor)."
  2. "Another writes the work of others with additions which are not his own; and he is called a 'compiler (compilator)."
  3. "Another writes both others’ work and his own, but with others’ work in principal place, adding his own for purposes of explanation; and he is called a 'commentator' (commentator) …"
  4. "Another writes both his own work and others' but with his own work in principal place adding others' for purposes of confirmation; and such a man should be called an 'author' (auctor).’"

This was written before the advent of the printing press, and, what is perhaps even more important, before paper became widely available. (Actually, St. Bonaventura lived during the period which saw the first introduction of paper into Italy and the rest of Europe.)

The mere scribe and the mere compiler have disappeared (almost completely), and the mere commentator has become very rare. Each exists only insofar as any author in creating his own work cannot do without some copying, some compiling (or research), and some commenting. All of this involves paper (or, much more recently, an electronic medium). Even if we do not "add" the work of others primarily for "purposes of confirmation," all thinking must start somewhere. No one can start just with herself or just with her own thoughts. In fact, it is already a significant achievement, if one knows where to start. To learn this is perhaps the most significant part of note-taking. And this is one of the reasons why it might be fruitful to reflect on what it means to "take note."

And I refuse to say anything about those who speak of the "death of the author" ... or more than I just said, anyway.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Faithful Electronic Version of Luhmann's Zettelkasten


There are several attempts at re-creating Luhmann's Zettelkasten in electronic form. The most important of these are:

Daniel Luedecke's Zettelkasten (http://zettelkasten.danielluedecke.de/), which is billed as being modelled after Luhmann's index card system,

Markus Krajewski's Synapsen (http://www.verzetteln.de/synapsen/), described as a "hypertextual" version of the slip box,

IdeaNotes (http://www.ideanotes.de/cms/), which is also claimed to be based on Luhmann's index card system, and

Eduardo Mauro's ConnectedText (http://www.connectedtext.com/), which makes no such claims, but which is to my mind the best of all of them.

They are all excellent programs, and while all but one of them are modelled on Luhmann's Zettelkasten, none of them tries faithfully to reproduce the system. This is not necessarily bad. It may be a good thing, because a too close adherence to a paper-metaphor, might be limiting and stand in the way of improvement. In fact, that's what I think; and I prefer ConnectedText in part because of it's remoteness from the paper-metaphor.

But this is not the main reason. The other three programs try to achieve the connection or linking between different topics or cards (mainly) by assigning keywords. But this is not what Luhmann's approach recommended. While he did have a register of keywords, this was certainly not the most important way of interconnecting his slips. He linked them by direct references (Verweisungen). Any slip could refer directly to the physical and unchanging location of any other slip. These systems establish connections only indirectly by assigning the same keyword to different slips, and especially in Daniel Luedecke's "Zettelkasten" there is no way to directly link two entries. ConnectedText with its wiki-links does connect two topics or entries directly (without the need for explicit numbers, as the database system takes care of that). It also allows keywords, of course.

Just as a experiment, I tried to reconstruct a electronic version of Luhmann's Zettelkasten that is more faithful to his idea. Here is what I came up with, using the commercial version of Notetab: Notetab Standard and Notetab Pro. Both have two features that allow one easily to recreate fairly easily a quite faithful electronic version of Luhmann's Zettelkasten. They are:

1. the Outline Feature, and
1. the Ability to create Hyperlinks.

An outline file (otl) in Notetab is simply a document that is "composed of two parts: the Headings list (or table of contents) on the left and the Contents editor window on the right. When you select a heading, its content is displayed in the editor window" (quoted from its Help File). Such a document can have 5.400 outline entries.

These different outline items can of course be numbered in accordance with Luhmann's numbering scheme.

It is also easy to link these outline items by hyper links. You simply need to enclose the name of an entry in square brackets. Double-clicking and holding down the crtl-key will then take you to the linked entry. Creating new links is just as easy. You type the number of the new entry, like "32/5a", select it and type Ctrl-Shift-B. Voila, the new entry is created, placed in the proper place of the outline, and open for editing.

To create references to other entries is easy. Just type the number and enclose it in square brackets. You can even have the links show up in red, if you want (available in Notetab Pro only).

In some sense, this reproduces Luhmann's setup too faithfully, as the inward growth will unduly separate two such notes as 1/1 and 1/2 by such slips as 1/1a, 1/1b1, 1/1c5, something that Luhmann himself found disturbing, at least to some extent.

But perhaps this not really as big a problem as it first appears, because the need for such continuations as 1, 1/1, 1/2, etc. is actually non-existent in Note-tab. Every outline entry can hold much more information than the octave-sized slips in Luhmann's system. So each numbered entry can contain just as much information as several separate slips in Luhmann's system. This also means that the limit of 5.400 entries - Luhmann accumulated 20.000 slips - is not as limiting as it might at first appear. If there was an average of a sequence of 10 slips per number, he would have accumulated only the equivalent of 2000 entries in Notetab. In any case, since it is possible to interlink Notetab files, even this is not a serious problem.

2GB of text storage (the theoretical limit of Notetab) should be enough for a life time of text.

Since it is possible to link in Notetab to different parts of an outline item (both internally within the same item and from other items), the length of an entry is not a real problem either.

It's also easy to assign keywords to each entry (and to use the keywords as a way of finding information), though direct links are designed the primary means of navigation.

The Notetab-Zettelkasten has several major advantages over the paper-implementation:

1. It is much more difficult to misplace slips
1. It has a powerful search function

What you have here is in many ways as close to a plain-text-wiki as you get in Windows. That all the information the information is stored in plain text should also be appealing to some.

While I have no intention of using it for my information, I believe it gives you a better idea of how work with the "sorcerer's assistant" (Friedrich Schiller J. W. v. Goethe) must have felt to the sociologist of Bielefeld. Not that feelings are all that important.

Luhmann's Zettelkasten

Index cards played a large role in research during the last century -- the 20th century, that is. And there is still a great deal of interest in using index cards as a means for organizing one's daily life. See, for instance, Index Cards, More Index Cards, Photos, or any number of other sites that are fascinated by paper or "analog devices," as they are sometimes referred to by geeks in this time when electronic devices take over more and more of our lives. But index cards clearly also were the model for important early programs intended for what is by some called with the unfortunate phrase "personal knowledge management" today. I mean such programs as NoteCard, HyperCard, and their successors, which began from the index- or note-card metaphor.

One of the more interesting systems for keeping such index cards was developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998). I have no great interest in his theory. I am fascinated by his method of keeping notes, and will therefore restrict my comments to this aspect of his work. But if you are interested, you can visit Niklas Luhmann for a short introduction to his theory. Clearly, his index-card-system and his sociological theory are connected in interesting, intricate, and not easily understood ways, but I will forgo investigating these for now.

One of the things that made his Zettelkasten or slip box (or note card file) so intriguing to the larger (German) public was a 1981 paper, entitled "Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen. Ein Erfahrungsbericht" (Communication with Index Card Systems. An Empirical Account. It appeared in Niklas Luhmann, Universität als Milieu. Kleine Schriften. hrsg. von André Kieserling. Bielefeld: Verlag Cordula Haux, 1992.) Luhmann claimed that his file was something of a collaborator in his work, a largely independent partner in his research and writing. It might have started out as a mere apprentice when Luhmann was still studying himself (in 1951), but after thirty years of having been fed information by the human collaborator it had acquired the ability of surprising him again an again. Since the ability of genuinely surprising one another is an essential characteristic of genuine communication, he argued that there was actually communication going on between himself and his partner in theory.

Luhmann also described his system as his secondary memory (Zweitgedächtnis), alter ego, or his reading memory or (Lesegedächtnis).

Luhmann's notecard system is different from that of others because of the way he organized the information, intending it not just for the next paper or the next book, as most other researchers did, but for a life-time of working and publishing. He thus rejected the mere alphabetical organisation of the material just as much as the systematic arrangement in accordance with fixed categories, like that of the Dewey Decimal System, for instance. Instead, he opted for an approach that was "thematically unlimited," or is limited only insofar as it limits itself.

Instead, he opted for organisation by numbers. Every slip would receive a number, independently of the information on it, starting with 1, and potentially continuing to infinity. Since his slips were relatively small (slightly larger than 5 x 8 cards, or Din-A 6, to be precise), he often had to continue on other slips the information or train of thought started on one slip. In this way, he would end up with Numbers like 1/1 and 1/2 and 1/3 etc. He wrote these numbers in black ink at the top of the slip, so that they could easily be seen when a slip was removed and then put back in the file.

Apart from such linear continuations of topics on different slips, Luhmann also introduced a notation for branchings of topics. Thus, when he felt that a certain term needed to be further discussed or the information about it needed to be supplemented, he would begin a new slip that addded a letter, like a, b, or c to the number. So, a branching from slip 1/6 could have branches like 1/6a or 1/6b, up to 1/6z. These branching connections were marked by red numbers within the text, close to the place that needed further explanation or information. Since any of these branches might require further continuations, he also had many slips of the form 1/6a1, 1/6a2, etc. And, of course, any of these continuations can be branched again, so he could end up with such a number as:

21/3d26g53 for -- who else? -- Habermas.

These internal branchings can continue ad infinitum -- at least potentially. This is one of the advantages of the system. But there are others: (i) Because the numbers given to the slips are fixed and never change. Any slip can refer to any other slip by simply writing the proper number on the slip; and, what is more important, the other slip could be found, as long as it was properly placed in the stack or file. (ii) This system makes internal growth of the Zettelkasten possible that is completely independent of any preconceived ordering scheme. In fact, it leads to a kind of emergent order that is independent of any preconception, and this is one of the things that makes surprise or serendipity. (iii) it makes possible a register of keywords that allow one to enter into the system at a certain point to pursue a certain strand of thought. (iv) it leads to meaningful clusters within the system. Areas on which one has worked a lot are much more spatially extended than those on which one has not worked. (v) There are no privileged places in the note-card system, every card is as important as every other card, and no hierarchy is super-imposed on the system. The significance of each card depends on its relation to other cards (or the relation of other cards to it). It is a network; it is not "arboretic." Accordingly, it in some ways anticipates hypertext and the internet.

Almost all of these advantages of Luhmann's numbering scheme are, of course, easily realizable in any database system that have fixed record system. And the branching ability is easily reproduced by wiki-technology. (For more on the relation of this approach and wiki, see "Some Idiosyncratic Reflections on Note-Taking in General and ConnectedText in Particular" or Idiosyncratic Reflections on Note-Taking).

If you would like to see a video of Luhmann, explaining the intricacies of his system, go to Luhmann on Zettelkasten