Thursday, December 31, 2009

Collections of Nothing

I had to spend the period between Christmas and the last days of 2009 on business in New York. I allowed myself one outing: Strand's bookstore, where I had been once before and which I remembered fondly. How disappointing! The philosophy and the German sections were especially bad.

Still, I "found" two books worthy of buying. One was a Penguin selection of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, called Some Anatomies of Melancholy.[1] The cover contains the quote: "These unhappy men are born to misery, past all hope of recovery, incurably sick, the longer they live the worse they are, and death alone must ease them." The men (and women) thus described are those afflicted with melancholy, of course. But he might as well have meant collectors.

In any case, the second book I bought was William Davies King's Collections of Nothing (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008). I read the Burton selections on the train home to Boston and the King memoir in the hotel the very night I bought the book. It's a description of the author's life through the lens of his affliction of having to collect things that have no value at all, such as "44 varieties of tuna-fish labels, 276 varieties of water-bottle labels, candy wrappers, bacon boxes, cigar bands, luggage tags, envelope liners, cereal boxes and more" valuable things such as books, for instance. Fortunately for me, perhaps, I collect far less: Notes on matters that interest me (obsessively), books (too many), pencils (fewer), and watches (very few). As King notes, there "are collectors who do not amass, in a physical sense ..." But all collectors, he thinks, "occupy a conceptual space that is the enlarged but displaced sense of self. Every day in every way our collections will get better and better, even if the world does suck rocks" (29). Indeed!

And this is how it must have appeared to Robert Burton when he collected the materials for his Anatomy of Melancholy. One look at the "Causes of Melancholy" should suffice to prove this. He lists general and particular causes, where the general causes are either natural or supernatural, and the supernatural either from God, his angels, or "by God's permission from the devil and his ministers" (9). The natural causes are more boring: parents, food, and such things. But the "Digression of the Nature of Spirits. Bad Angels or Devils, and how they Cause Melancholy" is more interesting. All of this is meticulously documented by references to ancient and modern authors. To say that the Anatomy is a commonplace book is too generic. It is a record of a true collection of nothing, if only because an evil like melancholy—if an evil it is—is truly an absence of being.

King's "nothings," by contrast, are truly things. I am not sure whether collections represent a "displaced sense of self" or a "misplaced sense of self," but I doubt that they are either. What is our self, if not a collection—Hume would have said 'bundle"—of representations of objects?

But however that may be, there are quite a few interesting reviews of the book on the "Internets," like this one or that one, which even has a link to his collages of books.

I will not, and I mean "not," start a collection of books on collecting. This is my New Year's resolution!


1. I bought it, even though I already own the 1927 edition of the The Anatomy of Melancholy: "Now for the first time with the Latin completely given in translation and embodied in an all-English text. Ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith. New York: Tudor Publishing Company." The first edition was published in 1621. I occasionally read in it, just as I occasionally re-read some of the essays of Montaigne.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

ConnectedText and NoteTab

As I said before, the ability of getting information easily in and out is for me one of the most important characteristics of a program. It allows you to import existing work into other formats. Text is the most rudimentary and therefore perhaps also most important medium for this.

It's no secret to anyone reading this blog that I use ConnectedText for my information needs and Notetab as my editor of choice. I have talked earlier about the way they can be made to interact.[1] Here a new way: You can now export all of the topics of a ConnectedText project into one large text file. If you choose "H=" as the separator for topics, you can easily create a Notetab outline file (otl), in which all the topic links work just as in ConnectedText.

The steps are as follows:
  1. Change the delimiter in ConnectedText to "M="
  2. Export to a text file
  3. Open the text file in NoteTab
  4. Search and replace "M= " (the space after "=" is important) with "^P=H" (it is important that the editor in which you replace understand "^P" as a new paragraph)
    (no space)
  5. Insert "= V4 Outline MultiLine TabWidth=50" at the beginning of the file. You can change the "50" to "40" or "60". It just indicates the width of the outline pane.
  6. Save with the otl extension
  7. Open the file again in Notetab
You should now have a fully working version of a Notetab outline. I do this occasionally and use the file-names in the following way: ProjectDate.otl (example: Notes20091226.otl). This way I have dated snapshots of my projects. By the way, Notetab states that it has a limit of 5400 outline haedings. I have found that to be false. In practice, 7000 headings are no problem (*but this may have to do with the fact that my entries are usually short (between 350 and 500 words).

It is possible to transform "otl" files into "hjt" or Treepad files, and these can be transformed into "exe" files, but this takes a bit of doing. Still, it is one way to transform your ConnectedText project into a standalone program.

1. ConnectedText and Notetab Outlines. The new ability of ConnectedText to export to one large text file makes the process much easier. The Autohotkey script is no longer needed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

TreePad X Enterprise

The single user version of TreePad X Enterprise has been released on December 17th. While Treepad comes in several different versions, most will probably be acquainted the freeware version, Treepad Lite, which also has recently been updated (December 11).

As they say: "TreePad Lite (freeware) and TreePad Asia (freeware) are small and powerful personal database programs, only 600 Kb in size. They allow you to store all your notes, emails, texts, hyperlinks, etc. into one or multiple databases. With the look and feel of the familiar Windows explorer, editing, storing, browsing, searching and retrieving your data can not be easier! ... [They] can be run directly from a floppy, if necessary, including data. To find any article you previously created or imported, you can browse the tree, in the same way as you browse directories/folders in the Windows explorer. You can also use the internal search engine to find any piece of information swiftly." It stores information in what is essentially a text file.

I am a registered user of TreePad Business, which adds some interesting features to the free version, most notably rtf support and convenient hyperlinking of notes. It also plays well with ConnectedText's URLs and allows me to integrate the two applications. (I have even beenfound a way to store entire (and very large) ConnectedText projects in TreePad Files.

Treepad Business my favorite two-pane outliner, which I use to store "static" information, i.e. documents for reference, etc.

I also licensed the single-user version of Treepas X, which uses SQL, but I do not like it very much because it does not interact well with AutoHotKey—something to do with the way it interacts with the clipboard (I think).

I have tried many two-pane outliners, but I always go back to Treepad Business edition

More on Luminotes

As I pointed out before Luminotes's license has been changed to Open Source. This holds for the Desktop, Thumbdrive and Online versions.

The stated reason: "Several U.S. state governments, including my own (Washington state), are in the process of enacting new sales tax laws that would require merchants to charge 'destination-based' sales tax on online services like Luminotes subscriptions and downloads." But development had been slow during the last few months already.

What I always liked about it is the explicit Index Card Metaphor. What I still dislike are, among other things, that a single note cannot be longer than 50,000 characters. It does not allow of tags either. In other words, though I like the basic idea, it's not for me.

See also LifeHacker.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Using Library of Congress Subject Headings

Subject Headings can be useful.

No further comment!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Interesting Post on Endnote and Zotero

Endnote and Zotero: "I think Zotero is superior in most respects." But see also the reference to this: "Zotero is not designed for historians, but for people who do 'research' by downloading documents or snippets from the Internet, which can be an unreliable source, and for all the blessings of the Gutenberg enterprise and Google reproductions, and Lexis, and JStor etc, historians have to encounter the primary sources where they are found, and they are mostly text. Still, in checking out Zotero I found some really cool conveniences, like the automatic downloading of a citation of a book. For me the decisive factor will be the ease of writing notes (not copying undigested snippets) and having them documented (Zotero has no place for page number, one of the most important single pieces of data in a citation)."

No further comment!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

GNote

Why use GNote when there is Tomboy?

To be honest, I don't know. I don't use Linux.[1]

No further comment!

1. See also Tomboy on windows.

Nook?

There is a review of Barnes & Noble's Nook e-book reader in the New York Times. Apparently, the "Nook" isn't ready for prime-time. Among other things, "... it's buggy."

Meanwhile I have experimented with Amazon's "Kindle for the PC." It works. I even bought one book. What I don't like is that it does not show the original page numbers of the book. So you can't quote it. This makes it pretty much useless for research. It does not allow of any cut and paste, notes or annotations either. The implementation of the latter is planned, however.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Apperceptive Mass

"... I am more than ever convinced of the desirability for the student or general reader of an 'apperceptive mass'—in common terms, a large dose of information with which to fill out the abstractions he is so ready to accept or reject on their mere congeniality or the reverse." Jacques Barzun, Classic, Romantic, and Modern (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1975), xii.

I would agree. And a complete lack of 'apperceptive mass' seems to me characteristic of what passes today for the "history of philosophy" and "the history of ideas." But what is more disconcerting to me is that this holds not just for "the student or general reader," but also for many of the authors of such productions, who seem to be proud of the lack of apperceptive mass that allows them to reconstruct philosophical (and other) theories in terms of what is congenial or congenial to them.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How a Wiki Grows

See it grow.

I don't like the music ...

No further comment!

SuperText

There is an interesting reference to a paper about what appears to be a defunct application for writing in the Outliner Forum.[1] The application was called SuperText. It was designed for students or beginners in writing, but the ideas put forward in this paper seem relevant for writing at any level of competence.

The author of the paper who also created the application, seems to think that there are three "steps" or "stages" of writing, namely
  1. note-taking, which represents "a completely unorganised set of ideas" and notes
  2. Connecting and Hierarchical Ordering, or
    1. networking, and
    2. outlining
  3. the final, linearised, paper-based document.[2]
It is important to understand that he does not think that these "steps" or "stages" occur necessarily in strict or dstinct temporal sequence. Writers may "cycle" through several iterations of these processes at different times.

It's interesting that SuperText was based on what the author calls the "Behavioural model," which is characterized by its emphasis on a preliminary non-linear document organisation or the network stage (2.1)

The author claims that a
network is useful for capturing associations between ideas ... is not a structure that is easily captured in conventional linear text. Linearising a network is typically complex, and, on balance, networks were seen as counter-productive in this context of guiding unsupervised and inexperienced writers to concentrate on the structure of their writing.[3] Consequently, SuperText does not provide a non-linear representation. To compensate for this in some measure, it presents linearised hierarchies with different degrees of formality. Besides the more formal ‘Tree’ and ‘Numbered’ Presentations shown above, the display of the hierarchy can be suppressed completely, or shown by bullets, to provide less formal Presentations suited to the earlier stages of document creation."
So, while the preliminary network stage seems central in his view of the writing process, it could not be properly represented in the program.

Whatever may have been the limitations of representations in 1997, they no longer need to constrain us. A personal wiki, like ConnectedText, is very adept at expressing or capturing associations between ideas in a network.[4] The resulting network does notneed to be linearized, but it can be in a special topic or, preferably, in the outliner (with now also includes hoisting).

After the notes have processed in the outliner, they can be dragged into a topic, where the outline headings become "headers," the last step towards a linearised text can also be largely accomplished in this program.

It therefore appears to me that ConnectedText accomplishes better today what SuperText was intended to accomplish in 1997.[5]



1. J. Barrow, “A Writing Support Tool with Multiple Views,” Computers and the Humanities 31 (1997), pp. 13-30.

2. "During the early stages of writing, writers may capture their thinking in an unorganised set of ideas. As they consolidate these ideas, writers use more constrained representations, progressively moving through networks or hierarchies to the final linear form. Thus, the first dimension of this behavioural model consists of three degrees of organisation for the emerging document."

3. I would argue that this is a mistake. Even beginning writers benefit from reflecting on the network of ideas that may guide them in structuring their topic.

4. They can even be graphically expressed in a graph.

5. I should perhaps also point out that the thread in which the reference to the paper is found concerns ThinkSheet, which is an interesting application in its own right.