Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Notes by an an Evernote Ambassador

Here is a "letter" by a self-proclaimed "Evernote Ambassador."[1] I obviously don't know anything about business meetings. Nor am I interested in making myself appear indispensable or capable of "leading," but I must say that I have no prejudice against students who take notes on paper—at least I know that they are not surfing the Internet while we are discussing philosophical matters. Nor do I, like some of my colleagues, prohibit students from using the computer to take notes. I know that some of them profit from taking electronic notes.

Nor do I have anything against Evernote—it has come a long way. But "Evernote Ambassadors" ...?

No further comment! And a Happy and Prosperous New Year to all readers of this blog!



1. By way of The Atlantic.

Structured Notes

The phrase "structured notes" seems to become more and more common concerns on the Internet—or perhaps it is just that I have noted it more in recent months.[1] And I do not mean the financial instrument that Forbes called "a real stinker of a product that at first glimpse appears like the answers to your prayers but really is just one more way Wall streets is going to separate you from your money." Rather, I mean, one of those newer "pedagogical strategies" that is sold as a panacea for helping students to take "notes more effectively. It offers students a visual framework that helps them to focus on what's most important" (from some Web site or other). Here, an explanation from someone else: "Structured Note-Taking helps students take notes more effectively and assists them in recalling and retaining information that is essential. Structured Note-taking offers students a visual framework, and the mind loves pictures. Initially, the teacher provides students with a graphic organizer that goes with the organization that goes with the organizational pattern in the text to be read. Eventually, students learn to devise their own graphic organizers."

Yeah ... "the mind loves pictures"—or does it? Here are some for a search on "structured note taking" program.

Of course, there are some software developers active in this area as well, like Intellinote, Circusponies, Beesy, AMLPagesand a few others, but there are not many. Perhaps this will change. The Tao of Mac criticized Evernote already in 2009 for "crap for any sort of structured note-taking or draft text that requires minimal formatting or (more often) considerable amounts of revising, because it can’t even deal with simple formatting properly, let alone tables – which it does, but laughably badly – or, most importantly, outlining." Still, most of the concern is still more low-tech, with the venerable Cornell Note-taking Method being perhaps the foremost contender.

I have nothing against "structured note-taking," of course. In fact, I am all for outlining, mind maps and other visual helps in taking notes. It's just that I think, as "a pedagogical strategy," it is nothing new and not a magical bullet. It's common-sense—or so it seems to me—a fancy name for what has been done since the beginning of reading and writing.


1. On of the early contenders seem to be: Smith, P., & Tompkins, G. (1988). "Structured notetaking: A new strategy for content area teachers." Journal of Reading, 32, 46-53.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Ouch ...

From a review of a book about Susan Sontag in the Guardian:
The interview begins with Sontag saying: "Thinking is one of the things I do." It ends with her saying that the "most awful thing" would be to feel that she had "stopped thinking". What Cott's book reminds us, inadvertently, is that talking about thinking is not the same as actually doing it.
No further comment!

A Markdown Wiki with Texts and Autohotkey

Here is what works with Texts on my computer:

#SingleInstance force

#NoEnv  ; Recommended for performance and compatibility with future AutoHotkey releases.
SendMode Input  ; Recommended for new scripts due to its superior speed and reliability.
SetWorkingDir %A_ScriptDir%  ; Ensures a consistent starting directory.

^l::
clipboard =
send, {esc}{Home}+{End}
Sleep 200
Send, ^c
Send, ^s
sleep, 200

clipboard = %clipboard%
linestring := clipboard
bit1 = [[ ;find the position of the character "[", call it leftmark
StringGetPos, leftmark, linestring, %bit1%
leftmark := leftmark + 3

bit2 = ]] ;find the position of the character "]", call it rightmark
StringGetPos, rightmark, linestring, %bit2%
rightmark := rightmark + 1

stringlength := rightmark - leftmark
thefilename := SubStr(linestring, leftmark , stringlength)".text"
topicname := SubStr(linestring, leftmark , stringlength)

IfExist, %thefilename%
    {
    Send ^o 
    Sleep 400
    Send %thefilename%{Enter}
    sleep 100
    Send, ^{End}
    }
IfNotExist, %thefilename%
    {
    FileAppend, `#`#`# %topicname%, %thefilename%
    Send ^o 
    Send %thefilename%{Enter}
    sleep 100
    Send ^{End}
    }
else
    return
return

This little script "implements" only very basic functions of a personal wiki.

Another Simple Text Wiki with Autohotkey

I came across Donation Coder post on "a structured plain text note taker." It really amounts to a primitive wiki. I cleaned up the AhK, modified it, and—I hope—improved it a little. As cedardoc, the original author, put it: "I just had to add this really low tech approach to the txt file note approach. You keep them all in one folder and refer to other notes (works with txt and rtf or whatever) and refer to other notes by using square brackets like this [projects.txt] as long as there's only one listed per line, then just have this script in a running autohotkey file from the same folder":

#SingleInstance force

#NoEnv  
SendMode Input  
SetWorkingDir %A_ScriptDir%  

^l::
clipboard =
send, {esc}{Home}+{End}
Sleep 200
Send, ^c
Send, ^s
sleep, 200

clipboard = %clipboard%
linestring := clipboard
sleep 100
Send !fs
Send !fx

bit1 = [[ ;find the position of the character "[", call it leftmark
StringGetPos, leftmark, linestring, %bit1%
leftmark := leftmark + 3

bit2 = ]] ;find the position of the character "]", call it rightmark
StringGetPos, rightmark, linestring, %bit2%
rightmark := rightmark + 1

stringlength := rightmark - leftmark
thefilename := SubStr(linestring, leftmark , stringlength)".txt"
topicname := SubStr(linestring, leftmark , stringlength)

IfExist, %thefilename%
    {
    run %thefilename%
    sleep 100
    Send, ^{End}
    }
IfNotExist, %thefilename%
    {
    FileAppend, %topicname%, %thefilename%
    run %thefilename%
    sleep 100
    Send ^{End}
    }
else
    return
return

To use it, just enclose any word or phrase you want to use as a link in double brackets and press Ctrl-l.

This little script "implements" only very basic functions of a personal wiki, not, of course, those of an online wiki.

It can easily be modified for use with other formats or applications. If you use "text" as an extension, then Texts will work with it and you will have a not-so-primitive Markdown wiki (with footnotes and tables). It will also be WYSIWYG.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Texts

Texts is a word processor that uses text files with markdown formatting for file storage. The extension is "text". However, there is nothing in the user interface that betrays it is a markdown editor. You use Ctrl-sequences for formatting, etc.

They call the application a Markdown Visual Editor: "Write using Markdown — without having to remember the markup. With Texts you can apply styles to words and paragraphs and immediately see the results. Your images and tables are displayed directly within Texts."

What I like especially is that you can easily add footnotes. They translate correctly into rtf and docx.

It's available for Windows and for both OSX and iOS. If I understand the Website correctly you get both the Windows and the OSX version when you pay. Right now, or "for a limited time," it's available for $14.50, that is, for a 50% discount. The iOS version is available through ITunes in Apps store for free.

Oh ... and did I mention that you have to download Pandoc for conversion to other formats? It's nowhere mentioned on the Website that I could see.

I like it a lot (after playing with it for a few hours—and even using it for serious work). It's a slick application. I am buying it ... in spite of David Hewson's criticism of Markdown for general writing. In any case, this application seems to escape his most fundamental criticism.

Again, I agree with Hewson that "anything that claims to unlock your creativity is probably snake oil ... ask yourself. How could this possibly work?"


Friday, December 27, 2013

Writer Pro

I have mentioned the predecessor of this application before. Writer Pro continues the tradition of making nothing sound like something—and even something profound. This time, they are using a metaphor from Hans Blumenberg's "mind-bending" book Sources, Streams, Icebergs (Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge) and present a nice picture that shows how any kind of writing starts from "sources," which is of course not a particularly mind-bending insight.[1]

Here one of the sales pitches: "Writer Pro is a tool for professionals. If you write, then $20 is nothing. Hold off if you’re just interested in testing cool new apps. If you want a better tool for your work as a writer, Writer Pro is for you." If you write, $20.00 is nothing? Why? How? Whether you write professionally or not, $20 is $20, and for some aspiring writers it may actually be not affordable at all, but then again "working hard at producing something publishable" may not fit the definition of "professional" the creators of this software had in mind.[2]

For a nice review of how this useless application follows the vacuous idea of its creators, see David Hewson's review. I could not agree more (even if I have disagreed with him on other matters before).[3]

That being said, I think there is room for an application that integrates note-taking and writing in a more harmonious way. Scrivener is not it; nor is DevonThink or Tinderbox—at least in my view.

1. I have written about Blumenberg before.
2. You might also want to take a look at this. It throws more light on how far the delusions of grandeur really go. See also the outliner forum.
3. See also Michael Anderson's review.

Displaywriter

IBM Displaywriter was the first word processor I used. It was a machine that, together with the printer, took up a small room in the college I taught between 1979 and 1983. I was allowed to use it after hours, i.e. After the administration had gone home, and I had stiff competition from another professor. Displaywriter should not be confused with Displaywrite, a desktop program that emulated Displaywriter.

One of the big problems with Displaywriter was the disks they used. They were the 8 inch format. When I moved to Purdue University in 1983, I had no longer access to this format. IBM was particularly useless when I tried to have the files transfer from this type of disk to 5.25 format. When I finally got to talk to a human being, he asked me how many thousands I needed to be transferred. When I said "three," he just laughed. I had to retype a whole book. This, by the way, led to a life-long aversion to IBM. I have never bought another thing from them.[1]

What was next? Wordstar.


1. Scroll up as well as down, if you want a more detailed history of the phenomenon.

Eighteen Epic Productivity Applications?

My attention was called to this post earlier today. I did not have much hope for it, given the bombastic title. I had even less hope when I read the author's definition of "productivity" which is
The ability to get important things accomplished in a way that honors commitments in an excellent way, respects my own time and that of others, and allows my body and psyche to focus and sustain the best mental state possible for emotional, professional, and personal well being and enjoyment.
This is nothing but a bit of sanctimonious BS. Sorry, but that is how I feel. "Productivity," whatever it is, has nothing to do with "importance." And what does it mean to "honor comitments in an excellent way"? Nor does it concern "body and psyche" to "focus and sustain the best mental state," whatever that means.

"Productivity" simply means "the ratio of output to inputs in production;" it is thus "an average measure of the efficiency of production" (adopted from Wikipedia).

Given the author's "definition" of productivity, I expected little. But I got even less. Some fairly uncritical notes about applications everyone is already aware of, namely, Evernote, vJournal (or Journal), "built in Hotkeys for snippets on your iPhone / iPad / Computer"—really "epic" this one, Mailbox, Calendar 5, YouMail, Launch Center, 30/30, Drafts, Dropbox, Dragon Dictation, Audible, Get Abstract, Kindle, iCatcher, and Hootsuite for Twitter, clearly nothing but a time-waster. The mixture of desktop and iOS applications was also a bit disturbing to me. I should have known after I read the definition of "productivity."

But even after reading the whole thing, I can't see how "built in Hotkeys for snippets on your iPhone / iPad / Computer" make you accomplish "important things ... in a way that honors commitments in an excellent way" or how a twitter client allows "body and psyche to focus and sustain the best mental state possible for emotional, professional, and personal well being and enjoyment."

To end on a positive note, it may well be that someone (though I don't know who) might find this list and the discussion useful, but it isn't me (nor anyone I know).[1]


1. I should perhaps point out that I don't think that there is, per se, anything wrong with any of the applications. Even "time-wasters" have their place, but "productivity applications" they are not.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Info-Base 1.8

Info-base is described by its developer as "a 'clone' of the good and old "Info-Select" (Version 1.0)." It can import data from Info-Select can be imported.

The author is also the developer of ISWrun which improves InfoSelect 1 for Windows which was designed for Windows 3.x. ISWrun calls ISW.EXE and runs in the background, adding a number of features, like spell checking, etc. I have been using it for a while, though "using" is probably not the right way to describe what I do with it. "Playing" is probably a better description.

I have always been fascinated by Info Select 1.0, used it when it first came out, and have wished for a worthy successor.[1] Info-Base is a capable application and it does some things very well. It integrates all the additions of ISWrun, supports Unicode, is very fast, and a simple application. One thing I like best is that it allows links from one note to another.[2] The first line of the note becomes the title. Info just as in Info-Select items had numbers, and the first line served as a guide.

However, Info-Base 1.8 does not do one thing that made Info-Select special for me, namely the fact that it would show a large number of windows at the same time. This was especially important for the incremental searches it allowed. You could immediately see a group of related items. Info-Base 1.8 functions more like a two-pane outliner with the topic titles being displayed on top and the editable note at the bottom. Since this is missing, I will not continue play with it.[3] For this reason, and for this reason alone, I prefer Notescraps.

Another thing I liked about Info-Select 1 was that there was nothing else to distract you, no outline, no list of files, etc. Info-Base 1.8 has fixed windows for this information on both sides. This makes it more busy than I would like. I wish these Windows could be turned off, like in Notetab.



The help file does not work in Windows 7.

This being said, the application is free, and it certainly is worth a trial, if you like plain text note-taking programs. Perhaps the multiple windows will be added in a future version.



1. See here and here.
2. You copy the address of a note while being in it and go to the note in which the link is to appear and copy the link. It is not as convenient as a wiki or free link, but it works efficiently enough.
3. Similar considerations hold for AllMyNotes which is very capable.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Twine, Again

I reported on Twine before. It is described as an "an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories." The program is now available in version 1.4 and has undergone a number of significant changes.

It's available for both Windows and the Mac.

No further comment!

The Habit of Writing

I recently read The Metronomic Society. Natural Rythms and Human Timetables (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). It contains, among other things, a sustained discussion of habits. The following rang true to me:
Writing is another example [of flexible habits]. The way I hold my pen and form my letters is entirely habitual. I could hardly alter my style of handwriting, however much I tried. It has become a part of me that I and others ... have to live with. ... There are also other habits involved, My style or my lack of it, which could be as much something that is tenth nature to me as my handwriting. But it is not quite automatic writing, like automatic sleep walking; the content of what I write is not just habitual. Habit does not enter in ... I can harness the collection of [my] habits to some new use, and attempt to vary it (p. 90).
Habits "automate" behavior and allow us to concentrate on things other than the automated activity. This is clearly true of writing.

It appears to me that this explains—at least to some extent—why many writers report that there is a significant difference between handwriting and writing on a keyboard. Thinking might seem to flow more easily and you might seem to be more creative when you rely on a firmly ingrained habit. Hell, you might be more creative when you don't have to think about how you put thought on paper (or some other medium). However, if this is true, it also means that there is no intrinisc cognitive difference between handwriting and keyboarding, between using a fountain pen and a pencil. It all depends upon what you are used to. Apparent differences can be traced to habit.

I am sure that this "hypothesis" could be empirically tested. I am just as sure that I cannot test it, however.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Black n' Red Notebook

Writing with fountain pens in notebooks present problems of its own, as most of the are not really designed for this. Bleeding through and feathering are often problems. I am not the only one who has experienced serious problem with the "famous" Moleskine Brand that starts at around $15.00 on Amazon. Luckily there are alternatives that are a lot cheaper. I am thinking especially of the Black n'Red Din-A 5 notebooks (Black n' Red Casebound Notebook, Ruled, 8 1/4 x 5 7/8 Inches, White, 96 Sheets per Pad (E66857)). They are sturdily bound and even the wettest fountain pen does not leak or feather. The reason is not that the paper is better than the one you encounter in a Moleskine or other brands, but rather that it is coated. It is similar to the kind of paper used in German exercise books that I first encountered in the German exercise books during the fifties. It is perhaps also slightly thicker. You cannot even see the outlines of the writing on the other side of the page (as you can, for instance in Mead notebooks which also are made of paper coated in some way).

In any case, they are very serviceable and sell for $4.88 as an add-on item on Amazon. I highly recommend them.

Mind you, they have one disadvantage when used with fountain pens. The ink takes longer to dry than on uncoated paper. For this reason, I would recommend Löschpapier (blotting paper) as a place holder. This is not easily available in the U.S.A., but it is included in almost every cheap exercise book in Germany (because pupils actually still have to use fountain pens). One sheet will last for a very long time. If you do not have blotting paper, you just have to wait for a second or two before turning the page (which may be good for thinking).

I have no idea why the second-to-last page contains maps for the New York, Washington, and Chicago subway systems. I glue an envelope there to use for loos papers.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Real Revolution in Scholarship?

I recently read this in a comment on an academic blog about the reference manger called Nvivo. The blog entry addresses the question of "how reference managers could help ... in our thinking process rather than hold our libraries." Nvivo is described as a popular content analysis software, that is, as something that is more suited to social scientists than to humanists. The author of the blog muses: "I have only thought of Nvivo (or the like) as useful in analyzing (qualitative) data such as interview transcripts, reports etc., but the same principles can be applied to processing academic sources during literature reviews." Perhaps this is true, but "literature reviews" seem to me not much more than annotated bibliographies, and thus preparations or "necessary conditions of the possibility" of real thinking, not yet thinking itself.

But be that as it may, what really interests me in this post is not Nvivo nor its ability to aid thinking, but a claim made by one of the commenters (if that is a word) who said:
The thing is that all this software is great and of course would sound like a dream 15 years ago, but it is still just translating scholar’s standard activities to digital interface. It’s just a new, faster way of using old methods. It’s maybe time to think about features that have no “analog” counterpart. Tagging is one such thing. Of course an index of a book is a kind of a list of tags. But once you can filter by tags, it becomes something else, it’s not even comparable to an index anymore.
It's always been my view that software and computers do just that: provide just new and faster ways of using old methods.[1] In fact, I would be highly suspicious of any feature that does not have an "'analog' counterpart.'" I would need much convincing that it could be a legitimate method. Nor does the example given inspire much hope. Tags are a lame example. As the commenter himself admits, they are "a kind of list of tags." To say that "once you can filter by tags, it [an index] becomes something else" and is not even comparable to an index anymore" is patently false. It is not just "comparable" to an index, it is essentially an index; and such filtered indexes have been important tools in scholarship since the Renaissance. The example provides thus just another example of new and faster way of using old methods.

Just to make sure, I have nothing against using computers and "new and faster ways of using old methods," just as I have nothing against outlines or outliners. I use them myself on a daily basis.

Nor does it mean that that there is no technology that allows us to do things we could never have hoped to do without it (and that actually requires new methods). I am thinking about an electron microscope, for instance.



1. To be sure, that allows mathematicians to "actually" do proofs that would have been impossible for human beings because they would have taken much too long using paper and pencil, but I would suppose even they are essentially "new and faster ways of using old methods," and that would be extremely suspicious, if they were anything else. From what I understand there are some that are even suspicious of such new and faster applications of old methods.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hero 359 Fountain Pen

The Hero 359 is a shameless clone of the Lamy Safari. It is nice enough, but it is not as good as the Safari itself:



It can be had for $15.00 on eBay.[1] The Lamy can be had for about $5.00 more. I don't know why anyone would want to buy the copy, unless she/he wants to see how good a cheap Chinese copy of a German classic can be.

I can attest to the fact that it writes well, but my writing or thinking is not improved by it either. Nor can it replace my new favorite pen.



1. Picture thanks to ecclectitbits. For another review, see here.