structured and unstructured

One of the coolest applications for the Mac is Notational Velocity, an extraordinarily simple yet also innovative note-taking program. I’ve been using it for the past year or so and really digging its UI: when I want to make a note about something, I use a hotkey combination to activate the program, and then I just start typing. I can keep on typing until I’m done, or I can type a title, hit return, and then just continue, because what I type after that will be the body of the note. To find something, I just type a word into the same box and NV runs an instantaneous search. I can have my notes in rich text or plain text: I choose plain, but even in plain text NV recognizes links and makes them clickable. Also, it saves everything you type automatically and instantaneously, and can be synchronized with Simplenote or WriteRoom for the iPad and iPhone. It’s fantastic. It’s also free.However, I recently stopped using it. Weird, huh? But here’s my reason: what’s great about NV is that it’s totally simple and unstructured and makes text entry utterly frictionless. But, oddly, that has become a problem for me. I can get things into NV with an absolute minimum of effort and delay — but then I tend to forget what’s in there. Yes, I could search, but I don’t often think to search. I forget that NV is there until I need to put something in it — but we put stuff into apps like NV because we want to get it out at some point, right?Let me try to make this more clear. In 2005 I started using Backpack and have used it off and on ever since — and that’s what I just went back to. Entering information in Backpack is much clunkier that entering it in NV: you have to click a link to create a list or a note or a new entry in a list, then you type it in, then you click a button to save it. If you want to edit it you have to click an “edit” link before you can type anything. You have to decide whether something is going to be a note or a list, and if you have multiple pages, which pretty much every Backpack user does, you have to decide what page you want to put it on. A lot of trouble.But see, trouble in this case equals structure: Backpack effectively forces you to impose a structure on your data, to organize it to some degree before you even enter it. And I have found that for this very reason, when I enter data in Backpack I remember it better and can find it more readily later. Or maybe it would be better to say that I am (internally) prompted to find it because of the structure I have had to impose before entering it. I also find myself scanning my Backpack pages from time to time, which reminds me what I’ve put in them.Beyond that, I don’t really understand why Backpack works with my brain, but it does, and Notational Velocity — even though it’s manifestly cooler and more innovative and features my beloved plain text — really doesn’t. That’s just the way it is.And let me just take this opportunity to say that still, after several years, nothing has come close to matching the combination of simplicity and structure of Stikkit. I would probably have been using Stikkit for the rest of my life if its developers hadn’t abandoned it and refused even to put it up for sale. Bizarre, and immensely frustrating. The product was effectively abandoned by mid-2007 and shut down completely in late 2008, and I still haven’t gotten over it.

nota bene!

Having mentioned in the previous post the always-valuable work of Ann Blair, I think I’ll add a reference to an article of hers on the history of note-taking. I am not sure whether this is freely available online — I get access to a lot of stuff when I’m using the college internet connection that I can’t get at home, thanks to wise expenditures by our excellent reference staff — but here’s the link and here’s a sample:

More widespread than techniques associated with particular professions were the note-taking methods taught in schools. From earliest antiquity teaching was mostly dispensed orally; what we know of ancient teaching is largely dependent on the notes that listeners took. What we call the works of Aristotle, for example, are thought to be mostly composed from student notes. Different forms of notes would have resulted from different teaching settings: for example, the acroamatic, major works from lecturing, and the problemata, with their multiple answers to questions, from a more discussion-oriented kind of teaching. One seventeenth-century teacher concluded that note taking must have been practiced even by the followers of the prisca sapientia famous for their reliance on memory and their contempt of writing: “How else would their writings survive to us?…They wrote on all kinds of things: they used wax, wood, cloth, bark, tree leaves, lead, skins, and palimpsests. We most conveniently use paper and rejoice in the printers; this way of writing is so easy that leisure is not more pleasant than work.” No doubt this rational reconstruction of ancient note taking is a better indicator of attitudes in the seventeenth century than among the Pythagoreans. But the point is well taken: only those teachings that were committed to writing at some point have survived. Historians too might consider the extent to which note taking played a role in the transmission of learning even in a period noted for its cultivation of memory — indeed note taking was long perceived as a powerful aid to memory.In general we have insufficient evidence to reconstruct the specifics of the classroom experience from antiquity through the Early Modern period, and certainly we can expect it to have varied. Medieval lectures were not simply dictations; students came equipped with a manuscript version of the text being discussed and might not always have needed to take notes. From the sixteenth century we have printed school texts abundantly annotated in the margins and on interleaved pages with commentary that was likely dictated in the classroom and copied over neatly after the fact in the printed book. In one example from 1629 in Paris students in the same class came away with full-text notes from a course on geography, identical but for aural mistakes; the entire text of this extracurricular course was evidently provided by dictation. 150 years later student notes of Kant’s lectures on anthropology were circulated and sold as complete versions of his lectures. How exactly these notes (now extant only in later copies) were produced by listening students is a matter of some speculation. The students may have used forms of abbreviation and condensing (stenography was only developed for German in 1834); students may also have worked together to each take down successive sentences of the lecture, following a method first devised by pietistic preacher August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) and which he called a Schreibechor or writing chorus. Indeed it would be helpful to study as a parallel to note taking in lectures the tradition of note taking during sermons. The written reportationes of medieval sermons produced by listeners were not a verbatim transcription of the oral sermon but rather a reconstruction based on schematic notes. Judging from the elaborate solution attributed to August Hermann Francke, we can surmise that note taking at the Sunday sermon was a common practice centuries later among German pietists.

Fascinating stuff.