This post on paper clips — and other “everyday things”: Henry Petroski really should have been mentioned in the post — should be taken as yet another reminder of some important truths:

  • Non-electronic technologies are still technologies;
  • Technologies that have been developed (in some cases perfected) over decades are even centuries are often extremely well-optimized for the work they’re put to;
  • To slightly adapt Friedrich Kittler, “New technologies do not make old technologies obsolete; they assign them other places in the system.”

I’m thinking about these matters a lot because not long ago I made a significant change in my research methods for my book in progress. This is the largest and most complex project I’ve even endeavored, and has, as Tolkien said about The Lord of the Rings, “grown in the telling”; keeping all the citations, quotes, information, and ideas straight has been … well, I started to write “extremely difficult,” but I think I need to amend that to “impossible.”

Then, after reading Hua Hsu’s wonderful review-essay, I picked up a copy of Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, and when I got to his chapter on note cards, a light went on: That’s what I need, I said to myself. Index cards. So here’s what I did:

Firs, I bought index cards in various colors. Then I assigned a color to each of the major thinkers I’m writing about in my book: W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil — and reserved white cards for general notes (ideas, tasks, etc.). Every time I add a card to any of the colored stacks I number it, so I can cross-reference cards: e.g., the seventeenth blue card (Simone Weil) would be referred to elsewhere as B17. Finally, when the date of a publication or event is relevant, I write that date in the upper right corner. Every few days I read through the cards to discern correspondences, which I can then mark by cross-reference. And when I sit down at the computer I surround myself with these cards, which I can lay out in whatever pattern seems appropriate at the time, taking in the relevant content at a glance.

This is one of the best organizational decisions I have made in a long time, and I’m already thinking about ways to extent it to other kinds of tasks: class planning, for instance. If I learn anything more of interest as this project moves along, I’ll make a report here.

my own private Kanban

Screen Shot 2014 09 03 at 11 54 04 AM

What you see above is a picture of an approach to task management I’ve been using lately — a simplified and individual version of the Kanban model used in software development and manufacturing/distribution. I dislike the rah-rah cheesiness of the Personal Kanban website, but I have to admit that it gave me the idea that this could work for me. (Larger version of the image here.)

Kanban is supposed to be done with sticky notes on a whiteboard or wall, but that poses a problem for me: I work about half the time in my office, about half the time at home — so where do I put the board? An insoluble problem. So I decided to do it digitally, using the good ol’ Stickies app on the Mac.

Here’s the system as I have developed it so far:

  • Just three stages of action: To Do, Doing (i.e., In Process), and Done (Completed)
  • Three colors of notes: green for teaching, yellow for writing, blue for personal stuff (and a different color for the category titles, I guess)
  • They’re arranged in rough order of priority, with highest priority tasks at the top 
  • Occasionally I might use text styles (color, bolding, sizing) for emphasis

That’s it. When I know I need to work on something I put it in the To Do column. When I start working on it I put it in the Doing column. When I’ve completed it, or think I’ve completed it, I put it in the Done column. Eventually I delete those, of course, but I keep them around for a while in case it turns out that I haven’t finished a task after all but must revisit it, in which case it goes back to one of the earlier stages.

Why do I like it? Because it uses a very simple structure to convey lots of information. At a single glance I can see what’s coming up, how much of it involves writing or teaching or personal stuff, what I’m (supposed to be) working on now, and what I’ve recently completed. Also, I can easily write in detail when I need to and minimize that note to it doesn’t dominate the screen.

What don’t I like? Really, only one thing: it’s not portable. I can’t export my data very conveniently, or view it on other devices. Not sure whether that will be a problem or not — that could end up being a feature rather than a bug. In any case, here it is, in case anyone is interested.


Johann Michael Bretschneider (1656-1727), Scholars in a study. Poznan, National Museum in Poznan

These new studies of the relations between messiness and creativity are really interesting, but it raises two questions for me:

1) Does the correlation between messiness and creativity persist over time? The studies seem to focus on how people respond to messy rooms that they’re exposed to for short periods. But what if the messiness were everyday?

2) Again over time, does it matter whether the messiness, or neatness, is yours or someone else’s? One of my favorite Malcolm Gladwell essays — I have a great many unfavorites, but never mind — is one on “The Social Life of Paper”, in which he notes studies showing that “pilers,” people who pile up paper on their desks, are remarkably skilled at finding their stuff, even though to an observer the desk might seem utterly chaotic. It’s hard to imagine that messiness could be anything but frustrating if you had no control over it.

So: an interesting study, but I’d like to know more. (It seems like I’m always saying that.)

changes to the System

It’s just not in my nature, I guess, to stick with one organizational method for very long. A few months ago, I wrote about my return to Backpack. Well, it only took about two weeks for me to leave Backpack again. There were a couple of reasons. First, I realized that while Backpack works well for me on my Mac — aside from some awkwardness of text entry — it didn’t work so well on my iPhone. The people at 37signals have done almost nothing to accommodate to mobile devices, and the third-party Backpack client, Satchel, is usable but awkward.
And then, second, I discovered something I should have known already: that the app I had abandoned, Notational Velocity, has a fabulous Service: “New Note with Selection.” And even cooler, when you select a passage on a webpage and then invoke the service — which I do with a simple keystroke combination I assigned for the purpose — NV adds the URL also. Fabulous!* And then, because I sync my NV notes with Simplenote, I have these clippings available to me on my iPod — and any other iOS device I might have.** (More about that later.) Once NV can read and sync Simplenote’s tags I’ll be nearing my own private Singularity.
Also, I have been using Remember the Milk as my to-do list and calendar, largely because of its excellent iPhone app — the iPhone seems to me the natural place to manage to-do’s.
This has been my system for about three months now, which for me is a long time. Might I even stick with it? Stay tuned. . . .
* The URL-addition works in Safari and OmniWeb, but not currently in Chrome. Chrome adds the selected text only.** I can’t find it now, but just a few days ago I read a blog post about how iOS devices need their own Services menu. This is very, very true.

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.

only connect!

Shreeharsh Kelkar has emailed with some questions that I thought it might be interesting to answer here. Here are the first two:

1) Just briefly, how do you decide if something is worthwhile (“clippable”) while browsing the web? Obviously, the easiest is when it relates to a particular project you’re doing. But what about the others which you think may be useful some day but can’t really say? How often do you end up going back to them? Or even better, using them in a project?2) Finally, do you “clip” anything that you think will be relevant at some point in the future or are you more discriminating?

Over the last couple of years I have developed, gradually and not altogether intentionally, a three-stage method of organizing and responding to what I read online. It works like this:1) If I see something long enough and complex enough that I need to read it with care, but don’t have time to read at the moment, I send it to Instapaper. And by the way, Instapaper’s “mobilizer” — its built-in tool for extracting the text from a webpage — provides the ideal way to read anything on the iPhone. It’s now built in to Tweetie — um, Twitter for iPhone, so clicking on links in tweets takes me to the mobilized version rather than the original web page, which means that it loads fast and is easy to read. Brilliant.2) If, having read something, I think I might want to come back to it later, I clip an excerpt and send it to Pinboard. I used to use Delicious for this, and Delicious is still a fine tool, and free, but Pinboard is more elegant. I then use Pinboard’s tag cloud to browse the relevant clippings when I’m working on a particular project.3) But if I know (or think I know) that a particular article or story or blog post is going to be important for something I’m doing, and I can’t take the chance on it disappearing behind a paywall or just plain disappearing, then I convert it to a PDF and send it to my preferred Everything Bucket, Together.By the way, it has become clear to me that I save too much, both to Pinboard and to Together. I go through and purge from time to time, but I would like to develop habits that make me more thoughtfully selective at the point of reading.Here’s a funny thing: in general, I dislike having more apps open at once than absolutely necessary — I like to streamline my workflow, and will even at times use a second-best tool in order to keep things simple. And yet, even though I could bypass Pinboard and keep all my clippings in Together, I don’t. Similarly, I could gather everything in Zotero, but I can’t stand the way Firefox looks. I’m weird that way.Similarly, I could keep all my notes and jottings in Together, but I don’t: I use the brilliant Notational Velocity instead. I am not sure why I violate my own principles here, but I think it’s because I’m keeping tasks that make different cognitive demands on me in different environments: note-jotting in one place, articles that need skimming in another, articles that require serious attention in a third.Here is Shreeharsh’s third question:

3) I use Evernote to make notes while I browse the web and one of the things I find is that while I do clip extracts from web-pages there, when the time comes for me to go back to the article, I often just google the article rather than searching for it on Endnote (I usually remember some keywords from the article). Does this happen to you too?

It does! — and that’s interesting, no? It’s often faster to Google something that to look through the materials I have so painstakingly filed (especially when I’m not sure whether I’ve put something in Pinboard or Together). “Search, don’t sort” is the Gmail motto, and it seems to work here too. But I don’t always remember what I need to remember to do a good Google search; and the sorting and filing itself is cognitively useful, I think — it helps me to organize my thoughts and keep them in good marching order, even when I don’t go back to the materials I’ve collected later.

what to save, continued

Back to the subject of my previous post:If trusting overmuch in the stability of the cloud — or any one particular cloud in the brave new world of what I like to call Big Sky Computing — is unwise, there are other problems to consider. What if the magazine whose website your link directs you to goes out of business? That’s not likely in the case of The New Yorker, you may say, but how confident can we be in the continued existence of any print publication in these difficult times? Plus, I have on my computer a whole bunch of dead links to New Yorker stories that, during their last major site restructuring, got taken off the web or reassigned to new URLs. Ditto with The New Republic, which has been promising to re-organize and re-present its archives for two or three years now. The problem of disappearing websites is becoming more and more serious, and it’s interesting that among the first groups to take serious cognizance of that fact are librarians and archivists — people charged with preserving our cultural inheritance. Not easy to do when chunks of that cultural inheritance can be swept away with a couple of keystrokes. You can use the Wayback Machine to find a lot of stuff, but there’s a lot more that you’ll never recover that way.So maybe it’s better to keep anything you think you’re likely to need on your own carefully-and-regularly-backed-up computer.* It’s not like webpages or PDFs — I save everything as PDF — take up that much hard drive space, especially in comparison to movies or high-resolution photos. And there are a whole set of wonderful information management tools out there — this is the one I use, after having tried pretty much everything available for the Mac — to help you store and organize almost anything you can download.So why don't I do this more readily? Why is it my reflex to use Delicious? I think it’s because when I’m trying to decide what to do with a story or article I’ve found online, I am (by definition) working in my browser — and Delicious is also in my browser. And if it’s a link rather than a whole story I’m saving, that link will also take me back to (or remain within) the browser. It just seems easier and more natural to remain within the same “space.” For those of us who mistrust, or are ambivalent about, the cloud, this is a resistance that needs to be overcome.*I could also perform here a Richard-Stallman-like privacy rant, but I shall spare you that affliction.

what to save and how to save it

Here’s a daily decision for me: How to register, note, or save things I read that I’m interested in. So, for instance, this morning I’m reading D. T. Max’s long, detailed, and deeply sad biographical essay on David Foster Wallace. If I hadn’t had time to read it this morning I would have saved it to Instapaper for later perusal. But I did have time to read it — or perhaps I should say I made time to do so — and as I got into it I realized that this is a substantial piece that I will probably want to return to later. (Wallace’s career is a fascinating one for someone with my interests.) So what do I do? Well, I could just bookmark it, which is something I do via Delicious — that is, “in the cloud.” I like this option for several reasons. First, it’s quick (especially if you’re using the Delicious plugins that are available for both Firefox and Safari). Second, I can paste in an excerpt from the text that makes it clear (to me, anyway) what interest the story holds. Third, I can tag the link with any number of relevant keywords, which gives me multiple layers of organization. Finally, I don't have to worry about backing up the data, because it’s on someone else’s multiply-backed-up servers. Or is it? Well, another social bookmarking service, ma.gnolia, recently crapped out and lost all of its users’ data. I’d like to think that Delicious, which is owned by Yahoo, has a better backup system. Surely it does . . . doesn't it? Almost certainly it does. But I export my bookmarks to my hard drive from time to time just in case — thus, I suppose, rendering that fourth reason for using the service nugatory. As much as we’d like to think that living in the cloud solves all our old worries about backing up data, it doesn't. Or it shouldn't. Leslie Lamport’s famous line about distributed computing — “A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn't even know existed can render your own computer unusable” — is highly relevant to anyone whose data lives in the cloud. So why don't I keep all the stuff I’m interested in on my own computer? Why not just download the essay on Wallace? As it happens, I just did. And why I did is something I’ll talk about in another post.


One of my first posts on this blog was about the rather sudden and unexpected shutdown of two web services, Stikkit and Sandy, and the anger that shutdown prompted against the services’ providers. We’re going to be hearing many more such stories, I think, during the recession/depression. Sites that have been funded by VCs while their creators have been trying to come up with a business plan are going to find themselves out of cash, and are going to shut down, and their users — accustomed to free services — are going to be seriously ticked off. And of course larger companies are going to be closing down unprofitable projects, with similar consequences. There’s even a website devoted to tracking such closings: It Died. It Died took me to a really interesting rant by Jason Scott about the closing of AOL Hometown. (And there’s a follow-up rant here.) Jason’s point is that, just as landlords can’t simply evict a renter for no cause and with no warning but have to follow carefully specified procedures, so too virtual landlords shouldn’t be given unlimited right of eviction. There needs to be, Jason says, some kind of website eviction law — or, failing that, a volunteer Archive Team that vacuums up the data of doomed websites and hosts it until people can rescue their data. (Jason came up with the volunteer idea after his legal ideas were descended upon by the SLV.*) I don’t know what I think about all this, except that there seems to be more and more to be said for the 37signals philosophy: if the creators of web services charge money for their product, they’re more likely to be able to keep offering it. The people at Jott, an excellent phone-to-web service for reminders and to-do lists, have come to this conclusion: they’re eliminating their free plan. Howls of outrage to commence immediately. *Slashdot Libertarian Vigilantes