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.

features and featurelessness

I like the general theme of this post very much — we do pay a price, often too high a price, for adding features to our software (and other things) — but this paragraph is wrong:

A perfectly blank sheet of white paper is a tool of infinite possibility. For input you could use a pencil, a pen, a crayon, a marker, a stamp, a brush or more. You could use all of those at once. You can write or draw or paint in any direction. Even multiple directions on the same sheet. You can use any color you want. How you enter data onto it and how that information is structured seems almost limitless. That flexibility and power is available to you because of [its] lack of features. In fact, it is featureless — devoid of them.

No, a sheet of paper has many features — traits — and they are worth noting. Compared to most things in our world, it is remarkably expansive in the two dimensions of height and width, considering its lack of depth. It’s also flexible and foldable. These features are sometimes wonderful (e.g., when you want to write a detailed letter and you only have one sheet of paper, which you can fold into a small square and stick in your back pocket) and sometimes regrettable (e.g., when the letter gets all crimped from staying in your pocket, or when you can't find anything flat and solid to write on). Most of the paper we see every day is also designed so as to receive quite easily all sorts of marks and impressions: the same sheet of paper can go through many different kinds of printers, can be typed on with a typewriter, and, as the post notes, can be marked on by pencils, pens, markers, paint brushes, and who knows what else. This is a feature, not featurelessness. Curiously enough, a piece of paper is rarely square, and as a rectangle offers us the choice of portrait or landscape mode; however, once one of those modes has been chosen it’s not possible to change completely to the other. Unless you turn the page over. We find the spatial proportions of an ordinary piece of paper — or a stack of such pieces, in the form of a codex or notebook — so appealing that we design electronic readers to resemble it. We like its receptiveness to marking so much that we keep hoping for someone to design a really excellent tablet-and-stylus computer. A plain sheet of paper, then, has a great many features, and all of them are worth thinking about. Similarly, when I write in a text editor rather than a word processor, that’s not because my text editor has fewer features than Microsoft Word, but rather because the features it does have are better suited to the task of writing.