Sunday, October 9, 2016

Saramango on Writing with a Computer

Here it goes:
The truth is, I had no difficulty in adapting to the keyboard at all. Contrary to what is often said about the computer compromising one’s style, I don’t think it compromises anything, and much less if it is used as I use it—like a typewriter. What I do on the computer is exactly what I would do on the typewriter if I still had it, the only difference being that it is cleaner, more comfortable, and faster. Everything is better. The computer has no ill effects on my writing. That would be like saying that switching from writing by hand to writing on a typewriter would also cause a change in style. I don’t believe that to be the case. If a person has his own style, his own vocabulary, how can working on a computer come to alter those things?
However, I do continue to have a strong connection—and it is natural that I should—to paper, to the printed page. I always print each page that I finish. Without the printed page there I feel . . .  
This also describes my experience. But paper has become less and less important over the last twenty years or so.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Jonathan Franzen on the Difference between Typewriter and Computer

In an interview of the Paris Review, Jonathan Franzen observes:
In terms of process, the one small difference between a typewriter and a computer is that a computer makes it easier to find fragments you’ve written and then forgotten about. When you work at a book for as long as I do, you end up doing a lot of assemblage from scavenged materials. And with a computer you’re more likely, on a slow morning, to drift over to another file folder and open up something old. Chunks of text travel with you, rather than getting buried in a drawer or stored in some remote, inaccessible location. ... chunks of writing that I could put together ...
This is certainly one difference, and it deserves to be improved upon.

Against the Apple Ideology?

Ivan Snenonius argues in All Power to the Packrats against the "sleek and clean" apple ideology, in which our “outdated” possessions are turned into symbols of poverty." I found it extremely refreshing:
The room of the modern person is stark, but in its simplicity it exudes wealth and sophistication. There is just an iPad and a simple bed or futon. None of the old-time accouterments, which signified intelligence, artistic interest, or a curiosity about the world, are evident. There are no magazines, books, or records anywhere. Just perhaps some high priced toiletries in the bathroom. Everything she needs is on the iCloud.
Things, stuff, and doo-dads are just hang-ups after all, serving to drag us into our past and harness us to prior ideas of who we were and what we were supposed to be. The Apple world is apart from the old world. It is one where we can be anything, free of the wretched past. Like our room, our body is also clean and shaven, streamlined for action.
What’s next? Giving up all thought, consciousness, history, and agency.
I am not sure about all the claims, but as I said: "refreshing."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Luhmann's Zettelkasten Described

Johannes Schmidt: Der Zettelkasten als Zweitged├Ąchtnis Niklas Luhmanns is a video of a lecture given by Johannes Schmidt that provides a very detailed description of Luhmann's Zettelkastn. I learned many new details (without having to revise my earlier views).

Highly recommnded!

Warning: The lecture is in German.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Epictetus on Reading?

There is a quotation, supposedly by Epictetus, on why mere reading of books is not enough. It's all over the Internet, and it reads:
“Don't just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents." Translation by Sharon Lebell”[1]
Searching Epictetus's texts themselves (or rather Arrian's account of the teachings of Epictetus, as we have no texts by Epictetus himself), you will not find this "quotation." It is actually from a rather dubious edition of Epictetus, namely by The Art of Living. The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Sharon Lebell. The subtitle of this work is "A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell."[1] It is a translation only in the loosest sense. As Lebell points out in her "Prologue", "I have done my share of selection, interpretation, and improvisation with the ideas in the Enchiridion and the Discourses. ... My aim has been to communicate the authentic spirit, but not necessarily the letter, of Epictetus. The passage in question, found in the section on "Essential Teachings on Virtue, Happiness, and Tranquility," is clearly an example of her "improvisation with the ideas" of Epictetus. It is written by Lebell, not by Arrian, and it is loosely based on some passages in the the Enchiridion and the Discourses.

Does it "communicate the authentic spirit" of Epictetus? I doubt it. Epictetus is constantly contrasting mere reading about certain principles and actually living them. To rely on reading is
just as if, in forming our opinions, when perplexed between true and false semblances, we should, instead of practically distinguishing between them, merely peruse dissertations on evidence. What, then, is the trouble? That we have neither learned by reading, nor by writing, how to deal practically with the semblances of things, according to the laws of nature. But we stop at learning what is said, and, being able to explain it to others, at solving syllogisms and arranging hypothetical arguments. Hence where the study is, there, too, is the hindrance.
Reading may be a beginning, but "we have neither learned by reading, nor by writing, how to deal practically with the semblances of things, according to the laws of nature." Practice is what is called for. To be "a more discriminating and reflective person," as Lebell would have it, would be for Epictetus not even the beginning of living in accordance with nature.

The very title of the book includes "effectiveness" as one of Epictetus's goals. But effects are, according to Stoicism not "up to us." Reader beware! And those who consume quotations should be aware that they are not quoting Epictetus, but a modern hash of Epictetus.[2]

1. (HarperCollins Publishers, 1994, 1995)
2. I am well aware that most people would not care about this distinction!

Tom Wolfe on Language

Tom Wolfe's forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech is a criticism of Darwin and Chomsky, among others. I hope the arguments he will offer will be better than this one I read in the Guardian:
“My contention is that language is not the result of evolution but essentially a verbal trick that was invented by human beings. It’s a memory aid – a mnemonic – that enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions.”
His thesis seems to be that
(i) language is not a product of evolution, but
(ii) it is a human invention
(iii) it's a memory aid ... That enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions."

(iii) seems to me obviously true, but it says nothing about the truth of (i) and (ii). Language can be a memory aid, no matter whether it is invented or a product of evolution.

His argument (if an argument it is) would certainly be true of writing which does seem to be a memory aid invented that allows us to store pieces of information, compare them and draw conclusions from them, but I don't know anyone who has claimed that writing is the product of evolution.[1] On the other hand Stanislas Dehaene has shown (convincingly to my mind) how reading (though "invented"), depends on certain structures of the brain that have evolved.[2] "Reading, but also writing, mathematics, art, religion, agriculture, and city life have dramatically increased the native capacities of our primate brains." But we have independent evidence for human beings who could use tools, but who could not write.

Whether there ever were beings that were human but who could not speak is an entirely different matter. Aristotle already proposed as a definition of human beings that they are the animal that can speak or have "logos", though he ultimately opted for rationality as the essential characteristic of humans. What language has to do with rational thought is an interesting question; and there is a host of other interesting questions having to do with language. I just doubt that Wolfe has anything interesting to say about it, and not just because of the passage discussed here. The mess he makes of Stoicism in his A Man in Full seems to me independent evidence for this skepticism. I am not going to rush out and buy Wolfe's book.

1. It seems to me that he is probably not making an argument but simply a claim that (i), (ii), and (iii) are true. I cannot help agreeing with Chomsky who is reported to have said: “I’m frankly astonished at the publicity this is receiving.”

2. Dehaene, S. (2009) Reading in the Brain. The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Viking.

Friday, September 9, 2016

"Ulysses News" on "The Future of Note-taking"

The developers of Ulysses want you to move from Vesper to Ulysses. So, they have sent an e-mail to users of Ulysses called "The Future of Note-Taking". Here is part of the text:
Is note-taking writing? In our opinion, the answer is clear: It depends. Jotting down a shopping list may not be writing, but recording secret thoughts and sudden inspiration comes at least very close. Ulysses is a writing app not only for professional or aspiring authors, but also for sophisticated note-takers. That’s why users of the now discontinued Vesper app may consider it as a worthy alternative.
Is note-taking writing? I agree: "it depends", but it does not depend on whether you are "jotting down something" or whether you are "recording secret thoughts". It depends on whether you are taking down notes in writing or, let's say, dictating into a tape recorder. Jotting things down is just as much writing as is recording thoughts. In fact, I don't really think that "jotting down" and "recording" are binary opposites in the way the author of this mail suggests. "Jotting down" can clearly be a form of "recording."

Can "Ulysses" be an application for "sophisticated note-takers"? Perhaps, but I doubt it, if only because I have tried to use it for that purpose. It just does not have the robust search capabilities that you'd need for long-term note-taking, etc., etc. I am also worried about how well it works with tens of thousands of notes, but perhaps I am not a "sophisticated" note-taker, and someone can enlighten me on the secrets of this way of taking notes.[1]

This says nothing about Ulysses as a mark-down editor for occasional use, of course. I do like the application, I just don't like the hype that goes with it. See also here.

1. I am not sure that Vesper was very good at that either.