Monthly Archives: May 2007

Note on “Parts”

The reader may notice that I have become rather disorganized in the order in which I am creating and expanding topics. This is in line with the nature of my desire for the use of this “blog” (a term I dislike using to describe this space). Thought Laboratory is meant to be primarily a storage location for my ideas. The fact that others can read and comment on these ideas is merely a bonus (one that I am guessing is not very often being exercised).

When I mark a topic as “Part I” etc, this is an indication to myself that the topic is incomplete. In some cases, I merely ran out of time or energy to complete an existing thought. In other cases, I recognize the topic as incompletely formed, and yet I have not yet thought through the additional components of the topic that I wish to visit. The patient reader may or may not find additional parts forthcoming.

One general comment, which I might try to add to the banner of the site: Unlike “blogs” (ugh), this collection is not meant to be read in any particular order, nor is the content meant to be “timely”, but quite the opposite – “timeless”. The organization of the material itself is indeed an example of my most recent post on the problem of organizing information (Quest for a Thinking Assistant: Part I). This archive is clearly not the best solution, but at least allows a persistent storage location for my thoughts as they occur.

I’ll try to examine the features of this environment (e.g. keywords and categories) to see if these can be of use in at least coarsely structuring the material for the reader.

Report This Post

The Quest for a Thinking Assistant, Part I

Throughout my career, both as an engineer and as a lifelong student on a large host of topics, I have repeatedly faced the problem of how best to organize information in an external representation to reflect and aid in my internal understanding of a field of study. By “external representation” I mean anything from a simple handwritten notebook to an online database of facts. I have tried a great variety of methods (and have succeeded in gaining a greater variety of knowledge) over the years, but none have been sufficient to allow me to refer back to them at a future date to efficiently recall and recover my internal knowledge to a level I deem acceptable.

A spiral-bound notebook was generally the first method to which folks of my generation were introduced. While reading a text, or listening to a lecture series, notes are taken in a serial manner by hand. The structure of the serial notebook is static, editing is difficult to impossible, so any later effort to reorganize the material to better represent the abstractions and relationships arrived at through contemplation of material requires a reproduction of the material in a new notebook. Folding in a second source of material – merging notes from a lecture with notes from a text, for example – is equally difficult. A small step up is the loose bound notebook, which at least allows insertion of later material, but the other serious problems of static text remain.

And then personal computers arrived. Static text was no longer a problem, though the process of collection of material remained handwriting, or required reading, or listening torecorded lectures,in front of a terminal. I used a rather slick word processor (ChiWriter), which allowed the use of mathematical symbols (my main interest in that period being mathematics of dynamic systems), but I rapidly found the process of creating and organizing a large electronic notebook daunting. The structure of the notebook was generally dictated by the first large text I read on a topic. Then subsequent material had to be manually merged into this structure until it became evident that the structure was imperfect and needed a different hierarchy. Dealing with the mess of reorganization in a flat word processor made the whole thing terribly arduous and distracted mightly from the process of learning.

Next came Think Tank, a DOS program which was really no more than an outlining program. This was marginally better in principle, as larger sections of text could be manipulated in a collapsable grouping, but the program was not really intended to hold large bodies of text, and – with my interests still primarily requiring mathematical notation – lack of anything other than ASCII input made the tool fairly useless.

More recently, I have examined the use of “mind mapping” software systems (MindManager by MindJet is a commercial product, though FreeMind and CMaps are equivalent or even better freeware systems). At first, these looked more interesting, by allowing a more general mapping of concepts and relationships in a not-necessarily hierarchial order. However, these tools fail on two counts. First, there remains the clumsiness of dealing with large amounts of detail in a pictoral representation (there are offered solutions to this, but they consist of mere hyperlinks to documents). But the more fundamental failure is that knowledge is hierarchial, and allowing for freeform relationships between concepts leads to a much more confusing, and ultimately non-rational, representation of the data to be organized.

Report This Post