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.

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