Tools for Thought


2005-2-9

I have some comments and thoughts about Steven Johnson's Tool for Thought post (which further explains what he wrote in an NYT essay)

I actually have far more to say about this as befits a normal blog post. But I want to get this out there now, before the topic looses momentum for me.

Steven Johnson basically describes how he uses DEVONThink to help him research a topic. Very important in this is the tool's ability to 'find related' pieces of text in his database.

"[w]e don't quite have a verb for it: it's riffing, or brainstorming, or exploring. There are false starts and red herrings, to be sure, but there are just as many happy accidents and unexpected discoveries. Indeed, the fuzziness of the results is part of what makes the software so powerful."

,,,

"[T]hese tools are smart enough to get around the classic search engine failing of excessive specificity: searching for ''dog'' and missing all the articles that have only ''canine'' in them."

Well, YES! And HEY!

That's what I was talking about all the time, and that's why I was building my 'similar entries' feature for my blog in the first place.

I might call it 'personal datamining' or simply 'associative search'.

Actually I was looking at DEVONThink some time back, before I had my own Mac. It inspired me down this road even then.

But for various reasons I never really used or really tried it. And now I know why. It's powerfull, but it's also very limited in other, more important ways.

In a follow-up post Johnson writes more on DEVONThink and it's shortcommings. It's simply not flexible. He mewntiones his whish for more meta-data and document linking.

I see one even more grievious shortcoming. It is a closed system. What happens to your data when the software dies? How can you get data in - and out again?

People who know me a little might guess where this is leading - I'll make it easy on you: Tinderbox.

"But HEY!" I hear them cry, "Tinderbox can't do that! Tinderbox is far too limited, it can only do keyword searches!"

True, and not true.

True, Tinderbox is in itself limited to keyword search. But at the same time Tinderbox has far more going for it in terms of flexibility. How many ways can you number in which you can relate one note to another in Tinderbox? Linking. Structure (Outline). Spatial (Map). Metadata (Attributes).

And thiose are only the obvious.

But here comes the main strong point: Tinderbox has an open file format. It's plain old XML. And that can be externally modified, analyzed and worked on.

While my current 'similar entries' approach is file based - one file per post, because that's the data-format I choose for my other blog - there is absolutly no reason why I couldn't build an external tool to mangle a Tinderbox file in the same way!

And here it ends for now. I know it can be done, and I know I can do it. Only I haven't done it yet. But I wanted the idea out there.

Some pointers to what I have been writing on this earlier:

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