Reporter's Notebook

Chronicles of Interesting Software
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Dispatches by James Fallows and others, and responses from readers, on the match between digital technology and human thought.
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Student Use of Scrivener

I've mentioned several times my use of and enthusiasm for Scrivener, a $39.95 writing program put out by a two-person operation in Cornwall, England. It's Mac-only, so stop right here if that means you can't consider it. (With VMware Fusion, I can happily run any Windows program on a Mac, but things don't work the other way around.)

Scriv.png

Actually, don't stop right here, since the traits that make this program (logo at left) valuable are in principle ones that could be applied in other writing and research programs. Because it helps explain these useful features, and not because it's essentially a free ad for Scrivener (with which I have no connection of any sort, other than as a customer), I quote a note from a recent convert, Noah Ennis, a graduating senior at the University of Chicago. He talks mainly about two of the program's features: a simple-sounding but surprisingly important "full screen mode," which blocks out everything else happening on the computer so you can concentrate just on what you're writing; and a "project" organization system that makes it easy to amass many notes, files, quotes, research documents, etc related to the essay or article or book you're writing.  Again the point about what follows is, it tells us something about this particular program, which may or may not suit your computer-using tastes; but it also suggests broader truths about the ways computers help and hinder the way we think. Ennis wrote this to me because I suggested the program to him. He says:

I don't think I've ever been excited about software, but this is something that's such a quantitative increase in efficiency (by lowering the energy tax on storage, retrieval, and switching between documents) that it qualitatively changes the way I read and write on the computer. Here are four areas in which it's drastically changed my computer life:

1. It makes all writing projects, but especially any large project, easier and more pleasant. My old method was to have a bunch of different Word documents open, and to move between them with a lot of time spent searching for windows and a lot of redundant writing. For [his undergraduate thesis], I ended up with something like 40 documents of which I only ever used 8 or 10. In Scrivener everything is instantly accessible and easy to switch to, which paradoxically means that I can write more haphazardly-- I can paste large block quotes from sources instead of putting a link, I can keep multiple outlines going at the same time as I'm writing. To say nothing of the full screen mode. I'm completely baffled that appleworks, word, and textedit haven't done something as simple as allow document loading from a side bar, or implement a fullscreen button (or if they have, I'm baffled at my and my friend's ignorance of these features). I'm convinced that if I had Scrivener when I was writing the [thesis], I could have saved literally dozens of hours of redundant work simply from better organization.

2. Scrivener means that I can keep all of my lists and files in one or two central places, instead of in 50 word documents in my OS X dock. I used to have to hunt for the appropriate document every time I wanted to store a word, quote, book title, new concept, article, person's name, block of text to read later, etc.. Now I can do it in one place (and again, paradoxically, this means I can multiply the number of bins I have because the attention externality of each bin is so much lower. So I can make a bin for quotes about "ways of reading" where before that level of specificity would take too much time to access quickly and frequently).

Following previous dispatches here and here about the endless, quixotic search for the ideal outlining program, many people wrote in to sing the praises of a Windows-based program I had not been aware of: InfoQube, or IQ. (Hardee-har!! I get it!) Sample testimonial note from someone who identifies himself as "a highly satisfied user" and who doesn't appear to be connected to the company:

"I'd like to let you know that InfoQube (IQ), while still a bit unknown and not out of beta yet (but soon to reach v1.0 ), is a very powerful Outliner too!

"In my humble opinion, probably the most powerful and flexible out there. Really. I have been using it for the last 2 years, doing incredible things with it... Not only does it do outlining, but it also has a calendar, Gantt charts, pivot tables, etc.

"It's not your typical software : it takes an open mind and a bit of reading (not that much!) to understand its principles. These small initial efforts are quite rewarding, that's for sure!
Have a look at it (Download), and feel free to ask questions on our friendly Forum. ["Our" = user community, not speaking for the company itself] Pierre Paul Landry, our IQ talented, dedicated and friendly developer, answers many questions himself."

Here's a thematic illustration from the company's site, on the "Qube" theme. (Click for bigger.) Disappointingly, the actual program is confined to normal 2-D computer screen displays. I have not yet tried InfoQube myself, but I received enough mail from people who have that it seemed worth mentioning.

InfoQube2.jpg


While I'm on the subject of satisfied users, I have mentioned several times the modestly-priced, Mac-based writing program Scrivener, on which I am relying for more and more of my work. An impressive list of writers (mainly novelists) who have become devotees is here. Worth considering.

While out of range for the past week, I've not weighed in on a lot of subjects I would normally have a view on, from the Nigerian would-be suicide bomber, to the nature and function of the TSA, to the implications of press and judicial developments within China, to the latest twist in China's policy on the RMB.

I will plan to catch up, on each and all, in the next day or two. For the moment ... how about a promising entry from the world of "interesting" technology?

What I have in mind is Thinklinkr, a free, "cloud"-based outlining program that very much deserves attention. Since the dawn of the personal computing age, outlining programs have constituted a fascinating but often heartbreaking product category. Fascinating because they are an essential component of electronic "thinking tools." (Another essential component: systems for collecting, organizing, and retrieving info. And ideally one more: something to do the actual thinking and writing. So far, no dice.) Heartbreaking because several of the best entries have atrophied or been orphaned, and others are minority tastes.

Perhaps it's mainly rosy retrospect, but I still think the classic DOS outliner GrandView was the best I've ever used. Background on GrandView here. Those I use and like these days include the elegantly minimalist BrainStorm (PC only); the intriguing-in-many-ways PersonalBrain (PC, Mac, LInux); the also-intriguing MindManager (PC, Mac); OmniOutliner (Mac); plus the outlining functions in the wonderful Mac-only writing program Scrivener; plus the outlining functions in the upcoming Version 6 release of the wonderful PC-only "idea processor," Zoot. (Zoot 6 is in late beta.) And some others I am forgetting right now.

I give that long warmup to say that I've always cared about this field, and I find Thinklinkr a worthy new contender,as a very fast, very flexible online outlining tool. Its basis in the "cloud" means that you don't have to worry about Mac/PC issues nor about synching among your different machines. You do, of course, have to be online. It also keeps track of previous versions of an outline, and allows users in differently places to collaborate in real time. Worth checking out. (Partial screenshot below, and further info below that.)

ThinkLInk.png

Reference section: For a history of the outlining field in general, start here; for a later "rediscovery" of outlines, go here. For my previous perspectives on and judgments about other "thinking" systems, see this about Zoot; this about BrainStorm; and this about Personal Brain. For a blog by the designers of Thinklinkr, see a sample entry here and main page here. I have written to the company to ask about the ideas behind the program and will post the answers shortly. Thanks to Michael Ham for the lead.

I am a long-standing devotee of the David Allen "Getting Things Done" (GTD) approach to life, as I first described in this Atlantic article about him four years ago. We've become friends and stayed in touch since then too, which at least for me has been very enjoyable. Plus, since long before the Atlantic wrote about him he has been a loyal subscriber!

The GTD Way mainly involves habits of mind and action, but it also places a lot of emphasis on having the right tools, gizmos, and gimmicks to support those habits. Over the years I've used a variety of software to set up GTD-based systems on my computer. Ones I've liked include Results Manager and Chandler. The one I keep coming back to for my own purposes, more than a dozen years after I started using it, is the idiosyncratic but powerful Zoot. Zoot is PC-only, and for that matter text-only (no graphics etc), but it runs flawlessly on a Mac under VMWare Fusion.

Here are three more to bear in mind, with different strengths and idiosyncracies of their own: