Democracy in peril.

I think that democracy is failing.

Politicians all seem to be too busy looking after their own interests or the interests of their cronies. They are isolated and insulated from the views and needs of the great mass of the population.

Government has become so London centric it’s as if the south east of England were a different country.

Yes we have a popularity contest every four years but what then? After the election the Prime Minister gives a press briefing on the steps of number 10 and promises things she has no intention of delivering, just to reassure everyone, the lobbyists line the politicians pockets with silver so big companies and the people with power and money get what they want while the common people who were given so much attention during the election campaign are now simply ignored.

What we seem to have is a system made up of liars who would promise anything just to get re-elected, they would sell their soul to the devil just to secure that chair in the house.

If you look at the arguments put forward by politicians and think about the meaning of what they are actually saying it basically boils down to “Vote for us because we aren’t as bad as the other lot”.

Wait ? Why can’t I vote for someone good ?

Well I could but good luck getting them to win. What we have is a system which strengthens oligarchs and screws the ordinary citizen, over.

The problem is getting worse. Technology is being used to ‘Fix’ elections and referenda by micro targeting individuals with messages customised to their own prejudices and beliefs. Politicians can tell whatever lies they like without the fear of being held to account for any of their lies.

In the recent European Referendum the Brexit campaign used micro targeting of messages on social media and lots of other dirty tricks to exert undue influence on the voters. I do not regard the results of that referendum to be fair and unbiased.

The system is loaded, it isn’t the party with the best policies that wins, it’s the one with the biggest advertising budget. There are supposed to be rules on how much money each party or faction can spend on their campaign but there are ways around these rules for the unscrupulous.

This was not the way it was supposed to be. The internet and the world wide web were hailed as bringing information to the masses. It was supposed to make elections fairer by promoting a well informed electorate, any lies told by politicians would be exposed immediately.

That is not the way it turned out !

What went wrong ?

People vote with their hearts not their minds, you can influence more people with an emotive article or a graphic picture than with an article which contains reasoned arguments and verified facts. Facts don’t tug at the heart strings. And when you are freed from the constraints of telling the truth you can construct some very effective propaganda.

Micro targeting allows you to tailor the message to the recipient and so this becomes a very powerful tool to influence voters.

But this is a slippery slope that we are on.

The success of this strategy will lead to a greater demand for big data about people, and this in turn will lead to politicians relaxing regulations on user surveillance and monitoring, after all it is in their interests to provide themselves with the best tools available to win elections. And that is what it is all about, that is the goal of politicians, to win the next election, not to look after the people or the security of the country or the economy, all these are just the side effects of the need to win the next election. They must be seen to be doing the right thing by the country even if it is an illusion.

What we should be doing is passing laws and regulations to limit the amount of user surveillance and monitoring but this is unlikely to happen and if it does it will be crafted in such a way as to be ineffective, just for show, because it’s popular with the voters.

I don’t have any solutions.

I think I know what the nature of the problem is, but nothing will change unless we’re prepared to have very broad based discussions that get away from the normal platitudes you get in any political campaign “everything’s going to be OK next year if you just vote for me”, it’s a load of crap. This goes for all the major political parties. You know what they are telling you is a load of crap and they aren’t actually going to solve anything.

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Note Taking Software, back to basics.

There are many note taking programs but there are none which are ideal in my opinion. Many of them do a lot more things that I don’t need and don’t do all the things which I do need. A couple of them do come tantalisingly close to my ideal.

So what do I actually need from a note taking program. Let’s build it up from basics.

I like things to be simple!

What is the simplest note taking system?

A pencil and paper!

But a pencil and paper is not connected, you can’t search a large paper document easily. Organising and re-organising paper documents is difficult even if you have scissors and glue.

It would be more useful if it were electronic and on a computer.

So what is the simplest note taking system on a computer ?

Plain text files!

This is true, but having lots of plain text files scattered about on a hard disk can also be frustrating.

“I’m sure I had that information in a text file somewhere, if only I could remember what it was called and what folder it was in, dammit!”

There are problems with organising and re-organising a body of information which is contained in plain text files. What is needed is a way of structuring them and indexing their contents so they can be searched as a whole.

Keeping all your notes together is a good idea. Being able to add structure to them so that they can be grouped by their salient features is a good idea. Being able to explicitly express the salient features of a note (tags & metadata) is a good idea. Having a mechanism whereby one note can refer to another note (or indeed something outside the program) is a good idea. That is why note taking programs are a good idea.

With a note taking program you can keep all your notes in one place, link them together and define a logical structure, add meta-data to express the significant features of the data, link to other files or websites and search for things which you want to find.

Everything over and above this is either the icing on the cake or superfluous and unnecessary depending on your point of view.

Of course there are programs which provide a myriad of extra facilities and functions but if they fail to provide these basic facilities then they still fall short.

All the extra functions do is obfuscate the basic functionality. I am not saying that programs should not offer extended functionality but if the basic functionality ends up hidden in a sub-menu of a sub menu or in a context menu somewhere obscure then that is a bad thing.

The basic and most often used functions should be in obvious places, the extra functionality can be hidden in obscure places. The developers task is to decide which functions are the most often used and which ones get used once in a blue moon by just a few people.

If a program tries to be all things to all people then what usually happens is the user interface becomes complicated in one way or another.

 

Organisation

Almost all note taking programs organise their notes in either a tree or a directed graph. Most of the other types of organisation are either trees or directed graphs if you look at their topology.

A wiki might be thought of as a free form structure but the notes are connected by links and thus it is actually a directed graph. A mind map might be thought of as different from an outline but they are both trees, they are just displayed differently.

Directed graphs are more useful than trees.

Trees have the problem that as they get bigger it becomes more difficult to place nodes within them, that is, it becomes more difficult to find a single place which is correct for that node. There are usually several places where it could plausibly fit. That is why directed graphs are more useful.

For example, if a node could fit in the tree under the project it is part of or under the person whose responsibility it is or under the problem which the project is supposed to address then with a tree you have to select which is the most important feature of the node. This leads to difficulty in finding the node later when you have forgotten what your original decision was. It also leads to inconsistency of placement.

With a directed graph you can put the node in all the appropriate places simultaneously. If a node in a tree can have more than one parent then that tree is a directed graph. If you can ‘clone’ a node so that it appears more than once in a tree then that tree is really a directed graph.

It should be noted that a clone is not a copy, it is the same node which appears in more than one place.

 

Tags

Tagging nodes to indicate properties of the node is a necessary feature of a note taking system in my opinion. Well thought out tags are very useful.

Hierarchical tagging systems are in my opinion most useful, but few note taking programs have hierarchical tagging systems. Ideally the use of a tag should also imply the node having the parent tag as well (inheritance) i.e. if the node is tagged as belonging to this electronics project then it should also be tagged with the parent tag of ‘electronics’ and if electronics is the descendant of another tag then it should inherit that one too, recursively right back to the root of the tree.

One caveat with this is that when selecting the tags to apply to a node the list should be just a flat list of all the tags in alphabetical order, i.e. the tree should be flattened out.

Tagging systems can become a mess if the user doesn’t think about what the significant features of their data are. If the collection of tags just develops ad-hoc then they will probably be inconsistent with each other and this can lead to confusion.

A tagging system is even more useful if on can refine a search by selecting from a list of tags held by the results of the current search. Similar to the system used by the website ‘Del.icio.us’ before it was discontinued to make way for Pinboard’s subscription service. One alternative to this is if you can build a query using tags combined with AND, OR, NOT and brackets.

Meta-data is just another form of tagging, the meta-data expresses something about the node and as such it should be able to be searched and nodes should be able to be grouped on properties expressed in the meta-data.

One unhelpful characteristic of many programs is that their meta-data is common to all nodes. For example, let us suppose I have a notebase in which I have some notes on a selection of vacuum cleaners in order to choose which one to buy. One of the pieces of meta-data I might define for those nodes is ‘price’ and give each vacuum cleaner a number which represents it’s price. In a well designed note taking program that ‘price’ meta-data would only exist for those items I had assigned it to. In a badly designed note taking program all nodes in the notebase would now have a ‘price’ even where it is inappropriate. This would make the list of meta-data extremely long for every node because every node has an entry for every piece of meta-data defined for any node in the entire notebase.

Tags are all that is really necessary, other meta-data can be placed in the text of the node in a minimalist system.

 

Links

Linking notes together makes them much more useful. The information in one node can refer to information in another node and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The basic link is like a hypertext link and occurs in the text of a node, it refers to another node. Clicking on the link takes you to the node which the link points to. This basic link is all that is necessary in a note taking system. Just with this type of basic link you can build a wiki.

There are usually other types of link in a system, especially if it is structured as a tree or graph. The structure of the tree implies parent/child links and this is used to arrange the nodes on the screen.

In my opinion there also needs to be links where the information in one node needs to cite or refer to the information in another node. There needs to be a mechanism whereby a node can list other nodes which provide supporting or related information. These are sometimes called ‘see also’ or ‘related items’ or ‘reference’.

 

Text

The function of a note taking system is to hold notes, i.e. information. This can be plain text but the necessity of including links to other nodes implies something more than just plain text. And a bit of formatting is quite nice too.

The inclusion of pictures and diagrams is really useful as well. There is an old saying that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, pictures can aid comprehension and understanding of the information. The inclusion of pictures in the text of a node although not strictly necessary is a good feature to have.

Tables are also quite useful.

 

Conclusions

So my ideal note taking program would not have a lot of extra features which I don’t use but would include the all the basic functionality described in this article.

What would such a program look like?

It would have a directed graph structure presented as either a tree (or many trees) or preferably as a network (map). Each node could appear many times in the network/tree as a clone of the same node.

If the structure is presented as a map then the map should centre on the node which has the focus and if the user moves to a new node then the map should be re-drawn with the new node as the centre of the map, this allows you to see the node of interest ‘centre stage’ whilst still being able to see it’s context.

If displayed as a tree then it would be able to ‘Hoist’ a node so that it becomes the centre of attention and would be able to expand/collapse branches of the directed graph/tree.

Each node would be associated with a pane of text which could contain pictures, diagrams, tables and links to other nodes. Links should be opened by a simple single click just like a web browser. In addition each node would be associated with a list of ‘related’ nodes and/or a list of files associated with that node each of which could be opened by clicking on the entry in the list. Ideally the text pane should be floating so that it can be placed on a second monitor.

There would be a hierarchical tagging system with inheritance which could be searched by clicking on the tag in the tag tree but in which the search could be refined by clicking on further tags narrowing down the selection each time, similar to the system used by the ‘Del.icio.us’ website.

The text of each node would be indexed so that full text searches can be carried out quickly. In addition complex searches would be possible by building search criteria in a ‘search table’ each row having columns defining what is being searched for, what is being searched (node text, tags, meta-data etc.), what the conditions are (greater than or equal to, less than, equal to, text contains, matches wildcard etc.) and what the relationship is to the other search criteria (AND, OR), maybe a tree structure would be more useful here instead of brackets. Furthermore these complex searches should be able to be saved for later re-use. This does not mean that a quick and simple search should not be available as well.

There are a few (very few) programs which come close but there isn’t yet a program which ticks all the boxes for me.

This is a bit more complicated than a simple pencil and paper but I think it would be a lot more useful.

 

Will Technology destroy Democracy ?

Technology has made some wonderful advances, it looks like we will fairly soon have self driving cars, just tell it where you want to go and it will take you there. Your fridge will know when things were bought and when they are likely to go off, it may also give you dietary advice. You might have a personal assistant on your desk listening to your every word you say and controlling your connected home, remembering all of your appointments so you don’t have to and answering any question you ask it.  There are many technologies which are ‘just around the corner’ so the next few years could see some interesting changes.

So how is it that with all the incredible advances in technology we have today and with increasing automation the rewards have not been spread more evenly ?

It seems to me that there is something very wrong about how technology is benefiting the world today. There is also a fundamental threat to democracy which few people seem to be aware of.

It is said that we have entered a new ‘Information Age’ but the information economy seems to be about endless austerity, jobless recoveries, lack of social mobility, and intense concentration of wealth and power for the few whilst most people struggle to make ends meet.

One of the principles of the information age seems to be the spread of free information and services. For example social media, Wikipedia, free software, free ‘Cloud’ storage (which is just your data stored on someone else’s server), free online education and many variations of the above.

Most people would think that this is a good thing. It spreads the power of information to the many. Control of this information has passed out of the hands of a few elites and into the hands of anyone who cares to download it.

But there is a problem. There are consequences which nobody seems to have anticipated.

Revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica came as a shock to many people but this should be a wake up call! I think that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that Cambridge Analytica was not unique among companies.

The actual problem runs far deeper and this is just one example of a struggle which is going on between technology and democracy. There are some benefits to free stuff online but this has blinded us to the fundamental ways technology is eroding our democracies.

A typical server, many racks each containing many computers all linked together.

A server is a group of computers linked together to perform a particular function. The computers in a server are linked to a network and provide services to other computers on that network. Computer programs can be split up to run on many computers in parallel and get results much faster than if the program was running on just one computer. A server may consist of a few tens of computers up to many thousands of computers.

All the servers that crunch ‘big data’ are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites in anonymous buildings and have lots of security. Because they are very valuable.

When people share information freely, those who own the biggest and fastest servers benefit in ways that ordinary people can’t even imagine let alone emulate. Companies with large servers can simply calculate wealth and power out of free information.

While the free and open information ideal feels empowering, it is actually enriching those with the biggest servers to such an extreme that it is weakening democracy. The uses to which some of this data is put is also weakening democracy, I’m talking about micro-targeting here.

It doesn’t matter if the servers run social media sites, national intelligence agencies, giant online stores, big political campaigns, insurance companies, or search engines. What they are all doing in the background is remarkably similar.

All these servers gather data about people and then process that data to find out all they can about the people the data is about. This data might include emails and tweets or social media likes and sharing, private documents on ‘cloud’ storage, sightings through cloud-connected cameras, or commercial and medical dossiers. There are no limits to the snooping.

All these sites (apart from the national intelligence agencies) need a ‘hook’ something to entice people into this asymmetrical information relationship.

The hook might be free Internet services or music, or easy-to-get mortgages. But there is a price to be paid for these ‘free’ services.

Ordinary people are the sole providers of the information that makes the big servers so powerful and valuable, and ordinary people do get some benefit for providing their data.

They get the benefits of an informal economy usually associated with the developing world, like reputation and access to barter. The real monetary benefits are given to those who own the servers.

More and more ordinary people are thrust into a winner-takes-all economy. Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful.

In most cases there was no evil plot, it is just a result of human nature. Many of the people who own the servers are genuinely nice people. But a lot of the people who use the data they harvest have their own agendas. And the people who have wealth and power want what almost all people with wealth and power want … more wealth and more power.

In a world of free information, the economy will shrink as automation rises radically. This is because in an ultra-automated economy, there won’t be much to trade other than information.

The threats to democracy come from the uses to which the data is put.

Our democracies evolved for an analogue age and they developed alongside institutions which support them like a free press and citizens who all have access to the same information. There are rules to follow like the secret ballot and expenditure limits. These institutions and rules keep the whole thing fair and equitable.

But in the past few years things have changed drastically and things are still changing. Most people don’t realise how much things have changed already.

Digital technology works by a different set of rules to those which evolved alongside democracy. It is de-centralised and difficult to control and it is improving at an incredible rate.

Western democracies have rules to make sure that all their voters have access to the same set of information for an election. The statements which a candidate makes are on the whole accurate because they know that if they make a false statement this will be picked up by news organisations and the media and they will be found out. Issues are debated in the media with representations being made from both sides of each argument.

But now we have ‘Big Data’ and micro targeted messaging and the rules which ensure free and fair elections don’t apply anymore.

Using Big Data analysis servers can build up very accurate and detailed psychological profiles of millions of individuals and politicians who pay for the services of companies like Cambridge Analytica can target each one of them with a highly personalised message. They can exploit our psychological vulnerabilities and prejudices on a vast scale and in a way that no regulator has access to.

It is out with the old shared frame of reference against which new information can be judged and in with millions of private frames of reference which may or may not bear any resemblance to the shared frame of reference.

How can we hope to hold politicians to account for their statements if everyone gets a different message and nobody knows what anyone else was told?

But it gets even worse.

Facebook have algorithms which can build up a very accurate psychological profile from what seems like innocent, unconnected and irrelevant pieces of information. The original purpose of these algorithms was to give you more content that you like in order to keep you on the Facebook website longer and therefore expose you to more targeted advertising.

But it didn’t stop there when Facebook amassed all this data about its users the next question was “How can we make more money out of all this data?”

It isn’t just Facebook who are tracking their users, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are doing much the same thing along with a host of other companies and national security agencies of many countries.

The more data they get about you the more accurate their psychological profile becomes, they can make predictions about your political and religious beliefs, how likely you are to take risks, how introverted or extrovert you are and many other aspects of your character which you might not have wanted to share with others.

Pretty soon your car will know about every journey you take, where you started from, where you went to and what time you set off and arrived, your fridge will know everything about your diet and if you like to buy the yellow label discount items from the supermarket and your personal assistant will know how you feel because of your tone of voice and all this information about you will be correlated and cross referenced against all the other sources of information about you.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. All this information will reveal more than you ever wanted to share with the rest of the world. In such a world as I describe there will be no such thing as privacy.

You will be constantly bombarded with messages based on all this information and that will open up a whole new level of manipulation targeted at you personally.

But there is another aspect to this which is fracturing society. In the social media realm we create our own reality which alienates us from one another. This is a result of the algorithms whose purpose it is to keep us hooked to Facebook and other social media platforms.

Democracies need informed citizens who all have access to the same shared base of information but in the social media realm we create our own reality. Social media gives us more of what we want so if we ‘like’ a post with a particular political leaning the AI on the server takes note and makes it more likely that we will see more posts from that particular political leaning in order to keep us looking at the social media platform longer and be exposed to more targeted advertising.

On social media we create our own reality, our own mix of opinion, information, misinformation, real news and fake news. This creates our own bubble in which we only see what we want to see and only hear the views of those people who agree with us.

This is making people more angry and more extreme in their views and it makes it much less likely that we will compromise with each other.

In the end there will only be one winner in the struggle. Either technology will destroy democracy and the existing social order will be destroyed or the current political system will exert its authority and control over the digital revolution.

As things stand at the moment technology is winning and unless things change dramatically democracy will be washed away just like communism, feudalism and absolute monarchies have been.

It will be regarded as a system which persisted for a while but could not adapt to the new technology.

If democracy is washed away what would replace it ?

I think it will be authoritarianism, but not like anything which has gone before !

Corporatocracy. Huge multinational corporations too big to fail will dominate the global landscape and a very few people in the world will, and already do, hold the vast majority of wealth and power.

Their wealth and influence being the key to influence global politics to favour their own needs. They will have and feel no responsibility to the rest of humanity.

Big business has already had such a tight grip on politics that for a long time now people have just accepted that you can’t budge big business and that the worker is in no position to fight back or negotiate.

They monitor us with advanced technology and have built a consumer society which seeps into our cultural psyche. We slowly, through globalisation, will become homogenous until all there are only two classes. The consumer, alienated and kept down by the exploiting classes and the capitalist, who demands a homogenous class of downtrodden and subdued consumers to keep themselves rich, and who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing !

Even now the ruling elites are plotting behind the backs of millions to set up trade deals and line their own pockets and have been doing so since the rise of neoliberalism – oligarchs are pulling the strings of our ‘democratic’ nations. In effect, these past few decades have simply been a restoration of power back to private industry and history is once again repeating itself. Over and over again it is the same struggle between humanity (the working people), and the ruling elites.

In such a world ruled by big business they would probably keep governments and elections just to keep a sham of democracy but government would be under the control of big business. Corporate interests, profits, growth, and returns would come before all else !

 

 

InfoQube followup

InfoQube is a complicated program with many capabilities but it is difficult for a new user to understand.

It is very easy for a new user to feel lost, partly this is due to not knowing where everything is but its because the program is capable of doing so many different things, when faced with so many possibilities a new user might think “What the F*&@ should I do now ?”, option paralysis is a well known phenomenon in psychology.

InfoQube is almost completely opposite to Microsoft OneNote, with OneNote the user interface is superbly designed to help the new user and to make the operation of the program obvious.  But the program itself sucks, many of its capabilities are superficial and gimmicky.  They are included just so that the advertising department can tick the box saying it has that capability.  If you use OneNote for any serious work then you come up against its limitations very quickly.  It is a typical product of Microsoft ‘focus groups’ which tend to make things so they are easy for the new user and difficult or impossible for the power user.

InfoQube on the other hand does not have a user interface which is simple and intuitive.  The user interface is very dense.  What do I mean by dense ?  It is packed with sub menus, drop downs and context menus and some of the sub menus have sub menus.  This can be confusing for a new user who doesn’t know where everything is.

There is a lot of depth to this program, but it can be intimidating to a new user. I am still learning and so I am sort of a new user but I don’t feel lost anymore. I was helped a lot by finding the option to customise menus and toolbars and experimenting with what I could and couldn’t move and/or get rid of.

Toolbars can have icons taken out of them and other icons put into them. New toolbars can be defined. The same is true of menus, the menus themselves are fixed but the contents of each menu can be changed. There are a few things in the menus which are fixed and you have to work around these entries but you can almost completely re-arrange everything else.

I was not aware how customisable InfoQube was until I went looking for the command to set up keyboard shortcuts.  In the sub menu there was an entry called ‘Customize’ (pardon the Americanism but that’s the way its spelled in the program).  This is a key feature and shouldn’t be hidden away in a sub menu.  Once I found out what it was capable of I dragged it up one level onto the ‘Tools’ menu between ‘Help’ and ‘Options …’ where I would have expected to find it in the first place.

I then butchered the interface until I was comfortable with it.

I am now using the cut down interface.  I have deleted many of the capabilities of the program, the things I am not interested in.

  • Like Pivot Tables and Pivot charts, since Microsoft Office is no longer installed on my system I can’t use these anyway.
  • Like sending e-mail to InfoQube, someday I may want the capability to send information to my InfoQube database from anywhere or for others to do so but for now I’m not interested.
  • Like Gantt Charts, maybe one day I will have to manage a project and if that is the case then I will be grateful for this capability but for now its something I don’t need.

These facilities are still there, they have just been deleted from the user interface.  If they are ever needed then they could easily be re-introduced.

Without all the stuff I don’t need and with the stuff I do need re-arranged I have a sensible manageable, comprehensible (to me) interface.  Actually I haven’t taken that much out, but in the process of re-arranging things I became much more familiar with where things are.  I have assigned a new set of keyboard shortcuts so that the operations which are common to the other programs I use are now in familiar locations where my fingers can find them on their own without too much thought.

So, what have I got left ?

I have a two pane organiser similar in operation to MyInfo with the columns in the left hand pane similar to Myinfo but it has the dockable panes which can be detached and placed on the other monitor just like Ultra Recall and it has a form of hierarchical tagging similar to ConnectedText.  It has the ability to assign different meta-data to different items like Ultra Recall and the capability to have saved searches like the $ASK command in ConnectedText (except the results appear in a table (grid) not on a page).

The hierarchical tagging is not native to InfoQube but it shows the flexibility of the program that something like this is possible with only the things which are already built in.

I am aware that I am not using InfoQube to it’s full potential but the question is, do I need to use the program to it’s full potential ?  If it does what I need then that is enough and the extra capabilities are there if I ever need to use them.  I didn’t use ConnectedText to it’s full potential either.  So what!  If InfoQube does become my main note taking program then my usage of other parts of the program would possibly expand over time.

If only the linking of pages (placing a link on a page which links to another page) was as good as ConnectedText then I could rebuild my ConnectedText wiki within InfoQube.

Moving lots of data over to InfoQube has highlighted the fact that the import facilities of InfoQube are very rudimentary unless you are importing from EccoPro or Evernote.

This is the reason I have not done a load test on InfoQube, importing a couple of thousand text files is only practical if it can be automated.  I suspect InfoQube would perform rather well in such a test but I cannot say that for certain until I do the test.  If I drag and drop files to the left Pane then all I get is links to the files on disk, the file contents aren’t inserted into the database.

The pace of development of InfoQube is quite rapid and things have changed (for the better) since my review.  I look forward to seeing what new developments are coming.  If there are substantive changes then it may be worth doing a second review.

A review of the ReMarkable tablet

A review of the ReMarkable Tablet

This tablet has had a long and some might say drawn out gestation, the website has built up a lot of expectations that it will be hard to fulfil.  But they are now being shipped.  My overall impression of it is that it is quite good and very useful but maybe not quite as remarkable as the hype on the website would have you believe.

The design

The tablet is 18 cm by 25.7 cm by 0.7 cm but the screen area is 15.6 cm by 21 cm which is just as tall and slightly wider than A5 size.

There are three buttons at the bottom of the screen which are (from left to right) ‘previous page’, ‘home’ and ‘next page’.

One of the claims on the website is that it is almost like writing on paper and the screen is described as being matt.  Well my perception is that the screen is not matt, the screen has a silky sheen which can give slightly troublesome reflections (diffuse reflections) to lighting which is shining down onto the screen from behind the device.

The screen is not black on white but rather dark grey on light grey.  However the contrast is better than many of the e-ink screens I have seen and worked with.  It is comparable with the best e-ink screens but I can’t help but get the impression that the contrast of the screen on the videos on the ReMarkable website might have been artificially enhanced a little.

Writing on the screen is definitely not like writing on paper.  Nevertheless it is much nicer than the slick frictionless writing experience of one of the many smooth glass like tablets.  It is the nicest tablet I have ever written on (but it does nothing to improve your handwriting 🙂 ).  Various drawing tools are available including move, scale, rotate and erase.  Imagine having digital editing tools available for handwritten notes.

It is better to use the tablet in well lit conditions, there is no backlight, e-ink can be viewed from any angle but suffers a lot in dim conditions.

When writing on the tablet there is no perceptible lag, the pen is extremely responsive, the line appears as the pen nib touches the screen, this remains true even when the nib is travelling quite fast.

The tablet can be configured in either right hand (the default) or left hand mode and the writing screen can either be set to landscape or portrait (the default) mode and you can rest your hand on the display whilst writing without any problems however when you are writing near to the bottom of the page it is possible you will accidentally press one of the buttons with your wrist, so far this has happened three times to me and two times the button didn’t respond.  It seems that the software disables the buttons if you have your hand resting on the display but this is not as reliable as it could be.

The Pen

The pen is quite disappointing.  It has the look and feel of a cheap ballpoint pen.  Very light and feels flimsy.

Another problem is that the pen has a round cross section and there is no pen clip so if you put it down on a sloped surface it will roll away.  This could have been avoided with either a pen clip or designing the pen with a triangular cross section (at least for part of its length).

Battery

On the videos on the ReMarkable website they say you can “use it for days without recharging”.  I think that is an optimistic assessment.  If you turn on the WiFi then the battery goes down fairly quickly.  Turning the WiFi off is quite easy once you have found the ‘Device Settings’ screen (tap the rM logo in the top left hand corner of the home screen).  But even so after a full charge and using the tablet without WiFi for an evening’s jottings (several hours intermittent use) the battery was on 75%.  I think the “use it for days without recharging” claim is fairly optimistic.  Perhaps if I were using it as an e-book reader then it would live up to that claim.

The software and hardware

The tablet is running Linux on a relatively old ARM processor but you never see or get to interact with the operating system.

There is 8Gb of storage which the people at ReMarkable reckon will hold about 100 thousand pages, although they don’t say whether that is 100 thousand pages of handwritten notes or 100 thousand pages of PDF documents.  The storage is not expandable.

What this tablet doesn’t have and what would be very useful is some removable storage in the form of a micro SD card slot.  I know there are problems with Linux and removable storage (Linux needs storage to be ‘unmounted’ before it is removed) but there are ways around that.

Another thing which would have been useful and which would have cost nothing to design into the tablet is a hole for a lanyard loop in one corner of the tablet. But it doesn’t have this.

Mostly the software on the tablet runs perfectly but there are one or two rough edges.  The home screen sorts the notebooks so that the most recently used notebook is at the top.  You can sort by other orderings but as soon as you move away from the home screen or switch the device off this setting is forgotten.

Similarly (but even more annoying) when writing on a page you can select which type of pen you want to use and this setting is remembered until you use a different tool or a different page.  When you select the pen tool again it defaults to the pen they call ‘ballpoint’.  It would be better to remember the pen which was last used and default to that.

Apart from these two minor problems the software on the tablet is pretty good.

The software lets you make notebooks or folders, a notebook has a name and consists of one or more pages.  A folder has a name and can hold notebooks, PDF files, ePUB files or other folders.

This is a system of notebooks modelled on physical paper notebooks.  There is no tagging or categorisation so it needs something more to organise the pages, if they could be automatically exported to a PC and made available as compatible bitmaps in a known location in the PC then they could be linked to from other programs and therefore the latest version of the page would be available in the third party program but this is not possible at the current time.

The pages are bitmaps but they are in a strange format, there are one or more ‘layers’ overlaid and a ‘template layer can be displayed as a background.  This makes some advanced drawing techniques possible but makes the raw files incompatible with anything on the PC until they are exported and then they loose their ‘layers’ and the template.

A more compatible format would be much appreciated.

Desktop application and getting files into and out of the device

The tablet can function as an e-reader for PDF files and ePUB files and it works very well in that role.  You can crop the pages of PDF files to eliminate the blank area around the text and this setting is remembered for that file.  This makes reading the files easier.

Bizarrely it cannot display plain text files, this seems a very bad omission to me, there are still an awful lot of files out there in plain ASCII text and it is the simplest format to handle and display… oh well ‽

To get files into and out of the tablet you need to use a cloud storage facility run by the people at ReMarkable and to use it you must create a ReMarkable account which your tablet automatically connects to when it is in range of your WiFi and you don’t have WiFi switched off to save battery life.  All your notes (and PDFs) are uploaded to this cloud storage.

Meanwhile on your desktop PC or on your Android or Apple mobile phone there are apps with which you can log in to your ReMarkable account and all your notes (and PDFs) become available on each device.

The desktop PC app seems a bit rough, it doesn’t handle high DPI screens or multiple monitors well, although it doesn’t fail like many other programs it just has a few window sizing issues.  The desktop app can transfer files to the tablet but it does this through the cloud storage and WiFi.

There is a USB connection on the tablet and when the tablet is connected to a PC by USB then it is possible to open the tablet in a web browser by opening http://10.11.99.1/ and you can see all the files and folders on the device.  You can also drag and drop files onto the web browser screen and they will be copied to the tablet but they will only be copied to the root directory of the tablet no matter which directory is being displayed.  Also the traffic is only one way, pages updated on the tablet cannot be transferred to the PC using the USB connection.

The software for the PC and the web browser connection seem a bit clunky and rough as though they were a hastily set up afterthought.

One of the things I wanted to do with this system is to have the pages of notes available on the PC as bitmaps to be able to paste them (as a link to the original file) in to other note taking programs.  Preferably the bitmap files would be updated whenever the tablet was connected to WiFi but this is not the system they have implemented.

Instead the notes are available only on their application, if you need the notes for an external program then you have to export the pages you want and re-export them each time a page is changed.

Being able to view your notes on a mobile phone is useful.  However the app they provide for Android is not terribly good, you cannot zoom in on your notes so the notes you wrote in a space just bigger than A5 is now scaled to the phone screen size, this could be a problem unless you have good eyesight or you wrote your note with the phone screen size in mind.

One other facility which is overhyped on the ReMarkable website is the ‘Live View’ in which whatever you write on the tablet screen instantly appears on the PC screen.  I can see this would be useful for someone in a business meeting or for a teacher giving a lecture, if the desktop app was running on the PC and the PC had it screen connected to a projector then the students in the lecture theatre could see what the teacher was writing or drawing on the screen of the tablet.  I can think of no other circumstances under which this facility would be useful.

Conclusion

This is a good tablet and has been quite useful so far and I have no doubt it will continue to be useful in the future.

As an e-reader the ReMarkable is good, it would be even better if it supported plain text files.

As a note taking system it is limited by the fact that it tries to imitate paper notebooks so something more is needed to organise the pages.

Worth the money?

Yes .. I think it’s worth it!

P.S.  After having used the ReMarkable Tablet for about ten days the grey sleeve supplied with the tablet has started to delaminate.  The sleeve is soft black plastic on the inside and grey felt on the outside.  I suspect the layer between the inside and outside is cardboard, that is what it feels like now that it has started to come apart.

This means that the outside has become very loose and crumpled, the layers have separated and the sound when you insert the tablet or handle the sleeve suggests that the intermediate layer is cardboard.

I think the sleve is of a very cheap and flimsy construction, if you are thinking of buying a ReMarkable Tablet then save your money and don’t buy the outrageously overpriced sleeve, there are many tablet cases and sleeves available at a much lower price and I think most of them would be better constructed than the ReMarkable sleeve.

 

A different approach to Note Taking

I take a lot of notes. I use them for reference. I use them for speculation about topics of interest. I use them to note down ideas so that I don’t loose them.

Before the digital age I had many paper notebooks and boxes full of index cards.

In those days I used to carry a HP 200-LX computer in my pocket and I thought it was an ideal note taking solution, oh if only I could buy one again, oh the nostalgia …

Whilst I was doing my degree I used to take notes at lectures on paper despite having several digital solutions available. I found that writing on paper helped me recall the material that I was writing much better than if I typed it onto a computer.

The physical act of writing is more visceral, it connects with the consciousness at a more basic level than typing. When typing one can go into autopilot and concentrate on the sequence of letters rather than the meaning of the words, the material gets typed accurately but it leaves little lasting impression in the memory.

But computer solutions are better organised and more compact. If one relies on paper then one accumulates many scraps of paper and old notebooks which are difficult to keep organised or refer to.

What I am looking for it the best of both worlds.  A paper notebook with unlimited pages which can transfer it’s content onto a computer, without many scraps of paper to keep track of, and hopefully without the paper.

Trees generate oxygen for our planet, we should not chop them down to be made into newspapers or chipboard furniture or paper notebooks.

For a long time I have relied on an application called ConnectedText which has served me well for a long time. It is a wiki with many powerful features, but recently I have found it to be less satisfactory than it used to be.

This is because I bought a new laptop and monitor with very high resolution screens.

The advent of high DPI screens and Windows 10 screen scaling has meant that the icons on ConnectedText are now microscopic and the titles of topics are only partially displayed.

The development of ConnectedText has now ceased and so it will probably never be updated and will continue to fall further behind as operating systems change until finally one day some update will break it.

This is particularly annoying for me because some while ago I paid quite a lot of money for perpetual licenses, the developer sold me licenses which would be for life, if there were any new versions of the software I would get an update to my license so I would get the new version for free.

He probably already knew that version 6 would be the last one and I already had a license to version 6.

If the developer has abandoned development it would be better if he were to release the source code as an open source project but I suspect he is keeping it going just to get a little more money from the current version.

I cannot now recommend ConnectedText for anyone wanting a new notetaking solution.

Perhaps it is time for some lateral thinking.

It would be nice if one could have digital paper, a screen on which one could write and draw but which could send these images to a computer and/or recognise the handwriting. Like a paper notebook with unlimited pages, no more stray scraps of paper to keep track of.

There are several possibilities.

One could use an Android tablet.

In my experience handwriting on an Android (a Sony Xperia mobile phone) is awful, the line drops out at random and the screen is slick, there is no friction and this tends to make my handwriting more messy. Also the note taking apps I have tried are cumbersome and awkward to use.

An Android device can also act as an e-reader for PDF and text files.

Despite this Android is not a good solution.

Dr Andus recommends a Boogie board.

I have tried a Boogie board and writing on the screen is much better and it is more responsive than an Android phone. However the Boogie board is not a very good solution for other reasons.

It is a write only solution, this is not what I want.

Once you have written a page or drawn a diagram, once you move onto a new page you can never go back to the previous page. The device stores them but it cannot display them. You can upload the stored pages onto a computer and this is the only way to see one of your previous pages.

The Boogie board is cheap but it is not a solution to the problem.

There is another device by Sharp, the WG-N20 which seems more capable than the Boogie board. It is an electronic notepad. You can look at and edit any stored page, sounds good, but there are problems.

The first big shock you get when buying one is the hidden costs. This is a Japanese import and so the price you see on the Amazon website is not the price you end up paying.

On the Amazon website it boasts free shipping to the UK but the UK Customs and Excise will open your package and impose an import duty on it. The shipping company will then demand this import duty plus an ‘administration charge’ before it will release your parcel for delivery.

The price you end up paying is about one and a half times the advertised price.

The manuals are in Japanese. So is all the text displayed by the machine, on the on screen buttons and in the dialog boxes.

The screen is slick and has little friction but despite that it has a better writing experience than an Android phone or tablet. The screen contrast is not very good, you are writing on a grey screen with slightly darker grey. This tablet needs good lighting to be able to use it adequately and there is no backlight.

The screen is a conventional LCD screen not e-paper. It is not an e-reader, it cannot import or display text files or PDFs.

It is not a good solution.

I have even been into the local Apple store to try out an Apple iPad.

I didn’t get along with it very well, the iPad suffers from a frictionless slick screen and the note taking application seemed to have some fundamental flaws. The iPads are expensive for what you get.

The staff in the Apple store are so full of artificial enthusiasm, everything about their products is wonderful and the fact that the annotations can be in any colour you like more than compensates for the fact that if you insert text the annotations don’t move with the text and are now in the wrong place.

I didn’t agree with the sales person!

I would rather have something in black and white that works properly than something multi coloured that doesn’t.

A random search (a clutching at straws exercise) pointed me at a potentially good solution for note taking which is the reMarkable tablet, but it is not available yet and it is expensive. If the advertising on the website is to be believed then they are trying to produce something which seems to fit almost exactly with what I want.

It is an e-reader, it can display PDF files (and e-pub files but I have no e-pub files), it cannot display plain text files which I think is a bad decision on the part of the designers.

There are an awful lot of legacy text files out there. But to be fair the text files could be printed to PDF files but this will increase their size.

Which brings us to the question of storage. The reMarkable tablet has 8 GB for storing documents and notes and drawings. This may seem like a lot but it’s only 100,000 pages. I can envisage filling that, maybe not very quickly but it is possible that I might be able to fill it up. There is no expansion, no SD card slot and the USB socket seems to be only for charging.

Once the storage is full you will have to either delete something or transfer something to a computer to make room for new items.

It is also big, just a little less than A4 size, 18 cm by 26 cm (7 inches by 10 inches). This is good for reading but definitely not pocket sized. What is needed is a small version which I could put in my pocket, 5 inches by 7 inches would be ideal, I wouldn’t use this as an e-reader just as a notepad.

Although it is not ideal it is far better than any other solution I have yet discovered so I ordered one. At the moment (in June 2017) there is a 33% discount on pre orders but I will have to wait five months, current delivery schedule is October but that keeps going up because demand is greater than their production rate.

If they had a pocket sized version then I would probably be ordering both the big and small versions, especially if they could transfer notes and documents between them.

I will write a review of it when I get it.

 

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Terrorism.

Why would anyone deliberately target children?

It is a particularly despicable act to detonate a bomb where you know people will be harmed but it’s even worse when the majority of those in the area are children.

But the act of terror committed in Manchester Arena was meant to cause the maximum horror and outrage amongst ordinary people, that was the whole point of it.  It was meant to provoke a reaction.

There is a vicious circle here which must be broken if we are to have peace, but I can see no way to break it.

It goes like this.

Acts of terror are meant to provoke a reaction.  When some idiot in Syria makes the demand that America should cease all hostilities in the Middle East or they are going to behead an aid worker or journalist they do not expect their demands to be met, in fact it would be very disruptive for them if America did meet their demands.  They don’t want their demands met.  The demand is just there to give them an excuse to commit a horrific act.

The reaction to these horrific acts is the whole point, that is why they do them, to provoke a reaction.

The purpose of the acts is to provoke a military response so they can portray themselves as being in a legitimate military struggle with the forces of western democracy (or Christianity depending on which set of propaganda you read).

When western political leaders say that they are at war with IS or Daesh they give them legitimacy, when they carry out air strikes against Daesh (IS, ISIS, ISIL or whatever) in Syria or Iraq they give them legitimacy, which is what Daesh want.  Daesh want the Jihadi cause to be seen as legitimate by Muslim communities both in the Middle East and here in Europe and Great Britain.  Donald Trump with his stupid ill thought out verbal attacks and his travel ban has been great for Daesh recruitment.

Western political leaders are playing to the crowd, their response is meant for their home audience, with one eye on the next election they feel that they must be seen to be doing something, but this is exactly what the Daesh terrorists want.

Daesh recruit young men (almost always young men) to blow themselves up or drive a truck along a crowded pavement to further the cause of global Jihad, but what does it achieve ?  Nothing except a lot of pain and misery.  The young men they recruit are as much the victims as the people they slaughter.  They have been tricked into killing themselves by perfidious promises of rewards in heaven after they die.  Living in paradise with a number of virgins at their disposal (the number varies), but this is not what is written in the Quran which promises a reward beyond man’s comprehension without actually saying what it is.  The virgins are just Daesh’s misogynistic interpretation of these ambiguous verses.

The acts of random terror in Europe or Great Britain are designed to cause alienation of the Islamic communities.  To drive wedges between people and between communities, to cause suspicion and doubt.  From their point of view it would be even better if there is a backlash against Muslims after the atrocity in Manchester.

Alienation leads to radicalisation, not of the many but of a few vulnerable individuals who are susceptible to the message of the radicals, people who are seeking certainty in their lives.  People who feel that they have no future, people who have lost hope, these are the ones who are most vulnerable to the brain washing of radical Islam.  The radical message promises them that a certainty but it is a specious message.

Global Jihad uses the Internet as the main method for communication and ideological advancement. Western media feeds on the events terrorists create.  Daesh understands this and have become more sophisticated in the way they carry out their recruiting activities and targeting.

And so there are more recruits to the cause and they commit acts of terror both here in the west and in the Middle East and this provokes a reaction and so the whole bloody cycle repeats over and over again.

Sigh.