Mapping and Outlining, finding a path.

If you have a large collection of notes then there will be times when you cannot find the note which you want to find even though you know that it exists somewhere within the collection of documents.  This is a problem which has existed for as long as there have been collections of documents.  Over the years librarians have come up with many tools for dealing with this problem and many of these tools have been adapted for the digital era.  Things like references (links), indexes (tags) and categories have been used in computer programs to ease the location of information.

The art of a good note taking program is providing facilities for the user to be able to locate an item within their notes even though they have forgotten almost everything about it.

So how can you locate an item of information?  It is all in the metadata, the information about information.  If you have a large corpus of notes without any metadata then they might as well be written in a foreign language for all the good they will be to you.  It is worth the time and effort to add a relevant metadata to a note as you create it whilst it is still fresh in your mind.  These are the clues which will lead you back to this note in the future.  Think of it as having a conversation with your future self.  Think of how you would locate this note if you didn’t know where it was, what tags would you search for?  What would you expect it to be linked to?  What might you search for?  Make sure that the terms you might search for appear in the text, if not then include them as a list at the end of the note.

Metadata comes in many forms, not just the obvious ones.

One form of metadata which is often overlooked but always relied upon is location, people navigate to where they last saw the item they are looking for.  This is especially useful as it requires less verbal attention and more visual attention, people do it without thinking about it and whilst concentrating on something else which is why it is so often overlooked.

Search is often portrayed as the most useful way of finding things but in my experience it is not used as often as the other methods.  Search is less well used than it would be because it involves a break in concentration.  If you are in the middle of composing a document or trying to find understanding of some difficult problem then you have to stop concentrating on the problem at hand and think about search terms.  In my experience this break in concentration is obtrusive.

Search can be made easier by the use of tags, particularly if the tagging system is hierarchical and has inheritance.  Selecting from a list is easier, quicker and less prone to errors than typing search terms.  In my opinion InfoQube has the best hierarchical tagging system of any program available at the time of writing, closely followed by ConnectedText.  Try to choose tags which distinguish items rather than tags which just describe it’s characteristics.

Links from one note to another are very important.  The act of linking from one note to another is arguably the most important aspect of note taking and it should be as quick and easy as possible.  ConnectedText is unrivalled in this area.  One can insert a link by just putting the [[Page Name]] in square brackets which is much less of a break in concentration whilst you are composing a document.  ConnectedText can also automatically convert the names of other pages which occur in a note into links and it can also show which pages link to the current page (backlinks).

Another form of metadata used to locate things is the favourites list.

One form of metadata which has been touted as being new with the digital age is mapping, mind maps and concept maps.  However I think that these are not as useful as they are made out to be by many people.  The examples which are given to illustrate the usefulness of mapping are usually small and fit on one screen, real uses of mapping would probably be much bigger and consequently less useful.

In the following discussion I will focus on Mind Maps but the points raised are equally as valid for concept maps.  A concept map is just a hierarchy where an item may have more than one parent and so may appear in the outline in more than one place.

There is a lot of hype about Mind Maps and their use in navigating data.  There are a number of companies who present Mind Maps as being a really wonderful solution to visualising interconnections between data, and for small data sets this is undoubtedly true but it becomes less so for large data sets.

A Mind Map is topologically equivalent to a simple hierarchy which could be expressed as an outline.  In my opinion the fact that the outline can be scrolled in one dimension makes the outline more useful in the navigation of data.

In many programs using a mind map you have to arrange the branches in an aesthetically pleasing manner which detracts from the time you can spend on other things.  People waste time on the layout of the map rather than thinking about the content of the map.  Whereas with an outline there are simple rules which the program follows to automatically arrange the tree.

Once a mind map or concept map has grown as big as the screen on which it is being displayed there arises a problem of how it can grow any further.  You could make the branches of the map ever smaller but you eventually have to use a magnifying glass to read the text.  A better solution is to only display part of the map.

It seems to me that the conventional way of displaying a mind map has no advantages over the simple outline and has some disadvantages.

One could accept these limitations of mapping and work around them as the outline accepts the limitations of a one dimensional list and works around them.  In such a map the layout would be automatic and only the relevant part of the map would be displayed.  This would make the map more useful in my opinion.

A good example of what is possible is a program called The Brain (a.k.a Personal Brain).  This program only displays a small part of the map at any one time.  One item has the focus and the program only displays those items which are linked to it.  In practice this is a very good solution.

The developer of this program Harlan Hugh took out software patents on this layout and has aggressively defended them in the past.  One can find a list of these patents at https://patents.google.com/?assignee=Thebrain+Tech+Corp .

It seems wrong to me that a company can take out a patent on such a basic idea, a layout which has been used by genealogists for many centuries, one node has the focus, it’s parents are above, children below and siblings to the side.  The sole purpose of these patents is to stifle competition from it’s rivals.

The main patent in this list relevant to the automatic layout of maps is US6918096B2Method and apparatus for displaying a network of thoughts from a thought’s perspective however this patent has expired “due to failure to pay maintenance fee” on 12th July 2017.

It seems to me that a map laid out in this way is much more useful than a mind map which tries to display the whole map on one screen.  Each item is shown in context and only the items connected to it are displayed.  If you move the focus then the map is re-drawn with the focussed node at the centre.  The displayed map is always the same size no matter how big the whole map grows, this is mentally more manageable.

This way of displaying a mind map is fundamentally different from an outline and deserves it’s place in note taking programs.

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Zinkydoink means Zinkydoink !

So, what does Zinkydoink mean ?

Well like any fictitious invented word it can mean whatever I want it to mean, it can mean different things to different people and it can mean different things at different times.

Just like another fictitious invented word which has been used a lot recently, I mean ‘Brexit’, and like any other fictitious invented word it means different things to different people and its undefined meaning changes over time.  So when Theresa May utters the meaningless tautology ‘Brexit means Brexit’ it is up to whoever hears the phrase to assign a meaning to it and that is the whole point, to trick people into thinking they are going to get the ‘Brexit’ they want when in reality almost everyone will be disappointed with the eventual outcome.

In my opinion Dominic Cummings the political advisor who served as the campaign director of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign committed a great evil when he designed the campaign to portray ‘Brexit’ as all things to all people.  He was very clever in the way he conducted the campaign, but he allegedly used some underhanded tactics and in winning the campaign to get people to vote to leave the EU he has condemned this country to be much worse off in the future.

The slogan ‘take back control’ was chosen to imply that we were taking back something which had been lost and which can be reclaimed.  It represents the desire for things to return to the way they used to be back in the ‘Good Old days‘, peoples imagined idea of the way things used to be.

But the world has changed and it is impractical to try to take things back to an earlier state, however this desire offers a way to manipulate people.  The Leave campaigns tried to imply that by voting leave and ‘taking back control’ that we could take Britain back to that earlier time of peoples imagination.  To ‘Make Britain Great Again‘.

Another factor was a successful attempt to tap into the discontent which has developed in this country over many years because of the centralisation of power in London.  Parliament is so London centric and so disconnected from the rest of the country.  They have become out of touch with anything which happens outside the Home Counties.

I believe that for a significant percentage of the Leave voters the concern was disillusionment with the political establishment.  This was a protest vote for many, a sense that nobody represented them, that they couldn’t find a political party which they thought was on their side, and so they rejected the whole political establishment.

However the poorer communities in the north of England and in the Midlands who mainly voted to Leave will be the ones who are the hardest hit by the recession which will be the inevitable consequence of leaving the EU.

The Leave campaigns also tapped into nationalistic and xenophobic concerns which people have by implying that we could cut immigration if we weren’t in the EU.  Many of these concerns centre on immigration from outside the EU which will not be affected by being in the EU or not.

The Leave campaigns were also helped by the incompetence of previous governments both Labour and Conservative who have claimed all the benefits of EU membership as being the result of their own government policies, and blamed all the negative effects on the EU, variously labelled as “Brussels” or “the (European) Commission”.  In the referendum, the consequences of that political cowardice really helped the Brexit campaigns.

Now that we are in this awful mess what can we do to get out of it ?

Not a lot !

I would be in favour of a second referendum but I fear that it will not help.  There is a political divide in this country and it is not the usual Left/Right divide.  This divide does not split along party lines it divides both Labour and Conservative parties.

I think that in the time since the referendum a lot of the lies and deceit of the Leave campaigns have been exposed and a lot of people have changed their minds but a second referendum would not calm things.  The people who voted Leave however misguided their reasons would be very disappointed if a second referendum were to overturn the result of the first.

Theresa May’s deal will probably be voted down however many times she presents it to parliament.  It is a bad compromise which satisfies neither of the extremes.

A No Deal Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster for this country.

Revoking Article 50 and staying in the EU is probably the best option but I don’t think it will be persued despite the petition which at the time of writing has four and a half million signatures.  Mrs. May has ruled it out as an option.

There aren’t a lot of other options.

British politics has become the laughing stock of the world.

How did we get here ?

Margaret Thatcher pursued a policy of ever increasing centralisation of power.  When ‘New Labour’ and Tony Blair came to power they should have reversed this trend but they did not, they failed to address the fracture which was developing in society despite being competent politicians.  They slipped into the system as they inherited it because it gives them more power and because it is difficult to change a system once it is in place.

MP-Farce

A very popular condiment in the House of Commons.

During the Thatcher years the British system of government became extremely centralised with everything being decided in and run from Downing Street, the rest of the country, and that includes Parliament, is under command rather than being in partnership with government.

During the Thatcher years the British constitution was drastically re-shaped and when ‘New Labour’ came to power they should have taken the opportunity to reform the constitution to make the system of governance less centralised but they did not.  This centralisation of power condemns whichever government is elected into a cycle of ever more effort for ever less results.

Successive governments since then have slipped into this same cycle of trying to fix the problems by imposing even more centralisation of power and control but this just makes the problems worse.

 

What can be done ?

The political system in Britain is broken.  These are my opinions on how it might be fixed.

We need to restore the House of Commons as the central political authority in British democracy, at the moment it is more like a creche where children shout abuse at each other.

There needs to be a devolution of power to Local Government.  This needs to be real power not just a token gesture, and it needs to be properly financed.  The financing could come from central government or local taxation but if it is financed through local taxation there needs to be a commensurate lowering of central taxation.

It would also need local government to be re-thought.  At the current time Britain doesn’t have local government which is fit to take this power.  But there does need to be less central control.

The Lobby system needs to be scrapped, or at the very least revised, it should not be possible for big business to buy government policy.  This is a highly corrupt system and what the people who do the Lobbying want is seldom in the public interest.

But the biggest thing which needs to be done to fix our broken political system is to sort out the funding of political parties.  The system we have at present is well and truly broken.

The Trade Unions fund the Labour Party and this allows them to control the Labour party.  The political levy for trade union members needs to be scrapped.

Big business controls the Conservative Party and it gets funded from donations by private individuals and businesses.

The trouble is that too many vested interests with hidden agendas control British politics.  It should be completely transparent and public.  All donations from private individuals, businesses and from Trade unions should be banned.

Instead a fixed amount of public money, a ‘Political Fund’, decided by parliament should be set aside to fund political parties.  Vouchers could be issued to taxpayers which can be given to a political party of their choice or thrown away if they choose to do so.  The proportion of the Political Fund given to each party would be decided by the proportion of these vouchers given to that party by it’s supporters.

I’m sure this system as I have outlined it is not perfect and would need some refinement in order to be fair and equitable but even as I have outlined it here it would be an improvement on the broken system we have in place.

I am also sure that this system will never be implemented because of all the vested interests who would like to keep the current corrupt system as it is.

And so we have come to Brexit, a result of a Conservative leader who started a referendum because he couldn’t control his back benchers.  The campaign was then hijacked by various interest groups and by a Campaign Manager who used dubious tactics to pedal a mendacious manipulative message.  And because of the general disenchantment of the public with the broken political system we have it was voted through by a very narrow margin.  The political leader who started this whole mess then walked away whistling a happy tune and left it for others to sort out.  And so after two years of negotiation the person who inherited the whole mess came back with a deal which satisfied very few people.

So the choices are, a bad deal, an even worse no deal or no Brexit.  But having no Brexit would cause huge political turmoil and probably cause the rise of some pretty unsavoury far Right extremist parties even more idiotic than UKIP.

What can I do now ?

I suppose I could apply for citizenship of another country, preferably an EU country, if there are any which would have me.  But I don’t really want to do that.

Brexit is a disaster and when it is finally over I think most people will be left saying “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for !” but unfortunately by then it will be too late.

Remember Zinkydoink means Zinkydoink !

Take Note!

Why do I use a note taking program?

“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible … no matter how internal processes are implemented […you…] need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.”

Levy, Neil. 2011. “Neuroethics and the Extended Mind.” In Judy Illes and B. J. Sahakian (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, 285-94, Oxford University Press.

Why would I keep a set of notes on everyday insights and ideas over many decades, things which only I would be interested in.

Well, I write!

Imagine if you had to write a piece of text on a particular subject.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone came up with a list of suggestions and ideas for you on what you should write about.

You could then arrange these ideas and develop them into a coherent whole, fill in any gaps in the arguments, expatiate on any parts which need expanding and proof read it and edit your rough draft until the text flows correctly.  Then read it with a critical eye to pick up any background material which you have left out, things which you may already know but the reader might not.

Writing a piece of text like this is much easier than starting off with a blank page.

You might be thinking at this point that I am cheating here, only doing half the job, the easy half.  Surely coming up with the initial list of ideas is a major task in itself.

Well yes and no.

What if you already had a large body of notes on many different subjects, things which have sparked your interest over the years.  Things which may not have been immediately useful but which you thought were noteworthy at the time.

This could be thought of as a bank for ideas.  Obviously you can’t start making withdrawals until you make some deposits.  So you have to put a few ideas in there before it becomes even slightly useful.  But unlike a bank when you make withdrawals the ideas are still there and can be used as many times as appropriate.

Such a database of notes (a notebase) would be quite useful for ideas for writing.  The more notes it contained the more useful it would become and also the more interconnected the notes are the more useful the notes database is.  If it is small with only a few hundred notes then it is not that useful but there is a ‘critical mass’ of information beyond which it starts becoming much more useful and the more information which is added after that makes it exponentially more useful.

So, what is the source of these ideas and insights ?

Everyone comes across noteworthy ideas and insights every day it’s just that they don’t take note of them, they don’t write them down.  They don’t take note of them, and by the time they would be useful they have been forgotten.

I take notes.  I never go anywhere without the capability of writing something down.  I have a small paper notebook in my back pocket and I always carry a pen.  If I am going to work or somewhere where I will be carrying my backpack then I take my tablet computer.  The aim is to capture all the little ideas and insights which come to you during the course of a day.

Writing something down is more memorable than typing the same thing.

My tablet computer takes handwritten notes just as well as a pen and a piece of paper, except that my handwritten notes then instantly become available on my phone and computers.

Then when I get chance I read the notes I have made that day and write them out properly using full sentences.  Of course some of them get discarded for various reasons but often they find their way into the notebase (my database of notes).

Think of each note as you having a conversation with your future self and write in a way that you will understand, it doesn’t matter if it is incomprehensible to anyone else as long as you understand it.  It is best to write just one idea per screen.  If the note extends to more than a screen then it might be useful to think about splitting it into two notes.  So I write many small notes rather than a few larger notes.

There is another aspect of note taking which is equally as important and that is reading notes.  When reading a book it is essential to capture ones thoughts on the book.  Many people write notes in the margins of the book itself.  I don’t do this, for one thing it would deface the book, the other reason is that I would rather have all the notes in the same place and accessible rather than having to look through the book to retrieve my notes on that book.  Each reading note is accompanied by the page number and paragraph number which it refers to so that I can easily find the source of the idea again.

Notes can be linked together and used in different contexts.

I often go wandering through my notebase just to familiarise myself with the contents and this often sparks new ideas and new connections between ideas.

This idea is not new, my method is modelled on that of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, it is called the Zettelkasten Method.  A literal translation of Zettelkasten is ‘slip box’ i.e. a box containing many slips of paper.  His notebase consisted of many A6 sheets written on one side only, in wooden drawers.  Each card had a unique number and links between cards consisted of writing the number of the card targeted by the link on the card which was the source of the link.

Once many years ago I had a paper card index but it wasn’t as well thought out or as useful as Professor Luhmann’s slip box.

Then there was a Z80 computer running an operating system called CP/M running a program I cobbled together myself written in DeSmet C, and then there was an 8086 computer running DOS with a hypetext editor program called ‘Black Magic’.  I can’t find a reference to it but in some ways it was an early forerunner of ConnectedText except that it had much more limited capabilities and facilities in monochrome on a 24 x 80 text screen.

Nowadays I use a Windows PC running a note taking program.  I have been through many different note taking programs some good, some bad, some with just one good trick up their sleeve and the rest mediocre.  Finally I have found what I think are some pretty good programs.

There are advantages to using a computer program for note taking, links between notes are much more useful than on a paper system as are the other features of a computer program which cannot be replicated by a paper system.

There exists a program which was specifically written to replicate the Zettelkasten Method, unsurprisingly it is called Zettelkasten3.  It is free but the user interface is extremely awkward and clunky.  It is also not very good at revealing the emergent structure of data.  It is a very uninspiring and unimaginative program which has been overhyped.  I tried it a couple of times but I do not use it, I think it is an awful program.

There is another program called ConnectedText which is extremely good at being a receptacle for a notebase, it is not free but it is not hideously expensive either.  ConnectedText is probably the best at revealing the emergent structure of data and is probably the best of the three programs at being the receptacle of a notebase although it is not as pretty as InfoQube.  The editing is not as interactive as InfoQube but that is an artefact of the way it was written.

One of the really neat things about ConnectedText is the way you can place a link to a page which does not exist into a page whilst editing it.  The link comes out in red indicating that it doesn’t point to anything but if you click on that link ConnectedText will create a new blank page with the name used in the link and open it for editing.

Development was stalled for quite a while but recently the developer announced on the forum that he was back on the case.  However apart from the initial announcement there has been little apparent activity and the forum still appears dead.  I will wait and see, it would be nice if development was resumed as ConnectedText is an awesome program.

There is another commercial program called InfoQube which is also very good at being the receptacle of an notebase.  It is not as good as ConnectedText at revealing the emergent structure within the data but is has all sorts of other features which make it good at many different things.

The aesthetics of the interface and of the documents produced are better than ConnectedText but the functionality as a notebase is not as good.  The functionality as an appointment book is better, the functionality for project management is better, the outlining is better, many aspects of this program are better than ConnectedText but as a repository for a notebase it is not as good.

Linking things together in InfoQube is not as quick & easy as in ConnectedText and this is for several reasons.

There is a constraint in ConnectedText that no two documents can have the same name, all names must be unique.  So in ConnectedText you can just start a link and type the name of the target page, a list will drop down as you type and it will get smaller as you type because it only contains the names which match what you have already typed, eventually the list gets down to one or you click on one of the options in the list (and as stated earlier you can type a name which doesn’t exist yet).

In InfoQube there is no such constraint, several items can have the same name, they are distinguished by the ID numbers in the database.  This may seem more flexible but it is a huge mistake as it means that items cannot be unambiguously identified by their name.  In InfoQube you must select the target for a link from within a dialog box in which you search for the item you want (or a Tag or an external file or a URL or anything which can be the target of a link), this is more flexible but makes the whole process slower and more cumbersome.  To me this is a major detriment of InfoQube.

So why am I now using InfoQube for my day to day note taking activities ?

Well it has so many other good things all available in the same program.  The word processing features and the ability to re-structure documents mean that I am now using InfoQube instead of Scrivener as a word processor for structured documents and it helps to have your notebase to hand when typing such a document.  Of course InfoQube doesn’t contain such refinements as ‘Typewriter Scrolling’ which Scrivener has but … Oh well !

My notebase is present in a grid called ‘Zettel’ which contains an alphabetically sorted list of notes, deliberately not in any sort of hierarchy.  This is kept separate from anything else in the notebase, effectively this is the slip box.  Notes may contain links to other notes in the body text of the note and may contain a list of links to other notes at the end of the note as references (‘see also’).  I can pull out a bunch of notes and arrange them in a separate grid (created on the fly) as a cluster of notes.

InfoQube does transclusion properly so these are the original notes but you can arrange then into whatever hierarchy you wish.  You can do outlines in InfoQube, I do two different types of outline (my definition not InfoQube’s).  One is the normal outline and the other is the brainstorming outline where I move things about a lot to see what is the best representation of the information I have to hand.  For a normal outline everything is the same colour but for a brainstorming outline different levels have different colours.  In InfoQube you can define the formatting of outlines so that different levels have different colours, different formats (Bold, Italic), different fonts and different sizes.  This is a really good way to visualise things when you are throwing ideas about.

You can do outlines in ConnectedText too but it’s hard work (each item in the outline has to be linked to a document manually) and they are nowhere near as flexible as the ‘coloured by level’ outlines in InfoQube.

So the reason I’m using InfoQube is that it incorporates good word processing, brainstorming and adequate zettelkasten features in one program whereas ConnectedText combines good zettelkasten facilities with adequate brainstorming facilities.

Sooner or later I am going to have to ditch one or other of the programs (either ConnectedText or InfoQube) as my main notes repository because there is a lot of strain involved in maintaining two very different note repositories in parallel.

The ReMarkable Tablet, a second look

I wrote a review of the Remarkable Tablet in November 2017 shortly after I got mine, I have now been using it for about a year.  So how well has it fared ?  Well it has been pretty good.

Recap

The ReMarkable is a tablet computer used for note taking and as an E-reader.  It has an E-ink display which one can write on and draw.

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 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’.

There is also a USB socket for charging and for connection to a computer.  The tablet can also connect via WiFi to synchronise with the ReMarkable cloud service and to get software updates.

The story so far

I have been using this device for about a year and during that time all the little bits of paper which I used to carry with me have disappeared.  I used to have a small notebook, a Lab book and a bundle of small pieces of paper which usually resided in a plastic bag in my backpack.  The contents of all these bits of paper and the notebooks are now in the ReMarkable tablet.  It is a lot more convenient having everything in one place, I am no longer left looking for that one bit of paper which contained that vital piece of information which I have somehow mislaid.

And all my handwritten notes now automatically appear on my laptop and desktop computers and on my mobile phone.

The ReMarkable can also be used as an e-reader and so I have various papers and articles in PDF format in the tablet.  When the ReMarkable was first released it had some problems with PDF files.  It converted them to bitmapped images (one per page) and this had two detrimental effects, firstly the annotations were not scaled properly when you scaled the page to crop the blank areas around the text.  The second was that the text could no longer be searched.  A recent software update has fixed these problems to some extent.

The annotations are now scaled correctly with the page and the OCR data in the PDF is no longer deleted so after being converted (copied to the tablet) it is still searchable.  However the PDF is still converted to bitmaps so the PDF file becomes very bloated.

It must be noted that if you copy a PDF file from your computer to the ReMarkable the original is not affected.  However the file copied to the tablet is affected and this is the one which contains your annotations.  If you want to use those annotations then when you retrieve the file back onto your computer it will be a lot bigger than it was.

It is good to use a tablet without having the distractions, reminders and alarms that come with most modern digital devices.  A pen and a blank page is about as distraction free as you can get.

The advert says that it’s just like writing on paper, it isn’t just like paper but it is by far the best writing experience of any of the touch screens, tablet computers or graphics tablets I have used or tried.  It is excellent, but it is different to writing on paper.

There are some touch screens which are glossy and smooth, these are especially bad to write on.  The ReMarkable has a satin feel with a moderate amount of friction which makes it very easy to write on.

Software updates

Since I got the tablet there have been several software updates.

Various things have been fixed and little inconveniences eradicated.  Many of the criticisms in my first review of the ReMarkable have been addressed.  The first of the updates improved the battery life considerably by switching the WiFi off when it wasn’t needed and only switching it on for a short time when it was needed.

The tablet now remembers what pen you were using and restores that pen when switching tools.

The handling of PDF files has been improved considerably as has the selection of templates.

Optical Character Recognition has been implemented so you can now convert your handwriting into text.  This feature still has a few rough edges however.

Overall the utility of the tablet has been improved quite a lot.

Pen

One disappointing thing about the ReMarkable tablet is the pen.  It functions correctly but it has the look and feel of a cheap biro.  An expensive tablet like this deserves a quality writing instrument and the pen supplied with the ReMarkable is not.

Don’t get me wrong it functions very well but it just feels flimsy.  It has a white plastic body which turns to white rubber at the writing end.  The white rubber easily gets scuffed and picks up dirt and marks quite easily.

Another problem is the fact that there is no pen clip.  This means that if you put it down on a surface which is not flat and level it rolls away.

I have found a metal pen clip which was made for a pen with roughly the same diameter as the ReMarkable pen and so my pen doesn’t roll away any more.

Replacement pen tips are now available on Amazon which is good as you get to avoid the exorbitant shipping costs.

Graphics Pad

It seems to me that the people at ReMarkable have missed a trick here, the tablet with the correct software could perform as a really good Graphics Tablet.

The problem I find with most graphics tablets is that your hand is in one place and your eyes are looking at another place.  You are writing/drawing on the tablet and looking at the screen so for me it is difficult to get the hand eye coordination to work.  I don’t know if other people have this same problem or if it might come together if I persisted.

With the right software the ReMarkable tablet could be a really good graphics tablet with it’s own display.

Buttons

On the ReMarkable there are three buttons along the bottom of the screen.  This can be a problem if you are writing near to the bottom of the screen in Portrait mode.  The tablet ignores your hand resting on the display, however it can cause problems if your hand rests on one of the buttons.

One of the software updates did address this issue and disables the buttons when you are writing near the bottom of the screen and this has improved the situation but it can still be a problem.

Another solution would be to turn the screen through 180° so the buttons are now at the top of the screen, this would mean that the functions of the left and right buttons would need to be swapped but this is not difficult to do.

This could be extended to have modes for left handed and right handed people when working in Landscape mode so that the buttons could be at either end of the screen.

Text formats

The ReMarkable functions as an e-reader for PDF files and EPUB files but these are the only two formats it supports.

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 and most compact format to handle and display.

I have raised this issue with the support team at ReMarkable and I was told to print the text file to a PDF file and everything would be OK.  Yes but it makes the file many times bigger than it would otherwise have been, especially once it has been converted for display on the tablet.

Folio

The Folio is also disappointing.  It is very expensive and not very good quality.  I have one of the original folios which I got with the tablet, they were on sale separately for £59, these are no longer available, there is now a new version which comes in various colours and materials from £79 to £119.

I don’t know if the new ones are any better but the one I got with my original purchase started to delaminate within a week and the stitching started to come apart at one corner.  They are not worth the money and not very well made.  There are many sleeves which will fit the ReMarkable tablet on sale on Amazon and they are a lot less expensive.

Conclusion

The ReMarkable has become indispensable to me.  All the handwritten pages are synchronised with the ReMarkable cloud service whenever the ReMarkable is switched on and within range of my WiFi so they get synchronised with my computers and my mobile phone.  Even simple things like having my shopping list appear on my mobile phone is very convenient.

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.  I regularly copy handwritten notes into ConnectedText and InfoQube.

I can do OCR on pages and send them by e-mail.

Worth the money?

Yes, well worth it!

The mess that is Brexit !

In the run up to the referendum I listened to and witnessed the lies and exaggerations of the Brexit side regarding what the EU is, its purpose, its costs and its detriments.  Remember the big red bus with it’s message about giving the NHS £50 million a day, that evaporated almost as soon as the votes were counted.  In reality there never was £350 million a week because we don’t contribute £350 million a week it was a complete and utter lie!

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I also regularly heard their statements that only a soft exit was intended.

Although the terms hard and soft in relation to the exit were not in use at that time, the statements most typically coming from the leave campaigners would lead one to believe they intended the UK to be a member of the EEA (European Economic Area).  There was never any public endorsement of what is now called a “Hard Brexit” or a “No-deal Brexit” prior to the referendum.

I voted to remain but the area in which I live voted to leave.  It was a massive shock to find out next day that my country had voted to leave the European Union.  In the days following the referendum there ensued a complete political meltdown, the Prime Minister resigned, and Scotland was considering a referendum that could break the United Kingdom apart.  There were calls for a second referendum, almost as if, following a football match, we could ask the other side for a replay because we didn’t get the result we wanted.  Everybody was blaming everybody else.  People blamed the Prime Minister for calling the referendum in the first place.  They blamed the leader of the opposition for not fighting it hard enough.  The young accused the old.  The educated blamed the less well-educated.  That complete meltdown was made even worse by the most tragic element of all, levels of xenophobia and racist abuse in the streets of Britain at a level that I have never seen before in my lifetime.

In the run up to the referendum I saw Nigel Farage being interviewed on a news program and he was saying that if the result was any closer than 55% to 45% then the result could not be considered a clear and unequivocal mandate and so they would try to get a new referendum at some later date.  Obviously they were expecting to loose.  But after the result came in at 48% to 52% to leave suddenly it was a clear and decisive decision which should be respected.  What a hypocrite.

It would be a waste of time to go through all the lies pedalled by the Leave campaigns (yes plural), instead I want to look at the reasons for the mess we now find ourselves in.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  Although it was a massive shock at the time looking at the bigger picture this is not something which happened overnight, there are deeper reasons for what happened, many of them have nothing to do with Europe but have a lot to do with our fractured society and the political disenfranchisement which many people feel.

So, what does Brexit represent, not just for the United Kingdom, but for the rest of the world ?

Firstly I will look at what it represents for the United Kingdom.  Looking at the bigger picture, the referendum teaches us something about the nature of politics today and once we identify these factors it becomes apparent that similar things are happening in other parts of the world.

Politicians seem to be blissfully unaware of how divided our society is.  How London centric government has become as if they are working for what is in the best interests of London instead of what is in the national interest.  Geographically, it was mainly London and Scotland that voted to remain, whilst most other parts of the country voted to leave.

But our society is not just divided geographically, young people didn’t turn out to vote in great numbers, but those that did overwhelmingly voted to remain.  The great majority of older people voted to leave the European Union.  There were also divisions along class lines and between the well educated and the less well-educated.

If one looks for a common factor which divides the remainers from the leavers then one thing becomes apparent.  The fault line of contemporary politics is between those who embrace globalisation and those who see globalisation as a threat.

Politicians need to take these divisions seriously or at least to recognise that they exist.

Contemporary politics is no longer just about right and left.  It’s no longer just about tax and spend.  It’s about globalisation.

If we look at what motivated people to vote leave or remain then we see two factors in the opinion polls that were important to many people.  The first was immigration, and the second sovereignty, and these represent a desire for people to take back control of their own lives and they also represent the feeling amongst many people that they are unrepresented by politicians.  These ideas are ones that signify fear and alienation. They represent a retreat back towards nationalism and borders in ways that many of us would find disturbing.

Both of these issues are specious, the idea that the vote on Europe could reduce the number of refugees and asylum-seekers coming into Europe, when the vote on leaving had nothing to do with immigration from outside the European Union.  Also on the question of sovereignty, we won’t be getting back our sovereignty because we never lost it in the first place.

In the Leave vote, a minority have peddled the politics of fear and hatred, creating lies, mistrust and doubt.  But for a significant majority of the Leave voters the concern was disillusionment with the political establishment.  This was a protest vote for many, a sense that nobody represented them, that they couldn’t find a political party which they thought was on their side, and so they rejected the entire political establishment.

All around the world we see a similar disillusionment with the political establishment.  We see it with the rise in popularity of Donald Trump in the United States, with the growing nationalism of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, with the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the rise of the Five Star movement in Italy.  There has been a rise in nationalism all over the world and I think this represents a rejection of globalisation.

I think what we are seeing is part of a much bigger struggle between globalisation and what I will call ‘tribalism’.  Tribalism in this sense represents many things, the desire for tradition and traditional values, but it often leads to nationalism or religious orthodoxy and theocracy.  It also represents the desire for things to return to the way they used to be back in the ‘Good Old days’, peoples imagined idea of the way things used to be.

The world has changed and it is impractical to try to take things back to an earlier state but this desire offers a way to manipulate people.  The Leave campaigns tried to imply that by voting leave and ‘taking back control’ that we could take Britain back to that earlier time of peoples imagination.  To ‘Make Britain Great Again’.  But this was just manipulation.

There are some politicians who would welcome a future where Great Britain was nothing more than a 1950’s nostalgia theme park but I think this would be a very bad thing for the people of Britain.

I think there is a gap between public perception and empirical reality.  It has been suggested that we’ve moved to a post truth world, where evidence and truth no longer matter, and lies have equal status to evidence based facts.  Take for example Donald Trump and his ‘Fake News’ tactics, which is basically to describe anything he disagrees with as being false or a lie regardless of whether it’s true or not.

How can we rebuild respect for truth and evidence into our liberal democracies ?  It has to begin with education, but it has to start with the recognition that there are huge gaps.  It will not be easy.

Tribalism is attractive to many people who see globalisation as eroding their cultural identity, it offers solidarity and protects cultural identity, but at the potential cost of diminishing tolerance and stability.  Often the solidarity needed within the concept of tribalism is secured through exclusion and hostility to outsiders.  At the extreme end of the scale different forms of anti-democratisation can arise through anti-democratic one-party dictatorships, military juntas, or theocratic fundamentalism.

Tribalism is a group with a distinct cultural identity seeking a smaller world within well defined borders that will seal them off from modernity.  These groups are cultures, not countries; parts, not wholes; sects, not religions, rebellious factions and dissenting minorities at war not just with globalism but with the traditional nation-state.

Globalisation is characterised by the global economic, political, cultural and environmental interconnections and flows which make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant.  Globalisation promotes peace and prosperity, but this is achieved at the cost of independence and identity.  Cultures are intermingled in ways that some may see as an erosion of their own culture.

Globalisation has both positive and negative effects.  On the whole it is a good thing but there are some bad things about it.  At the extremes neither global corporate cultures or tribalist cultures are supportive of democracy.

There are some positive benefits to globalisation. The consensus amongst economists is that free trade, the movement of capital and the movement of people across borders benefit everyone on aggregate. The consensus amongst international relations scholars is that globalisation brings interdependence, which brings cooperation and peace.

But globalisation also causes a redistribution of wealth.  It creates winners and losers. To take the example of migration, we know that immigration is a net positive for the economy as a whole under almost all circumstances.  But we also have to be very aware that there are consequences, that importantly, low-skilled immigration can lead to a reduction in wages for the most impoverished in our societies and also put pressure on house prices. That doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s positive when taken as a whole.

In 2002, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, gave a speech at Yale University on the topic of inclusive globalisation.  In that speech he said, and I paraphrase, “The glass house of globalisation has to be open to all if it is to remain secure. Bigotry and ignorance are the ugly face of exclusionary and antagonistic globalisation.”

That idea of inclusive globalisation was briefly revived in 2008 in a conference on progressive governance involving many of the leaders of European countries. But amid austerity and the financial crisis of 2008, the concept disappeared almost without a trace.

Since then globalisation has increasingly been taken to support a neoliberal agenda.  It’s perceived to be part of an elitist agenda rather than something that benefits everyone.

We need to revive the idea of inclusive globalisation.

We need to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits of globalisation.  If we look at the areas which voted to leave the European Union then it becomes apparent that those people who voted to leave the European Union were those who actually benefited the most materially from trade with the European Union.  But the problem is that the people in those areas didn’t perceive themselves to be beneficiaries.  They didn’t believe that they were actually getting access to material benefits of increased trade and increased mobility around the world.

Politics needs to become less polarised but unfortunately politics is becoming more polarised, all over the world.  One factor in this is social media and filter bubbles.  In order to keep people on the website longer so that they can click on more adverts social media sites automatically adjust peoples news feeds to show them more of what they want to see.  So once the AI on the site has figured out their prejudices and beliefs (and it doesn’t take long) then they will only see news which they agree with or articles which support their beliefs, anything which they might not like gets filtered out.

This is fuelling the polarisation of society and is a very bad thing.

Brexit has turned into a very bad mess and when it is finally over I think most people will be left saying “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for !” but unfortunately by then it will be too late.

Perhaps it is already too late.

Who knows ?

The Great British Break Off

I observed both sides of the debate and discussed the issues with friends and colleagues in the run up to the referendum.

I listened to and witnessed the lies and exaggerations of the Brexit side regarding what the EU is, its purpose, its costs and its detriments.  I also regularly heard their statements that only a soft exit was intended.

Although the terms hard and soft in relation to the exit were not in use at that time, the statements most typically coming from the leave campaigners would lead one to believe they intended the UK to be a member of the EEA (European Economic Area).  There was never a public endorsement of what is now called a “Hard Brexit” or a “No-deal Brexit” prior to the referendum.

In fact the Brexiteers never really presented any coherent vision of what the result was intended to look like, just a lot of complaints and an incoherent set of purported benefits from multiple points of view.  They tried to be everything to everyone.  The leave campaigns (and yes there were multiple leave campaigns) could be summed up as “EVERYTHING will be better for Britain and Britons when we take back control of our own country”.

I saw that the official remain campaign never published any strong endorsement of EU membership and identified no clear set of benefits that the UK received and receives through its membership.  The entire official remain campaign could be summed up as “it would be difficult and expensive to leave, so better to keep things as they are”.  I later learned that this was due to the direct instructions from the Prime Minister at that time – David Cameron, who was also the head of the official remain campaign.

The entire campaign was conducted in a manner similar to that of the earlier Scottish referendum.  The remain campaign used logic and reason, while the leave campaign had all the emotional arguments and symbols on its side.  It was a campaign of emotion versus reason.  As any marketing expert will confirm, in a contest between logic and emotion, emotion wins most of the time.

During the campaign, I saw the British government doing what all the governments of the other EU member states do.  They claim all the benefits of EU membership as being the result of their own government policies, and blame all the negative effects on the EU, variously labelled as “Brussels” or “the (European) Commission”.  In the referendum, the consequences of that political cowardice really helped the Brexit campaign.

There is no consensus about what we are trying to achieve, either amongst the Brexiteers or among the Remainers.  Both sides are factionalised with deep divisions and everyone pulling in different directions.  The European leaders aren’t going to agree to the ‘Chequers Deal’, it is dead in the water, only Mrs May is delusional enough to think that it is still a realistic possibility.  So it looks like we are heading for a ‘No Deal Brexit’, and this is the worst of all possible outcomes.

When this is all over, everybody in the country is going to be saying “This not the Brexit I voted for”.

I voted to remain in Europe.

Since the referendum I have watched the core Brexit politicians reveal themselves as duplicitous manipulators who will say and do anything to promote their interests and the interests of their class and the interests of the lobbyists who are lining their pockets, rather than act for the good of the country as a whole.  I think certain factions within the Conservative party have a hidden agenda to fundamentally change the nature of British society to entrench the privileged elites.

A hard exit from the EU is simply the first step.  After this, there will be a concerted, sustained attack on the worker and social protections that the EU has fostered.  When I hear people like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg or James Dyson (of vacuum cleaner fame) talk about freeing British industry from red-tape and unnecessary regulation, I believe they mean to eliminate things like job security, paid vacations, the minimum wage and other worker protections.

In fact, previous Conservative governments have already made a start on this.  In recent years there has been a proliferation of “Zero hours contracts”.  This is a pernicious contract which allows the employer to bypass almost all employment rights.  This type of contract should not even exist in a developed country.

The division between the rich and the poor is getting wider.  Some progress had been made in recent years, John Major, building on some of Margaret Thatcher’s changes made some hesitant steps forward.  The Labour Party, under Tony Blair, appeared to accelerate this trend.  But in the last decade in the name of austerity these improvements have been reversed and the Conservative party has reverted to form, this coincides with the rise of nationalism in many countries.  Brexit is just one more step in this process and it is likely to be a exceptionally painful step for the majority of people.

I have come to the conclusion that the hardliners in the Conservative party are a significant threat to British liberty and to the British economy as a whole (at least outside the financial centre in London, and perhaps in the Tory heartland). The fact that the strongest advocates of a hard Brexit have significant wealth (much of which has been moved out of the UK, at least until the dust settles) or are seeking / have obtained bolt holes in other countries in Europe (e.g. Farage in Germany, Lawson in France) should be taken as a strong warning by the rest of the country.

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is just marking time.  It is simply waiting for Brexit to happen under Tory responsibility so it can win the next election and form a government.  I see Corbyn as very similar to Gordon Brown in that he lusts for power, but hasn’t got the slightest clue of what he wants to do with it – he will just drift aimlessly, simply reacting to events.

The greatest political disaster for Britain in the 20th Century has been the collapse of the Liberal Party (I mean the real Liberal party led by the likes of David Lloyd George, not the current joke called the Liberal Hypocrites Democrats).  The Liberal Hypocrites Democrats lost all credibility when they cosied up to the Conservatives in the Coalition.  When that occurred, the result was, as Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.

Britain is a country divided, and it’s getting more divided.  There are damned few politicians even admitting the divisions exist, never mind actually attempting to resolve any of them. The Liberal Hypocrites Democrats are living in cloud-cuckoo land, Labour is ducking and dodging any responsibility while it waits to take over in the aftermath of what will probably be an unmitigated disaster, UKIP is happily pouring nationalist petrol on the fire while the Conservatives are happily expanding their internal dispute into a national crisis.

Is there anyone out there worth voting for ?

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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.