Monthly Archives: January 2006

Useful tools: Endnote

Endnote logoDavid Weinberger asks for a new tool for taking notes over at Joho. I wrote a lengthy comment, here as a post and a plug for a really useful tool.

I have used the bibliographic database Endnote for 13 years, after starting out with another bibliographic database I no longer remember the name of. I take most of my notes in it. It installs with a link to Word, formats bibliographies, and lets you enter notes, including links to websites and locally stored PDF versions of articles. There are competing products around, but I think Endnote has the biggest market share. There are also open source versions being developed, such as Firefox Scholar.

Endnote is not open source and it is beginning to show some signs of limitations because it is a client-side application only, but I am happy with it. I would have liked to see a more flexible user interface, automatic links to or Google Booksearch, but it does have facilities for importing stuff from online databases, though I for one have never bothered to learn them (I only put in articles and books I read, so entering the bibliographic information is not that onerous.) Endnote is a better reference database than PIM, so a lot of functionality (cross-referencing between notes, for instance) is missing, though intelligent keywording can probably get around that. An excellent feature is the large community of users who have developed many "styles" for academic journals. This means that you can write an article, then format it afterwards into the style the journal wants.

I have more than 2000 books and articles, with notes, in my Endnote database, representing about 18 years of reading and taking notes (such as for this book). This is, to put it mildly, quite a resource for me – and I back it up religiously.

Recommended with the the usual caveats – it is not a web 2.0 product, but it has worked very nicely for me.

Wolfram at MIT

rule 30More good videos from MIT: Stephen Wolfram speaks on his widely discussed and sublimely idiosyncratic tome A new kind of science. Exciting stuff, though I am still only halfway through and need to think carefully about what I hear – the transition from understanding snowflakes as modelled by cellular automata to more abstract examples takes some thinking.

Update two days later: This really is a great video, best absorbed in small increments. The book is fascinating, first from the viewpoint of "Wow!, how could someone spend 10 years of his time doing only this?" (aside from being CEO of a company), but a lot gets answered in the video – Stephen Wolfram is no crank, for one thing, and does not claim to have found the answer to anything. Only a new and very interesting branch of something between formal mathematics and computer (or, at least, computational) science. Makes me want to get Mathematica and start playing with patterns…

The flip side, of course, you can see from reading the reviews at Amazon, which alter between five stars and one, the latter claiming he is taking credit for lots of papers and ideas that others have produced before him. It seems to me that the five stars are by people who are relatively new to the subject, and the ones are by people who have studied some of it – meaning that in a sense, Stephen Wolfram may be the Bill Gates of computational science – not the one to come up with the idea, but certainly the one that managed to pull off the instantiation that made the difference. I guess history will be the judge. I for one found this fun – and until the chips fall down, enjoy the ride…

Side note: My wife, who does knitting and quilting, found the book fascinating because of the many interesting patterns it describes. Which got me thinking about whether it is possible to reprogram a knitting machine to do cellular automata.

Computer science oldies

<nerd warning = on> Nerd alert! Nerd alert!

Here is the list I chose in ACM‘s voting over favorite computer science classic:

  • Classics in Software Engineering  Yourdon, E.
  • Common Lisp  Steele, G.
  • The Elements of Programming Style  Kernighan, B. W. and Plauger, P. J.
  • Estimating software costs  Jones, T. C.
  • First draft of a report on the EDVAC  Newmann, J. v.
  • Human Problem Solving  Newell, A.
  • Mindstorms  Papert, S.
  • Operating Systems  Madnick, S. E. and Donovan, J. J.
  • Perceptrons (Minsky, I suppose)
  • The REXX language: a practical approach to programming  Cowlishaw, M. F.
  • SIMULA 67 common base language, (Norwegian Computing Center. Publication)  Dahl, O.
  • Sketchpad  Sutherland, I. E.
  • Smalltalk-80: bits of history, words of advice  G. Krasner, Ed.
  • Smalltalk-80: the interactive programming environment  Goldberg, A.
  • Smalltalk-80: the language and its implementation  Goldberg, A. and Robson, D.
  • Software creativity  Glass, R. L.
  • Software psychology  Shneiderman, B.
  • Structured Programming  Dahl, O. J.
  • Systems Programming  Donovan, J. J.
  • Understanding Natural Language  Winograd, T. 

The rules for candidates are pretty peculiar – the book has to be out of print, for example. One book I missed was Winograd, T. and F. Flores (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition, but perhaps it is still in print. I would also have liked to see Eames, C. and R. Eames (1990). A Computer Perspective, though that is more of a computer history book.  Not to mention a book I know is out of print, namely Montgomery Phister’s (1979) Data Processing Technology and Economics, a great overview of everything you could wish for of economic and technical data on computers from 1955 to 1978, published by Digital.

It seems I will have to confess to a certain managerial bent, as well as shameless promotion of OO and Norwegians…. 

</nerd warning=off>

Ahhh, that felt good. My sincere apologies….

PS: Also Sethi, R. (1989). Programming Languages; Concepts and Constructs. The dragon book. Sorry about that.

Searching and finding – hard to get into

I am currently reading two books on what can only be described as Web 2.0: John Batelle’s The Search and Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability. I don’t know why (maybe just my own overdosing on reading after starting my sabbatical), but I am finding both hard to get into.

Batelle front coverThe Search is better written – it is a mix of a corporate biography and a discussion of how search capability changes society. The language is tight – though sometimes cute, as in the phrase "the database of intentions" about Google clickstreams and archived query terms – and there is a thread (roughly chronological) through the book that allows most people who have been online for a while to nod and agree on almost any page. John Batelle has an excellent blog and plenty of scars from the dot-com boom and bust (I always liked Industry Standard and wrote a column for the Norwegian version, Business Standard, for a few years, so I am very favorably disposed), and his competence as a writer shows. The book reads like a long Wired report, but better structured, marginally below average in use of buzzwords and John has the right industry connections to pull it off.

Ambient findability front coverAmbient Findability looks at search from the other side of the coin – how do you make yourself findable in a world where search, rather than categorization, is the preferred user interface? For one thing, you have to make your whole web site findable, make it accessible and meaningful from all entry points. Morville fills the book up with drawings and pictures on almost every page, comes off as a widely read person, but I am still looking for a thorough expansion of the central message – or at least some  decent and deep speculation on personal and organizational consequences. It is more a book popularizing information science than a book that wants to tell a story, and it shows.

While both books are well worth the read if you are relatively new to the Internet, I was a little disappointed in the lack of new ideas – they are clever, but once you accept that the marginal cost of processing, storage and communciations bandwidth approaches zero, the conclusions kind of give themselves. Perhaps I am tired – actually, I am – perhaps I am unfairly critical after having treated myself to The Blank Slate, The World is Flat and Collapse, but these books, while both worthwhile, have failed to "wow" me.

Apologies. I will make a more determined re-entry once I wake up.

And the wall came down

Berlin wallI am putting together material for a discussion of Tom Friedman’s "flatteners", including the fall of the Berlin wall, and found this excellent personal account, by Andreas Ramos, of what happened. I didn’t get to see this myself, but my parents went to Berlin for New Year’s 1989 and told stories of thousands of people – some in suit and tie – chipping down the wall by hand. And I remember a German systems developer we had working for us, who sat all day by the radio with tears streaming down his cheeks.

What a day, what a moment.

Free us from the European version…

Mike over at Techdirt makes the point that it is time European politicians stop talking about creating the European version of MIT or Google or whatever and instead start to think about making the next version of something. Hard not to agree. Then again, the label "European" is mostly stuck on projects to make them fundable by the EU – not because they are European in any specific sense aside from name.