Revisting the Note Taking Problem with DEVONthink

Though I continue to enjoy using the excellent software Scrivener to compose my dissertation, I am still unhappy with my note taking strategies and how I collect and organize this information digitally. After writing several postings on what I wish existed in terms of a software solution for doing research for a book or dissertation (1,2,3) and writing a little script to help improve the imperfect solution I have been using, I still find myself frustrated.

To summarize what I wish I had again in terms of a knowledge database:

As I make a note on a source, e.g. recording a single fact, fragment of information, observation, or summary of an idea from a work I want that piece of information to be taggable so that it can be easily found in the future when searching for that tag. I want to be able to add and tag many such notes quickly and efficiently, some of which are “under” others in the form of a hierarchical order, and which then inherit the tags of their parent notes so that I am saved a lot of repetitive tagging. Every single fragment or note must also contain some link, tag, or meta-data which indicates the source it came from (a book, article, archival document, interview, etc.) so that when I use that note in my dissertation or book, I can easily find the source it came from.1

DEVONthink Pro

I am in the process of shifting my note taking to a powerful knowledge database program called DEVONthink Pro. I was impressed at how quickly and easily I could import all of my nearly one thousand OmniOutliner documents, which I can now preview, search, tag, and group within DEVONthink. I don’t just want to reproduce my existing source-based note structure. I want to experiment with using this application to get just a little closer to my dream knowledge database described above. How am I doing this?

In DEVONthink, I create a group (which is what DEVONthink calls folders) for Sources.

Add a Group for a New Source – Each time I take notes on a new source (a book, movie, archive document, etc.), I create a group for it within this Source folder with the title of the source.

Create and Tag an Overview Document for the Source – In this newly created group I create a new text document with the name of the source in which I give some general information about that source (an overall description or summary) and give it some general tags that well represent the whole source.

Because DEVONthink also creates a gray colored pseudo-tag to every member of a group with the name of the group, any notes that go into this source group will contain a pseudo-tag indicating what source it is from.

Add Notes Using Customized Template Script – After creating and tagging the overview document, every time I want to add a note from this source, I select the overview document and invoke a keyboard shortcut connected to a DEVONthink template I have called “Note On Source” (I’m using Ctrl-Cmd-M) This invokes the creation of a hacked version of an existing template that comes with DEVONthink called “Annotation” written by Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann and modified by Christian Grunenberg. In its modified form the new template script does the following:

a. A new note is created in the source’s group
b. The new note gets a link created by the template script which links to it back to the overview document for the source (assuming it was selected when invoking the script).
c. The new note is then automatically tagged with whatever tags the overview document contained. I can then, of course, add further tags or delete any that may not be relevant to this particular fragment or note.

So what does this method accomplish?

Well, using this method, all my fragments, quotes, and notes from a particular source are together in its own folder, a typical default way of organizing one’s notes. However, every single note can also be found by searching for a particular combination of tags using DEVONthink’s various methods for looking up tagged items. Alternatively, one can create “Smart Groups” that include notes using certain tags. Every note contains a link back to its source, however, both through a direct link in the document, and through its pseudo-tag attached to the originating group. In short, one can find all notes related to certain tags without losing their source (or needing to input it manually in the note), and all notes related to a particular source. The default tagging of new notes on a source saves me a lot of typing, and I can just add any more specific tags relevant for that specific note.

Remaining Issues

Although I’m really impressed with the new 2.x version of the application, there are still a few things that I find less than ideal with DEVONthink to work in, some of which are no fault of the designers, but merely are a result of its developers not having the same specific goals that I have when they created the application.

1. Unlike Yojimbo or Evernote, DEVONthink supports hierarchical groups/folders. This is wonderful, and makes a lot of things possible. However, when selected, parent groups do not list contents of its child groups. Thus if I have a group called “Sources” and a sub-group called “Movies” inside of which I have files or groups related to individual movies, clicking on Sources reveals only an empty folder/group in the standard three pane view (or in icon view, a list of the folders that are in it) instead of all files under it in the hierarchy. Of course, the Finder and other applications often work the same way but it would be fantastic if there was an option to be able to “Go Deep” as one can when viewing folder contents in an application like Leap

2. Although I think someone could further modify the script I hacked to make this work, currently the system as I have it now does not permit no cascading notes: all notes are children of the original source, there aren’t any children notes of notes on a source. Thus the benefits of the kind of hierarchy of bullet points one is used to seeing in a note file is lost.

3. Because almost everything that was originally (in a note taking app like OmniOutliner) fragments that take form as hierarchical bullet points in single document are now fragment files in a hierarchy of folders, much of the power of viewing all of the content of these various fragments together at once is lost. DEVONthink lists all notes as files with single-line names. Ideally my dream note-taking software wouldn’t even need names for the fragments (my hacked version of the script just names them the date plus the name of the source) and would merely directly display the contents of notes so they can be seen juxtaposed with whatever other notes are in the list.

Downloading and Using the “Note on Source” Template

Again, I didn’t write this from scratch, but modified an existing template that comes with DEVONthink Pro. To use it, follow the instructions above. To install it:

1. Download the Script: Note on Source
2. Unzip the script and double click on the _Note on Source___Cmd-Ctrl-M.templatescriptd file inside. DEVONthink Pro will ask you if you want to import or install the template. Choose “Install” and it should now be active with the Cmd-Ctrl-M shortcut or directly in the menu at Data->New from Template->Note on Source

  1. My more ambitious and detailed description of this (including the idea of a “smart outline” which would then become possible) can be found in summary form in this posting. []

Time to Walk the Walk

I am deeply frustrated with the sometimes closed atmosphere in academic life. I feel a profound discomfort when I encounter students and scholars who are paranoid that their research ideas will be stolen, that their sources will be discovered and, shock and horror, will be used by someone else. I’m simply incapable of sympathizing with them. I don’t like it when scholars pass around papers with bold warnings commanding me, “Do not circulate,” and I’m even less happy when I have been given handouts at a presentation only to have the speaker collect them again following the talk as if I was looking over instructor comments on a graded final exam. I feel my stomach churn as, to give a recent example, a professor opens up a database file of archival information and, smiling mischievously to the audience, declares that this is his “secret” source.

Such is life, people say to me, or else quote me some snotty French equivalent. That is the reality of this harsh academic world we live in. Well, perhaps I’m suffering from an early onset of old-age grumpiness, but I just don’t want to play that game. I don’t care that I’m still a graduate student, that job committees will look over everything they can find by me in search of sub-standard material, or that publishing firms will want me to explain why an earlier version of something I have submitted to them is available for download somewhere online. I don’t care if someone else finds some topic I have done some preliminary work on interesting, runs with it, and ends up publishing something on it. I may feel a momentary pang of regret that I didn’t get my own butt in gear and finish the project myself, but if they did a good job, then I really have no cause for complaint.

I’ve decided to just go ahead and start posting everything I produce academically, including short conference presentations and other research works in progress. You can find this material on a new research page here at Muninn.

A Night in Changdao

I’ve been outside of Jinan this week, traveling about a bit. Yesterday I caught a ferry from Penglai (蓬莱) to a group of islands known as Changdao (長島) county which I had been told were well known for their scenic beauty. I had a day left of traveling with no specific plans and it seemed like a nice quiet place to spend a day before I head back to Jinan for my last week in China. I arrived in Changdao late in the afternoon and after checking into one of the only hotels open before the summer tourist season starts in May, I wandered about the town a bit. I didn’t ever get outside the sleepy fishing town in the south of the islands either that evening or the next morning when I caught the ferry back to the mainland. Instead of making it out to see the Changdao National Forest Park and Changdao National Nature Reserve, instead I mostly roamed about the back streets of the town and port.

I couldn’t help noticing that the locals gave me more than the usual amount of attention with a much higher frequency of gasps, cries of “Laowai!” and in one case a mother in a grocery store giving a short lecture to her child, surely too young to understand, about what this monster in their midst was (“You have never seen one of those before, have you? Don’t be scared. A foreigner is someone from another country and they don’t all look like us…”). This is nothing new, of course, to those who have traveled outside the major cities of Asia and I simply attributed this to the natural curiosity for non-Asians I have experienced throughout the countryside of Japan, Korea, and China.

During that first evening, though, I learn something about Changdao almost by accident. Walking back to my hotel late in the evening I passed by a TV shop where my iPod detected a wireless internet connection. I stopped outside the shop to download some email, and, since I really knew nothing about the place I was visiting, at least downloaded the Chinese and English wikipedia articles for the islands on my little offline Wikipedia client on my iPod. When I read the article later that evening, I found the English page had these two surprising paragraphs:

Changdao Island is closed to non-Chinese nationals. Westerners found on the island are swiftly taken to the passenger ferry terminal and placed on the next ferry back to Penglai by the islands Police service. Islanders promptly report all “outsiders” to the islands police service. (First hand experience) Police explain the reasons for this, due to the high number of military installations on the Island.

The Changdao Islands are now open to non-Chinese nationals, including westerners This was agreed by the local and national governments as of 1st December 2008.

Given the fact that non-Chinese nationals have apparently only been permitted on the island since December, and the tourism season hasn’t really started, the relative isolation of these islands may not have been the only reason there was extra surprise at the sight of a (visibly identifiable) foreigner in their midsts.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel, and made my way back to the ferry terminal. On the way, I walked over to the nearby TV shop to download my morning email (I know, I’m an addict). A middle aged man across the street yelled at me to stop. None of the many townspeople I had come across the day before had stopped me but armed with my new knowledge about the island I nervously complied. He came up to me and asked me if I had registered with the police. I told him I hadn’t. He asked me what I was doing on the islands, where I had stayed, etc. I answered honestly. Although he was polite, he said he wouldn’t let me go until he had called the police to ask if I had registered yet. I explained I hadn’t registered but I had only arrived the night before1 and, at any rate, was now on my way to the ferry terminal to return to the mainland. “Ah, he said, but why are you going this way, when the ferry terminal is that way?!” Fortunately, a little more explanation made him understand that I simply wanted to walk a few more meters up the road to steal a wireless connection I had come across to check my email before hopping into a cab and going to the ferry terminal. At any rate, I avoided this concerned citizen’s detention, and the potential time-consuming process of going to the Changdao county police station to register myself.

Two notes to the Changdao authorities:

1. If I hadn’t downloaded that Wikipedia article, I never would have known there was any special status for the islands or any kind of military installations. Only the English wikipedia entry, and this 2005 blog entry from someone who was blocked entry some years ago alerted me to the fact, and only after I had checked into my hotel on the island. If foreigners need to take care to register when visiting the scenic islands or are subject to other restrictions, perhaps a sign anywhere in the ferry terminal2, or perhaps somewhere on the nice English language website for Changdao county where I am welcomed to the, “peaceful, sincere, civilized and beautiful Changdao for business investment and holiday!” If there is some kind of required registration procedure, can I recommend that one be able and asked to do this upon arrival at the ferry terminal or when one checks into the hotel (the hotel didn’t even look inside my Norwegian passport when I checked in). Finally, if a potentially military adversary like the United States really wanted to send a spy to reconnoiter your military bases on the islands, do you really think it would be a good idea to send an easily identifiable caucasian instead of one of its many citizens of Asian or similar complexion or even better, a hired local?

Continue reading A Night in Changdao

  1. I think foreigners are technically supposed to register with the police everywhere in China within 24 hours of their arrival, and I did register in Jinan soon after my arrival, but almost no tourists traveling in China register in every city they stay in, At any rate, this registration he spoke of is not thus a Changdao specific requirement. Technically though, I hadn’t yet reached the 24th hour and I was off the island before my time ran out. []
  2. I confirmed there is no special information in either Chinese or English posted about the status of the islands when I returned to Penglai[]

Triage in the Archives

I’m working on my last batch of documents in the provincial archives in Shandong. There are two challenges to doing my historical research here which I often think about. The first is the problem of access to both the archive and much of its contents. I have been very fortunate but I regret that it is more of a result of good fortune than anything else. This posting will focus on the other problem, the need for a kind of triage in the archives and the constant awareness of my own personal limits as a reader. It is a humbling experience, and I suspect many, if not most, historians, come to face it if they have spent much time doing archival research, especially dealing with documents not in a language they speak and read natively.

Language and Detailed Local Knowledge

I enter the archives here with a topic in mind, a relatively good understanding of the regional and chronological context for my topic of study, and a working knowledge of the terminology often used in the kinds of documents I will be looking at, in part thanks to the existence of a published collection of documents from the same archive (山东革命历史档案资料选编). However, I have two major disadvantages that I feel very acutely every day I come to the archives. One relates to my language ability; the other to the limits of my local knowledge.

Though I can read Chinese, especially when it comes to the materials in my particular field of study, I have two huge linguistic disadvantages compared to any native speaker of Chinese (and, to a lesser degree, native speakers of Japanese): 1) I read Chinese much slower, and more importantly, skim Chinese slower, than native speakers. I still have to occasionally look up words that cannot either be understood by context or safely ignored due to probable irrelevancy. 2) I do not have a lifetime of practice reading handwritten documents using cursive or radically simplified Chinese characters, which compose over half of the materials I’m looking at. This means that some of the many handwritten documents I look at here, where I do not have permission to photocopy or take photographs of the materials I am looking at, are partially or in a few cases completely impossible for me to read.

The second major kind of disadvantage I have relates to the fact that, as one archivist here put it to me sympathetically, “This must be overwhelming, since you have only had time to study Chinese history for a year or two before you came.” This makes it seem like every Chinese historian has studied Chinese history for decades and is thus many years ahead in terms of knowledge of the specifics of Communist party anti-treason campaigns in Shandong province, which is simply not the case. However, all other things being equal, I must come to terms with an obvious fact that lies at the heart of what the archivist was trying to point out to me: It is physically impossible for me to have found time to read more than a subset of the Chinese language secondary works or document collections that are related to my field in the short time I have worked on my dissertation, let alone read, as some graduate students and scholars here undoubtedly have, read the many other peripheral works that help one understand the context surrounding my topic. This is even more true since I am doing a transnational and comparative project that also incorporates Korea.

The only way people in my position can walk into the archive each day with some degree of self-respect is to convince ourselves that we have something unique to offer the study of our historical topic that gives us some kind of advantage relative to other scholars and students who might be working on a similar field here. Whatever this might be, our critical question, our comparative approach, our sensitivity to patterns etc. that might not be apparent to those working in other scholarly contexts, and so on, it gives us the confidence to go in and struggle through the historical materials and accept our weaknesses. In my case, I try to tell myself the contribution I can make is largely to be found in the way I “slice” the range of my inquiry and attempt to use that slice to answer particular questions. I remain open to the idea, however, that the “uniqueness of approach” claim may ultimately be an illusion, and as the quality of academic research here in China improves rapidly (I was really impressed with the breadth of reading and fresh approaches taken by some graduate students I have met here), some of the other advantages that foreign scholars coming to study might once have dared to claim are disappearing.

Even if one does avoid falling into complete despair, it remains an incredibly humbling experience to walk into the archive each day and be faced time and time again with one’s own all-so-apparent inadequacies. Below, let me share some aspects of that experience with some examples and the unfortunate but necessary steps I have to take in order to maximize the number of historical gemstones I can mine in the ocean of archival material available to me, despite my weaknesses.
Continue reading Triage in the Archives

Organizing Information for Dissertation Writing – Part 1 of 3

I’m coming into the home stretch of my two academic years of field work for my dissertation on treason and political retribution against accused collaborators with Japan in Korea and China from 1937-1951. I spent the first academic year in Korea, a summer in Taiwan, and I’ve just begun my last month of research in Jinan, China. I’ll try to wrap up some unfinished research in Korea and Taiwan this spring and then begin the actual writing of my dissertation this coming summer back in my hometown in Norway and while staying with family in the US. My goal is to wrap things up and hopefully complete my history PhD program by the spring of 2011.

I had always hoped I would have at least one chapter written up by the time I returned from the field, but at this I have failed. My primary excuse has been the fact that I have never had all the materials I have collected in various places in one place. In honesty, however, it is probably more due to the fact that I have never been able to combine the “research mode” and the “writing mode” into a single daily routine. I have deep admiration for graduate students and scholars who can do this effectively: spending their days at the archives and libraries, then shifting to chapter writing in the evenings. I haven’t even done what some professors have suggested: write a few disconnected pages here and there as you get enough material to weave a few tight threads. I confess cowardice, having not overcome the fear of composing such fragile and isolated pages.

Since I’m not, like those model students, immediately converting my daily discoveries into chunks of narrative and analysis, I am increasingly concerned about the fact that the hundreds of note files, outlines, and references to various archive images or PDFs themselves have become a considerable corpus that will require a nontrivial amount of processing and mining to reconstruct the argument and narrative of what will become my PhD dissertation.

To put it another way, I have two rich layers that form the foundation and roof of my research. The former is the dense web of primary source materials, notes taken from these source materials, and other timelines or “notes on notes” which organize some conceptually related materials. This is where the truffle hunter can happily prance about. The latter is the dissertation outline. This is an increasingly detailed macroscopic view of my planned chapters and arguments which has taken concrete form in a dozen different formats and lengths as it gets distributed as a dissertation prospectus, various fellowship application essays, emails to professors, and, in its most detailed form, a hierarchical outline document full of barely intelligible bullet points. This overarching top-down view is born of that creative destruction that is the clash between the starting assumptions that feed the “fire in my belly” which brought me to the study of history and my chosen topic, and my intuitive understanding of what my research in the sources permits me to argue in good faith as a historian. It is, of course, at exactly this point where many of the historiographical crises of our time find their point of entry but this is not the issue I wish to address in these postings.

While in the field, the gradual thickening of the web of notes and sources on the one hand and the increasingly detailed and structured outline on the other might suggest progress, but I can already feel the heavy weight of a void that lies between them. PhD students I have talked to who have returned from their research in the field give me the impression that the greatest frustrations that lie ahead for me are to be found in two areas. One is the challenge of writing itself, of synthesis and analysis on a scope never before attempted in our long career as students. The other, however, seems to be found in bridging the vast and dangerously incomplete “middle zone” between the above described layers: Exactly what evidence and what sources will be deployed for precisely which points we think we can persuasively make? Which book, newspaper or archival document was it that demonstrated this or that phenomenon? For every argument I wish to make, must I be reduced to searching through a large subset of my notes and notes on notes, which now number many hundred pages?

I’m very much open to the advice of graduate students and professors who have developed successful strategies for this but in my next two postings, I’ll share a strategy that I’m attempting now that I hope will help me overcome some of the worst of the middle zone nightmare I have described above. I don’t think it is very original, as I suspect many, if not most PhD students may have attempted or used something similar themselves. In fact, some may accuse me of describing the obvious common sense approach. If, however, it indeed is an effective approach – and this remains to be shown in the coming two years of writing I have ahead of me – then I wish it had been explained to me before I launched into my lonely existence as a student roaming the archives of East Asia.

In the next posting, I’ll explain how I’m using my task planning software (OmniFocus) as a bridge between my notes and my dissertation outline, creating a kind of index that links sections of my notes on specific sources, to certain arguments I think I can and will make in my dissertation chapters. While what I’m doing doesn’t require any kind of specific software, this process has integrated relatively smoothly into my existing methods for organizing tasks on my Mac and my iPod Touch. The third posting will probably only be interesting to a more technical audience who are familiar with various specific software solutions. In that posting, I will suggest how, if my current experimental approach is sound, how I think an even more ideal software-based organizational system might work which I have yet to find fully or satisfactorily implemented in any existing soclution I have seen out there. I’m sure there will be dissenters who believe they have found the perfect solution for their needs, but I will attempt to articulate what I have found lacking in what is out there.

Apartment Heating: Democracy at Work

In some countries you pay your electricity every month to an electric company, based on what amount you have used for the preceding month. When you set up the account they will come by and check your meter and begin the count. In the Komaba International House in Japan, near Tokyo University’s Komaba campus, where I lived for a few months as a student, you “charged” your room with electricity and the amount still remaining on your account was displayed conveniently on a little meter near the entrance to one’s room.


Everyday you could see how much “juice” you had left and could make a guess as to whether you had enough to make it through another day. This was a reasonable system, once you got used to it, although the dormitory had its other issues.

Here in my apartment in China, they opted for another method. You charge your room with electricity, as one does at the Komaba dormitory in Japan, but the only place you can read the meter is hidden deep in the bowels of the pipe room of one’s floor where it is accessible only to a custodian with a flashlight and a hefty collection of keys.

So when I came down with a horrible fever and cold this week, and was drifting in and out of consciousness, I was not happy to discover that, in the middle of the night, my electricity shut off, and therefore my electric heater, because my charge had run out. Stumbling around in the darkness, knocking over a cup of cold tea leaf filled tea, I managed to make my way down to security and they got the poor janitor up to charge my room with another 10RMB (the maximum amount the janitor is allowed to accept from me outside of regular hours), which, it turned out, provided only another 8 hours of continuous heating for my room with my electric heater.

So, as you can imagine, I have been eagerly awaiting that beautiful moment when “the heating” turns on for my building (and my city? I’m not sure, but this is usually a pretty centralized operation in China) and I can stop wasting electricity on my (less efficient) electric heater. The nice steamy water pipe heating I have been waiting for made for a cozy and comfortable winter when I lived in China last time in 1999-2000, as long as one didn’t touch the pipes at their entry point. I’m not exactly sure by what mysterious process it gets decided by the powers that be that it is cold enough to have heating, but, believe, me, it is.

Thus consider my dismay when I get on the elevator in my apartment complex today to see a sign that says,

“53 households said they want heating this winter, while 34 households said they did not want heating this winter. In accordance with the law, since less than 70% of the households in the building want heating this winter, we will not be turning on the heat.”

It looks like, in addition to not getting any of the mail sent to me here in China over the last month despite several confirmations of my address, somebody else might have used my ballot for this crucial election…

Sugar and Ice: Ordering Juice in Taiwan

You can buy a wide assortment of juices and teas throughout the streets of Taipei and Taiwan. Their menus often resemble stock listings in sheer density of information. In addition to the kind of juice or tea that you wish to purchase, Taiwanese and savvy foreigners can supplement their order with a range of custom options. Rarely are these “documented” options but at least one juice vendor chain shows you some of the options at your disposal:

Sugar and Ice Choices

Here you can see that it is possible to customize the amount of sugar and the amount of ice which is added to your drink. You can get everything from “full sugar” (100% the normal amount added) to “no sugar” and everything from the normal amount of ice to no ice. You can also order your drink warm or hot.

I like to order lemonade or a mixture of lemonade and mandarin orange with “half sugar” (半糖) and not much ice (少冰).

Home Movies, in the Park

I am a bit sad to think I will be leaving this wonderful island in just over two weeks. I have really grown quite attached. I could easily stay here another 6 months or a year since I really feel like I have just barely scratched the surface here, both in terms of the people and culture as well as the materials that might potentially be useful to me in my dissertation research.

It is the little things about life here that really just make me smile. To give one little example, for the 3rd time in a row, as I walked home from the NTU library around 21:00, I saw a group of elderly residents of a neighborhood I pass through lounging in one of the many small parks and watching a Kung Fu movie on one of those large projector screens. The event doesn’t look very formal or organized, so I can only imagine that one of the locals dragged out the projector and large screen so the neighborhood could all watch it together.


Muninn is Now Primary Home

I am no longer subscribing to the website (though I am keeping the email at that domain) since it was an expensive and limited hosting deal that I started over ten years ago, when 5MB seemed like a lot for web space.1 The quality of the hosting, the annoyances of not controlling the domain, and the fact many sites on this host dropped out of Google’s index convinced me to recently drop the web part of the account. will be my primary home on the web. There are some pages on the old site that I will upload again when they have been redesigned here, including some old picture pages.

  1. The oldest version cached on the Wayback Machine is from 2000 but I had it a few years before that, having transferred the site from my undergraduate web page, which I first created a few years before this earliest cached version found here in 1997. []

Taiwan for the Summer

My Fulbright in Korea has ended, as has a year of language study and dissertation research in Seoul. I moved to Taiwan on Monday and will be here in Taipei until the end of the summer. I’m quite fond of this island and look forward to shifting my research to Chinese language sources. I just moved into a new apartment today and am pretty much up and running in my new life here.