DEVONthink / schoolthink

My hunt for a PDF-wrangling tool continues. DEVONthink is a personal knowledge management app for Mac OS X with which you can maintain a collection of text files, PDFs, HTML and XML files, bookmarks, images and so on. Its big claim to fame is associative searching: select a document and it will show you the others which are related to it. The details of the search mechanism are unexplained, but my guess is it’s a form of latent semantic indexing.

DEVONthink got a lot of attention recently when science writer Steven Johnson wrote an NYT piece about it and similar tools, crediting them with helping him come up with the ideas that go into his work. But in two subsequent blog posts he convinced me that his techniques are not generalizable. He had a research assistant to copy quotes and marginalia from his reading into DEVONthink, and he says directly that its success depended on the quality and granularity of what he saved: “most of the entries are in a sweet spot where length is concerned: between 50 and 500 words. If I had whole eBooks in there, instead of little clips of text, the tool would be useless”. Since I need a tool to manage larger, still undigested documents (i.e., PDFs I haven’t read yet), it wouldn’t work its magic for me. Furthermore, DEVONthink only supports a single hierarchical organizational structure without tags or bibliographic metadata. So I’m still looking for a personal library application.

There — I wrote in two paragraphs what it took me eight pages to do for a class assignment this week. I’m having fun at school, but there’s something about the artificial nature of school assignments which makes me feel I’m doing far from my best work. The two contexts I’m used to working in, on the job and in casual (though not necessarily frivolous) online writing, feel very different. They encourage getting to the point, pruning the decision tree, and writing in a tone suited to the job at hand rather than the stilted mock-scholarly voice that intrudes in my head when I’m writing a “paper”. One of my challenges will be to get my own voice back and to get control over the subject matter — if something’s not worth my or the reader’s time, why put either of us through it?

And in case you missed it, I am enjoying school. Class is still a pleasure, and even the occasionaly painful assignments (and the train wreck of a schedule by which they pile up in clusters on my calendar!) give me a sense of having survived an ordeal once they’re over. The bit of dissatisfaction that’s creeping into this experiment has to do with the concern that I may, as Twain put it, let my schooling interfere with my education.

One thought on “DEVONthink / schoolthink

  1. prentiss, the question of voice while writing ischool assignments brings me back to my days in the paleozoic era of library school. after nearly two years, i came out of the closet and wrote about the effect of playing solitaire on my thinking about non-book cataloging. it was the introduction to my thesis and may in fact be reason i chose rice over a phd. i guess i couldn’t fathom five more years of solitaire.

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