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Category: Notes On…

This category is for writings I consider fuller articles than the very brief glossary terms or other posts.

A Clear & Present Opportunity

Time for Better Literature Research

Universities and reading glasses were invented roughly simultaneously (coincidence?), during the 13th century. There were counties for students to have books copied for studying of which I won’t waste our time going through the details of how it wasted their time. It seems however, that not much has changed. Today’s academic is more likely to print out the sources for their literature review than to read it in digital form (Walsh, 2016), even though there are many different types of digital devices to read them on, from reflective to transmissive tablets and from laptops to desktops.

I am not writing about the pros and cons of paper versus digital for general reading but I do mean to highlight that there is a real opportunity to build an ecosystem where digital reading of professional material (someone one reads to learn, not for enjoyment primarily) can benefit from the potentially connected nature of digital text environments.

We will necessarily have to start with PDFs since they are the dominant form of academic knowledge transmission units, though of course support ePubs and other formats as well.


The suggested flow is simply this:


A user reads a document for their research and highlights interesting sections, writes notes in the margin and also generally about the document. The user also also jots down ideas as the reading and research process progresses. Furthermore, the reading applications gives the user a rich set of facilities to view the document as she sees fit, including flexible ways to access keywords, summaries, abstracts, links, references and connections and so on, some of which we have implemented in Liquid Author and Flow.


All the literature review the user has read is accessible through keyword search, including specifying whether to only search highlighted text, annotations, notes or full text. When the user copies text from a document and pastes it into the document their are authoring, all the salient citation information is included and is copied across (since this is not possible by default, they system will need a fast and elegant way for the user to help add this to the document on opening/at leisure and in future automatically use what authoring systems will append as meta-information).

All the literature review the user has yet to read is also accessible through searches and can be bunched based on keywords, citations and other criteria.

All the literature the user has yet to access, which is connected to the users work by being cited in current work is also accessible.

The visual space of connecting literature can be developed by anyone since the connectors will be made clearly available. The weblau is one direction which can be powerfully useful in this regard.

A more Liquid Reader

This could make the literature review process a truly liquid, smooth and rich affair. This is not rocket science or heading far out into the unknown, this can provide clear and immediate benefits.

We have started experimental work around this workflow, with the Liquid | Reader but this will require more investment to continue til completion, particularly since the standards of searching for academic document is so incoherent and therefore many searches engines will need to be strung together.

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The Old Man

old man inventor?

As my first major software application reaches 16th most popular Productivity Application on the macOS App Store I reflect again on what Alan Kay said over lunch: “But you CAN do anything!”. I know he was being sincere, it’s the same thing I would say to a curious and passionate student. My concern is that my brain is fully myelinated, all the fatty optimisers have been laid down, my axons and dendrites are not as much in the dating market as before. I have now managed to produce one instance of my vision in Liquid | Author, which includes Liquid | Flow. It’s a different type of word processor where I had a few medium sized ideas (tag for meaning such as for headings, a different Find command and so on) and did a lot of polishing on use, reducing as many button presses and unexpected frustrations as I could see.

So now I have a smidgeon of credibility, which is great, but what I have produced is only a very small incremental step in a different direction. How can I possibly move symbol manipulation along at a usefully large step? How can I invent something amazingly powerful? This is the question any inventor or artist would ask. And my stodgy old brain, is it still able to fluidly create new and useful connections?! I have noticed that my memory has gotten better over the last few years, which worries an artist-type such as myself. I should be able to be flexible and see things afresh. So I worry.

old man navigator

But my worry gives way to perspective. It’s not my ability to invent something which is why I must keep working and why I invite others to join me. It’s not what I build, it’s about where I am going. I am a navigator, not an inventor.

My work is to augment our ability to orient ourselves in our information, to see and make connections. These are all navigation metaphors and they apply to the process of building the tools as well.

I take responsibility of the question, of the goal, not the answer or a particular way of getting there. Sure, my world is that of visual symbol manipulation (text and associated visual communications) but to navigate we must first choose which world to venture forth into.


My future work will be to further improve the navigation and display of text in Author and on the web, including through compressed scrolling, dynamic views and more atomic authoring, including though the user of hyperGlossaries. Much of the work will be to implement small, incremental changes to make the information flow more liquid. The reach of my research and implementation–the twins of progress–will venture as far as my mind will stretch and collages will entertain.

In the distance I see a more liquid information environment where users can become deeply literate because their tools are powerful and they can view and interact with their knowledge in visceral ways, like moulding magical clay.

This is not a solo effort. It is an effort in building dialogue in addition to systems and approaches. This is what I have been doing for almost a decade now with The Future of Text Symposium and look forward to continue.

My premise is simple: Continue to work to employ the occipital lobe to support the prefrontal cortex–to use our eyes to think. And that is my journey.


We can do anything

Question, Inspiration

I have been lucky enough to have a few conversations with the magical Alan Kay this year. When we last had to wrap up our lunch he said to me, plainly and clearly: “But you can do anything!” At first this bothered me since it’s obviously not true (of course I was wrong) and not feasible (again, I was wrong).

This morning of the last day of 2018, the last day of the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s demo, I get some time to put down my thoughts through my laptop and onto your screen, while my beautiful baby boy who has just started skiing (Edgar, 19 months old) is reading for his mum in the early, dark hours of our Norwegian mountain top cabin.

I have thought quite bit about what Alan said and it’s become clear (though I may still be wrong) that the point is not to come up with a neato-design and build it, but to come up with a design direction with clear goals and frames:


Let’s start with the frames. I feel it’s out of scope to look at radical new hardware at this point since we already have high-resolution, fast, networked devices, from large, stationary setups to mobile laptops and tablets, phones and even watches, all of which can contribute as access means to a system.

What I do not feel we need to worry about is legacy file formats or legacy ways of working since file formats can always be translated at the point where they need to meet the wider world and legacy ways of working will quickly and easily be seen as such when they come up against something radically better, which is of course our goal.

The only real frames we have to develop within is the human nervous system and that which can be computed and displayed by a computer system.


The goal must necessarily be quite loose in order to support a long evolution so let’s start with Doug Engelbart’s stated goal in his 1962 paper and add to it based on his further work. I paraphrase:

We must augment our capabilities to
approach complex problem situations,
to gain comprehension and to
derive solutions
And we must keep improving our capacities to do so.

The way it is stated, this could apply to numerous fields and aspects of human life and it’s clear that is what he intended. However, in this context I will apply it to the ‘fire’ of giving us the ability to flexibly interact with symbols. I immediately go to the notion of symbols since I do not think that the most effective route to dealing is with the issues above is to present a ’natural’ scene to the user. From the very earliest moments of human recording onto a substrate we have looked at ways to record that which has the most symbolic meaning, not simply slavishly copying down what is visually there in the world.


Symbols are the ‘stuff’ of recorded thought and deserve our outmost attention. We can further focus our design goal:

How can we design and co-evolve systems to
augment the readers ability to grasp the authors intention,
in a critical and contextual way,
while also citing the original work usefully,
and augment the users ability to produce further clarity in their own work?

Many will criticise my rabbit hole and might say I have simply provided directions to my own work and I will accept such criticism with the comment that there are of course other avenues to pursue, such as persuasive cinema and educational games and open, free-flowing graphs of variously encoded knowledge but the human ability to express oneself, to record and justify ones position and to make this interpretable and understandable by oneself in the future and by others will surely remain one core aspect of our intellectual and moral work.

Directions forward

To simply reproduce the marks on a passive substrate in the digital environment is not enough. We must experiment with various ways of increasing the interactivity of the symbols–as I have written, interactivity is the core aspect of symbols and of the universe.

As we experiment, with free-form non-linear spaces connected to linear reasoning (LiquidView), with colour coding based on velocity, and with the means through which we can integrate the resulting knowledge product into existing knowledge flows, we also need to look at the spaces of symbols themselves and how the symbols can most powerfully relate with each other in a document on a screen and also between spaces–how to connect and link them, how to experience pattens and movements.

We must think freely, with open minds and share our work.

And we must think with the user, not just for the user. We must listen to the user but also encourage a deeper literacy not heir part. If we, the tool people, can demonstrate more powerful ways of working, they will come. History is witness to this, but only when the more powerful ways of working a persuasively presented to a receptive audience, as audience we need to continually foster a hunger within.

We must think fresh thoughts.

We must also read more of what the founders of the field wrote. We we living in their shadows as well as in their light, we need to better understand their un-fogged boy daily use prejudice perspectives. Something I have promised Alan to continue doing.

Personally, I will continue to experiment with Liquid | Author and LiquidView, blog my findings and thoughts here on the blog and to host the Future of Text Symposium. How do you, dear reader, wish to produce and connect? Let’s make 2019 a banner year for breakthroughs in employing powerful computer systems to the aid of our thinking, not only to our distraction.

My dream is to look back within a few years and smile at how naive this all was and that it was obvious that the best solution lay somewhere completely different from where we looked, but it was only by going into the first of possibilities that we found this out.

Happy New Year!

P.S., please have a look at my recent, related blog post
Two New Year Wishes.

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