Tinderbox Forum

A different take on writing and referencing

I think this might interest some here. My colleague in the WAIS Group at Southampton University, Frode Hegland, has been developing an interesting (Mac-based) writing app. See this demo for his ‘Author’ app and associated tools.

There is a bit more depth to this than might be assumed at casual glance. Folded into these apps is his recollections of many discussions with the late Doug Engelbart, and his views on software augmenting our abilities. The ‘visual meta’ might appears odd but arrises from a lot of discussion in the group about a way to help fix the broken-ness of current citation practice. Visible metadata might seem hokey but it is a genuine attempt to patch our broken present to a properly working future.

This has nothing directly to do with Tinderbox other than I believe it might be of interest to this community, even if only to know about it.

Disclaimer: the app author is a colleague and I’ve been involved in many discussions surrounding the app, but I have no personal link to the project.

Thanks for the heads-up, Mark. I would have loved to have watched it all, but the bloody awful music in the background put me off. Why on earth is it there? What is it for? Do people give lectures with background music? I look forward to learning more in a more congenial fashion some other time! (Apologies for the rant, but pointless and intrusive music in explanatory videos is one of my pet hates.)

Thanks for the mention of Author. I’ve used it, and it’s relatives Reader and Liquid, off an on for several years, but could never find myself wanting to make a commitment to do more than experiment with them. Perhaps because there is nothing particularly compelling about them – admitting that maybe I’m not seeing the depth that the author of Author intends. Author seems like a minimalist text editing app to me, with most of the commands normally greyed out for some reason – and I rarely see it mentioned anyway. For these reasons, I suppose I’d say I don’t get the point.

Sorry, not to disregard your colleague’s work. No doubt I’m the one missing out on something terrific.

@MartinBoycott-Brown Ha. Music? Yes, but I’m not responsible. But I garther younger people quite like this kind of thing. What would I know.

@PaulWalters A hear you, despite beta-testing since early day, I get this. I’m, irretrievably a two-finger hunt-and-peck typist (for me the touch-typing ship sailed long since).


I get the points but the author’s heart is, I believe, in the right place for today’s students, even if the app is Mac (MacOS) only. In fairness this isn’t a venture-backed start up, so there are lots of things a waterfall of money might add.

For me, and I may have had some input, the dynamic view (maps?). The visual-meta is also great. Sure, it seems odd, until you’ve actually tried to get accurate reference info from [some source] (no names: no packdrill), at which point with sinking heart you realise you have to fill in the blanks. I resent wilful breakage of reliable citation far more then the fact the 60s promised me a flying car. I accept that is ‘just’ writing, many more options arise.

‘looking up’ references and having accurate references are a gulf apart. But, having been party to some very intellectually stimulating discussions leading to visual metadata (even including some folk from publishers) I think it is a positive step as we live through the print/digital transition.

For pure writing, this is just one offering and I’m certainly not suggesting it is the solution. The idealised user is a student; needing to write reference text and poorly served by current tools. As someone who uses a reference manage (disclosure: Bookends in my case), I care about the quality of metadata but I’ve working in the metadata biz long enough to know its considered intellectual blue-collar labour best done by ‘someone else’. Ho hum.

It looks to me as if the idealised user is a student who happens to work in a field in which they only need to cite from articles that have a DOI. My Bookends database lists a collection of works that go back as far as the 17th century, some published, some not, some archival material, including letters, drawings, maps, and so forth. In addition there are personal communications, web pages, government pamphlets, CDs, interview transcripts, questionnaires, you name it. Bookends handles all the different types of source without trouble, though there is a fair amount of labour in entering all the data. Archival research is never likely to be covered by any sort of “automation”, if only because so much of archival material is never even catalogued. So, unfortunately, The Author looks as if it would be pretty near useless to me. Unless I have missed something, it is far too restricted for the kind of work I want to do.

In my experience, university departments have a tendency to get trapped inside their own subject area. Crossing disciplinary boundaries often seems to cause alarm and outrage, yet I’ve often found that it is precisely on those boundaries that the most interesting things happen. I’m probably wrong, but I do wonder if this piece of software has stayed a bit too close to home and not got out enough. To be brutally honest, I can’t see what I would use it for. I wish it well, and maybe the student of the future will find it useful, but for me I am going to have to stick with Bookends.

I think the DOI angle is a gloss created by an overview presentation. If you look at the app, it is perfectly possible to manually add reference data manually. If one’s subject is papyrology, referencing is harder—or perhaps not as the few items of record have documentation through the ages. The Library of Congress records start from 1989, ISBN dates from 1967, DOI from 1998. Whilst we can’t retrospectively fix past errors of referencing, we can aspire to do better going forward. We ought to at least be able to have correct canonical records yet many publisher’s make little effort to make their records match the papers the publish (or so experience would suggest). DOIs are also a commercial registry so arguably not a long term robust solution, but at least they should (while still de-referencable) point to a canonical reference. There are two different things to fix:

  • Correct canonical records
  • Easily re-useable correct canonical data.

But, neither of these is the fault of the apps above, though they are trying to reduce error in this regard and to assist with making referencing easier to do.

Reference managers are still of use. My Bookends has about 20-odd queries running to clean simple errors in imported data and even then I occasionally do a visual scan of several thousand records and pick out new source errors; we shouldn’t need to do this. And this is mostly formatting errors caused by exotic print-based format choices, and assumes the input data is correct. Lucky are those privileged to work with physical copies of books or journals. Once it is in the ether, who knows what is correct. The digital miasma is full of nasty surprises.

Sorry, I care more than I should about provenance. :frowning: For clarity, Yes, I do use a reference manager: for me it is Bookends, but other reference management apps are available.

Some feedback from Author’s author, which I was asked to pass on. Offered, verbatim except for me adding ‘at’ links.

@MartinBoycott-Brown, the video demo now has no music. The citations can be from anything, it simply makes it simpler if the document has a DOI. The visual-meta approach aims to improve on this in general: http://visual-meta.info

@PaulWalters, it’s fair enough that you don’t get the point. This is the best presentation I have managed to put together to illustrate how Reader and Author helps you cite quickly and easily and how Author has advanced views of your work, including the Dynamic View, which is, to my knowledge, unique. But I won’t waste your time hammering you with what you already know :slight_smile: