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As We May Mock a Famous Title

16 May 2012

Dear friend,

Even 67 years after Vannevar Bush's inspiring essay, we still find ourselves having trouble managing information. However, the technology available today largely surpasses what Bush thought required to build his ideal personal information management device, the memex. Many of its functions are found in today's personal computers : the web — a giant distributed knowledge repository, easily searchable filing systems, windowing systems to show multiple documents at once, and even pocket-sized encyclopedias. Mobile devices also realize Bush's visions, providing easy access to sound and image recording.

Still, the inevitable heterogeneity of information structures remains a butt-kicking issue, and the most striking evidence of this is the lack of cool affordances for associating various pieces of information in personal computing environments. This idea of linking two things together, forming multiple trails through documents, and ultimately a web of information, was central to the memex and is the origin of its power. Like so many good ideas, it was inspired by nature : our brain seems to work in an associative fashion, allowing faster-than-light access to related information.

Many computer software nowadays provide clever ways to associate information. Backed by decades of research in this very domain, Tinderbox abstracts any kind of information behind a note-based framework. A note is simply something that holds information or references to information. It can be seen from various views that provide as many ways to express relationships. The outline view allows to express order and containment. Within a free-form 2D space, the map view, one can express weaker relationships using proximity, shape, color and placement. Aside from all that, links can be used to relate one note to another. These links are typed, so that they can express multiple kinds of relationships, like agrees with or is a. As powerful as it is, this kind of software doesn't interact at all with the most visible and unified device for information management : the desktop and the file system. As soon as the ratio of external versus internal documents used is high, using it becomes tedious.

The Sainte-Force approach to links in personal information spaces is this Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex. Shamelessly copying Tinderbox's Roadmap view, blatantly ignoring current research, thoroughly untested, not dangerous at all but potentially unreliable (hence the name), it attemps to add a linking layer to the file system. It is an application that can open any kind of file, folder or URL, and allows to visualize user-defined links starting from and going to it. Using its simple view and some keyboard shortcuts, you can easily flip through hundreds of files bearing any kind of relationship between them.

Download

To use this Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex, you need at least Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). It has only been tested on Mac OS X 10.7.4.

Using links

This Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex allows you to build links between documents. A document can be a file or folder on your hard drive, or even a remote URL. A link is the association between three things :

  • a source document;
  • a destination document;
  • and a type, ie. a very short text describing the relationship.

Using these links extensively, it is possible to build a whole web across all your information, and to navigate between documents in a way very different from the usual procedure (endless drilling through a dense and obsolescent hierarchy). The Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex stores all the links in a safe place, so that the files you're dealing with remain untouched. Consequently, you can even augment read-only files with links.

Because the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex holds references to files and not merely their location on the file system, you can safely move files, even when the application isn't open. However, using files located on external devices and network mount points may result in undefined behavior (I never tried to do it).

The Main Window

The main window is made of three panes naturally representing the flow of links. The central pane is the document that is currently inspected, the left pane lists the links arriving to this document, and the right pane lists links coming from this document.

You just found some fragment of an used fictional information management device.
You just found some fragment of an used fictional information management device.

The central pane represents the currently inspected document. By default, it is your home directory, but you can drag anything here, or in the dock icon. It also becomes the active document represented in the title bar, so that you can easily access to its enclosing folder hierarchy (if it's a file or a folder). The currently inspected document can be dragged as if it was a Finder file icon : you can easily move, copy and make aliases to the currently inspected file. You can also reveal the file (using the menu item File > Reveal the current file in the Finder, or the keyboard shortcut ⌘⇧O) or open it by double-clicking its icon.

The left pane and the right pane behave somewhat similarly : they both show a list of the links going to, or coming from (respectively) the currently inspected document. You can go to the other end of the link either by double-clicking the document or its icon in the entry, by using the menu item Link > Follow, or by using the keyboard shortcut ⌘↩. This allows to navigate quickly between links. To delete a link, just select it and press the ⌫ key, use the menu item Link > Delete or drag the item to the Trash.

Using this Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex

The first step is to start with an interesting file from which you'd like to link things. Let's say I like to play Age of Empires and I want to keep some files close to the game.

Once I've found the application that launches Age of Empires, I drag it on the central pane, or onto the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex dock icon. It becomes the currently inspected document and its icon or representation will show up on the central pane. I want to attach some files to the game. First, I like to play with my friend Mathias, and I'd like to have his phone number handy when I want to play, so that he can play with me. I drag his vCard on the right pane of the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex. A link is then made between Age of Empires.app and the vCard Mathias.vcf I just dropped. I can change the type of the link by selecting the newly made in the right pane, pressing Enter and typing something, like play with. Then, I drag a TextEdit document called AOE tricks, which holds my best tips and tricks to beat Mathias.

I've just remembered that Mathias' birthday is next month. It's time to think about a gift. I quickly note gift ideas in TextEdit and save them in my Documents folder. In order to remember the ideas, I'd like to link them to Mathias' vCard. Returning to the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex, I can see that Mathias.vcf is still on the list of outbound links on the right. By double-clicking it, it becomes the currently inspected document. I can then link the gift idea document to Mathias' vCard by dragging the document in the left pane. My gift ideas point to Mathias' vCard, and I can see them when I'm hunting for things related to Mathias.

Day by day, you create more and more links between documents, giving more chance to serendipity to occur : the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex can show you relationships, or trails, between two seemingly unrelated documents, showing associations and ideas that you never thought of before.

The Registered Links Panel

Maybe you'll find valuable that a panel listing all the links in your system can be shown by using the menu item Window > Registered Links, or the keyboard shortcut ⌘⌥L.

Associated Service: Links to or from this document…

If you install the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex in your Applications folder and restart your session, you can see that a new service has appeared for files and folders : Links to or from this document… You can use it to quickly see links for any file. It should appear in the Services menu, both in the menu bar and in the Finder's contextual menu. If you can't find it, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > Services, find it on the list and activate it.

Extras

This Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex comes with two nice additions that make its use more convenient. You can install or uninstall them by going to the application's preferences.

Accessing links from any application with RPSHMIntegrator

RPSHMIntegrator is a way to interact more directly with your links. On the title bar of every window representing a document, it adds two little buttons that allow you to see links coming from or going to that document. You can drop any file over the buttons to add a link to it. When the list of links appears, holding the ⌥ key allows you to remove any link.

RPSHMIntegrator is what makes the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex actually useful.
RPSHMIntegrator is what makes the Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex actually useful.

Despite its crappy implementation quality, RPSHMIntegrator seems to work with any application, with the exception of TextEdit and Preview on Mac OS X Lion. If you know why it doesn't work with these two, drop me a line. If you notice that RPSHMIntegrator doesn't work properly with another application, tell me about it too. We'll find a solution, don't worry.

Note that to make it work, RPSHM needs SIMBL (at least 0.9.9) to be installed. That's tough, but that's life, baby.

Scripting

The Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex hasn't yet the ability to give an Applescript a list of links for a document. However, it comes with a command-line tool that can retrieve links for a given file, or even add or remove links. Once installed, you can invoke memex on the command line.

Sharing

For now, there's no way to share a link database. You can't even export it in a standard format like XML. What a pity ! But remember, that's the price for a highly experimental and unpretentious software that's extravagantly presented.

Future

Now an incomplete and merely useful piece of junk, this Random Part of a Second-Hand Memex could be the preliminary prototype of something cool with a short name. With basic scripting (Applescript and Automator) and a way to share links and store them externally, it can already be something worthy of using. Let the Sainte-Force know what you (may) think, by prayer or by mail !

  1. V. Bush. As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176(1):101–108, 1945.

Looking forward to hearing from you,
Hubert Sainte-Force