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ThinkingOutLoud

Andrius Kulikauskas recently posed 20 questions concerning what he calls "Thinking Out Loud". His survey is like an intellectual Rohrschach inkblot test, one that I couldn't resist trying to answer. (See OrchardOfThoughts for an earlier ^zhurnal item re my glimpse of Andrius's online activity as of a couple of years ago. These survey questions appeared in Andrius's blog entry of 28 Jan 2003.)

My incomplete, idiosyncratic, and momentary reactions follow.

1. Name:
Mark Zimmermann ... aka ^z

2. Email (and/or other ways to contact you):
z at zhurnaly.com or z at his.com are the best current addresses. For paper mail, try Mark Zimmermann, P.O. Box 598, Kensington, MD 20895-0598, USA.

3. In what forms do you think out loud?
Mostly via the act of writing ^zhurnal items (http://zhurnaly.com/ or http://zhurnal.net/ ). Some ideas occur in conversation with family and colleagues, and are captured in little scribbled notes to myself on bits of paper ... occasionally thoughts surface in the course of composing letters (usually email) to friends ... sporadically I snag passing thoughts as tiny voice-notes on a cellphone/recorder that I sometimes carry ... but most of these forms are rather ephemeral unless/until I turn them into journal entries. During the past year, since I've taken up distance running I find that every few leagues or so I'll get a notion. And reading provides more frequent spurs to thought.

4. What do you think out loud about?
See http://zhurnal.net/ for samples --- just about anything that amuses me. The most common "worthwhile" topics involve people, social issues, idiosyncratic experiences, science, language, mind, art/literature, etc. The page TopicIndex and associated ZhurnalWiki topic pages offer a rather unsatisfactory and incomplete categorization schema.

5. Who do you consider your audience when you think out loud?
Mostly myself, though sometimes it's my imagined future self, and always there's the pleasant fantasy that other folks might occasionally find something worth thinking about in what I write --- though I estimate that the ^zhurnal attracts at most a dozen or so semi-regular readers and perhaps a few hundred random passers-by per month. That's far more than I deserve, no doubt!

6. Please describe any tools, such as software, that you use, and why you find them helpful.
Wiki (aka WikiWikiWeb) is valuable in that it permits me to capture and cross-link fragmentary thoughts without spending a distracting amount of mental energy on HTML or other formatting/markup. I run a stand-alone Wiki on a laptop (Mac iBook at the moment) on which I do most of my writing. (The software is adapted from Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham's code in their book TheWikiWay.) I try to finish and upload a page every day or two to the ^zhurnal (http://zhurnaly.com/ and to http://zhurnal.net/ ) for sharing and archival purposes. At any given time I have between zero and a few score fragments that I'm thinking about developing into ^zhurnal entries. I keep them locally in the stand-alone ZhurnalWiki and mess around with them when I have time. The original ^zhurnal uses a trivially-modified Perl "guestbook" to post new items. I use command-line plain-vanilla UNIX "ftp" to download pages for editing and archiving, and likewise for uploading changes, images, etc. Among the key non-software "tools" that I value most are pencil/pen, scraps of paper, and a simple shorthand (see HandOfOnesOwn) that helps me jot down quotations, memorable comments, bits of thought, and the like.

7. How does thinking out loud fit into your schedule?
I have a "job" so there are only a few minutes most days for this sort of thing --- hence, the strategy of seizing fragments as they pass by, buffering them on notecards, and working on them later. Usually the longer writing episodes happen if I've taken a child to a music lesson and have half an hour or more to type by myself; occasionally I get up early or stay up late and do a little writing when the household is quiet. Reading is an essential part of thinking, and I definitely need to make more time for reading worthwhile material. Perhaps in a decade or so, if I can retire to cultivate my (mental) garden ...

8. What kind of listeners do you find helpful?
Most helpful to me seems to be email correspondence with remote friends; it provides a strong and highly pleasurable incentive to organize my thoughts. In person, from 1998 to 2001 on most Friday mornings a few colleagues and I would gather for a "Philosophy Breakfast" from 7:45am until 8:30am in the office cafeteria. It was great fun and extraordinarily inspirational --- but unfortunately we haven't been able to do it very often for the past year or more. (see PhilosophyBreakfasts and associated pages) Really, the best "listeners" are myselves (^_^) --- at various times, in various moods, in various contexts. But the best sources of inspiration and provocation are other people, books, newspapers, magazines, web pages, etc.

9. How do you find and keep listeners?

Really, the words "keep" and "listeners" don't seem to me to be at all the right ones, at least not for the kind of thinking out loud that I (try to) do. It's not easy to be sincerely happy talking to oneself, but I'm attempting to work in that direction. True confession: mostly I fake contentment with soliloquizing ... but there are brief moments when the fakery becomes real, and I'm trying to extend those. (see MissedManners and Cardinal Newman perhaps)

10. How do you make use of your listener's reactions, state-of-mind, moods, tangents?
The best reactions are ones which show me new sides of issues --- things I've overlooked, emotions that I've been insensitive to, etc. I try when possible to jot down phrases and then springboard off of them in my own further ^zhurnal musings on topics.

11. How do you prioritize your thoughts?
Not very well. The urgent and immediate tends to drive out the long-term important in my life. On the other hand, I think that it's essential to answer a friend's cry for help, comfort a hurt child, pick up a ringing phone, etc. --- so I am trying to become happy while doing that even when it interrupts an attempt to work on "big picture" priorities. No easy answer to this question. I keep a to-do list with letters by items --- "A" means "do it today", "B" means "within a few days", and "C" means "maybe this week" --- and sometimes this category method helps me avoid mental stack-overflow. In the stand-alone ZhurnalWiki that I keep there are bins labeled "Ready ..." and "... or Not" which hold Wiki pointers to items that are or aren't mature enough to post to the ^zhurnal. And then there's a long unsorted bulletized list of stuff. Every so often I try to go through the list and weed out things that are too far below-threshold. I don't do a good job of that either.

12. What do you do when you're having trouble formulating your thought?
If I'm sensible, I attempt to write down what I can, even if it's only a tiny subset of the whole. (see JohnsonOnAnecdotes) Sometimes I tell myself that it's ok to leave an item unresolved and post it as a question. Sometimes I try to pop up a level and turn an ill-posed thought into a metaquestion. It doesn't often work, but when it does it's magical --- as Z. A. Melzak quotes Tolstoy, "He would transfer a question to metaphysical heights, pass on to definitions of space, time, and thought, and having deduced the refutation he needed, would again descend to the level of the original discussion." (see CreativeDevices)

13. Are you able to "think out loud" while you do other things?
Mostly no. Sometimes yes, a little, if doing things that aren't too "mental" --- slow running, driving along a familiar road with the radio turned off, washing the dishes, etc. But usually those sorts of events only provide the seeds of ideas. To grow them into something worthwhile takes time and typing.

14. In what ways do you or others come back to your thoughts?
Constantly, via cross-references to past ^zhurnal items.

15. When do you let others share your thoughts freely, and when do you require that they ask for your permission?
I like for people to ask permission, to which I always reply "yes" --- feedback is sweet nectar to an author! --- but of course I can't (and won't) stop anybody from taking anything I post and doing what they will with it. I'm not terribly interested in legalisms of copyright and intellectual property, except as a symptom of deeper social disease. (see PublicDomain etc.) I have far too little time to spend on that subject, and really have to focus my energies on my own reading & thinking & writing. It seems to me essential to give credit, as much as possible, to the origins of my ideas if I can, and I try to do so --- but of course, some things come from the conjunction of so many concepts that I can't finger a source. Browsing my server logs I see that, besides the Googlebot/Fastsearch/Inktomisearch/etc. web harvesters hitting my pages, there are recently a fair number of robots crawls from plagiarism-detection services. Perhaps students are taking ^zhurnal entries and turning them in as their own work? Sad if so; happy if the kids are taking things they find in the ^zhurnal and getting inspired thereby, or quoting with acknowledgment and then critiquing. Many years ago I pulled together a "Best of..." collection of excerpts from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, accumulated as I slowly read through the volumes. I used to get a couple of letters per month from kids asking for help with their term papers ("What caused the Punic War?" and so forth) and I tried to reply courteously and helpfully whenever I could. But for the past few years I haven't received any such correspondence. Is it true, as per media reports, that many students think nothing of plagiarism nowadays? Not good for our future, I fear ....

16. In your opinion, why should people think out loud?
To improve their own ideas, to be happier, to help other people, ...

17. How would you like your thoughts to affect others?
It would be pleasant if my thoughts could assist other people in their lives --- aid them in being more productive and happier and kinder to each other.

18. What kind of help or tools would you like there to be for thinking out loud?
I think that the standalone Wiki that I now use is quite good, especially in assisting hyperlinking among ideas and string-search to find half-remembered fragments from the past. I wish that I had better information retrieval tools (see IrWishes) --- esp. better fuzzy string search and better automatic cross-correlation to autolink ZhurnalWiki pages. And on the more mundane side, it would be nice if this iBook laptop had a longer battery life and weighed somewhat less; ~2 hours and ~5 pounds isn't half bad, but I can always dream. A voice recorder that could transcribe my verbal mutterings into text would be neat too.

19. Other comments or wishes?
Tnx for asking, Andrius --- yours are good questions. I hope that this scatterbrained response helps you a wee bit, perhaps induces some new notions in your cranium, or at least is mildly amusing for a few moments. I suspect that by writing this to you, as usual, I've helped myself far more than I've helped anybody else. C'est la vie ...

20. May we share your answers with others? In particular, do you retain copyright to your answers above, or do you place them in the public domain? (Your placing them in the public domain makes it feasible for us to share them with others.)
Of course! --- though as noted above, it would be a courtesy, at least, to keep my name associated with the above until the ideas and their representations have transmuted themselves into airier and nobler forms, beyond anything I deserve credit or blame for ....


TopicThinking - TopicZhurnal - Datetag20030220



(correlates: QuickiWiki, CreativeDevices, PeripheralPunditry, ...)