Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

Outlining and Fargo

Published: 9 May 2013

I am taking some time from the big projects to dust off the UI for the film annotation site we attempted some time back.

I’ve been approached by someone interested in helping to get it going for another use, so my energies for a while are captured by the tasks of collecting thoughts and improvements that we might code in this new iteration. There are two main components. One is a scrubber/viewer which allows you to browse the video and annotations that are anchored to it. This is pretty cool, like nothing you have seen, I’ll bet.

The other component uses an advanced outlining paradigm. As I settle into this world and try to describe (for a proper essay here) this outliner, Dave Winer has introduced a product, Fargo. There is a lot of attention given to this, at least partly because Winer is a prolific blogger and tireless promoter.

He has rather strong opinions about what an outliner is; they sort of fit into a world of other strong opinions he has. Recently he wrote a post which assigns the term to a very narrow use. I wish Dave well and hope the product succeeds, though I doubt I will useit.

I thought a great deal about what outliners are in the user interface domain. I wrote a couple myself and will depend heavily in the future on what I think is the paradigm. When I was turning over some ideas on outliners, I did much of that rumination in public which you can read in a now defunct on-line publication.

Winer’s notion is simple hierarchies of text, with usually no more than a paragraph per outline item. His original outline exchange protocol did not allow anything else, not even MORE’s notes for instance. He asserts this helps him write better, and I believe it does. Such a paradigm can also be used to organize a great many text items. The nesting in these two notions is simple.

In the organizing case, the paradigm is also simple and just like what we are used to in the Finder, and most email applications. “This thing is put in this container so that I can find it later.”

The writing case is all over the place, depending on the writing style, and I think the Winer piece I linked to is a bit myopic on the spread of writing and writer-centric uses of outlining.

The words you read now are created using an organizing tool for diverse bits like the Finder model. Each essay in addition is written using an idea organizing system that I’ve developed. For simple posts, I can organize in my head; you be the judge of the clarity of the product and presentation. For the essays, I outline topics and ideas. For long papers, the outline skeleton is fully fleshed out before I start (and then is modified). I like Mellel’s outliner for this, and have promised to try Scrivener.

Neither of those has much to do with how we use outlining in the FilmsFolded UI, or rather both do but in a more formal way.

My notion of outlining in the ATPO articles was as a user interface concept that could be integrated into many types of applications, plus applications called outliners used for planning long documents. More generally, I have written of outlining as a clever balance of active controls, graphical arrangement and text, Possibly only the spreadsheet paradigm is as prevalent among presentations on a screen that are not designed to look like something from the world, like a page or a film.

Outlining in many cases does something that matters to me. Assume that you have a document written in a popular outliner like OmniOutliner, Scrivener or Tinderbox. The outlining structure and controls allow you to read (or inspect) at the finest level of detail and then also zoom out to see the overall structure of the document and where that segment fits in. This is easy to do, intuitive and uses the screen well.

Said another way, this is a technique for graphically understanding text fragments in their coherent context and a technique for grasping an entire situation (that described by the document) without any detail and to zoom in on any area for more detail. In our new interface, we use outlines this way, as situations.

We also use aliases freely, which means that instead of representing simple trees, we represent complex graphs and networks as tree fragments. (An alias in other applications is usually a shadow of the real file that behaves the same in both locations, that of the original and that of the alias. Examining either means you are examining or changing the original. Our behavior differs from the ordinary. The ordinary way is that if you delete the original the alias also disappears or is contentless. In our system, deleting one deletes only that one. The other aliases are maintained as originals.) You can have unlimited aliases.

I was disappointed by the choices he made in his two and a half previous product outings, though the products themselves were very good.

© copyright Ted Goranson, 2013