In this Episode
Luc P. Beaudoin is the author of the Leanpub book Cognitive Productivity with macOS®: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Luc about meta-effectiveness, postmodernism and the philosophy of science, cognitive productivity, his book, and the launch of his innovative new productivity app Hook.
This interview was recorded on February 12, 2019.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Frontmatter podcast, I'll be interviewing Luc Beaudoin.
Based in Vancouver, Luc is a cognitive scientist and adjunct professor of cognitive science and of education at Simon Fraser University. He is co-founder of the cognitive productivity software company CogSci Apps, which creates products including mySleepButton and the recently launched Hook for macOS - an "app that enables you to instantly link and access arbitrary resources (files, web pages, messages, tasks, etc.)", thus giving you the tools you need to organize related information in an efficient and meaningful way on your Mac - something you just can't do in a conventional filing system.
You can find out more about CogSci Apps at cogsciapps.com, and you can find Hook at hookproductivity.com, and you can follow Luc himself on Twitter @LucCogZest. Luc is the author of two Leanpub books, the latest being Cognitive Productivity with macOS®: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge. In the book, Luc presents seven principles for learning better and faster, using software that can help you improve your focus and recall in an age of constant distraction and information overload.
Luc has actually appeared on this podcast before, so in this episode we'll be departing from the usual pattern, and focusing more exclusively on discussing his latest book and the launch of his product, Hook, which is a particularly interesting product from Leanpub's perspective, as it is actually based on the principles set out in Luc's book.
So, thank you Luc, for being on the Frontmatter Podcast.
Luc: Hi, it's a pleasure to be here again.
Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, but as I mentioned just now, you've been on the podcast before, and people can refer to that earlier one to learn a little bit more about your background.
So I thought we might just jump right in and talk about your latest book, Cognitive Productivity with macOS® When did the project get started? And what was your purpose for writing the book?
Luc: The project actually started while I was finishing my first Leanpub book. I thought to myself, this book has got a lot of text. And yet I want to help people with very practical concerns. So I think it would be very helpful to do a second book, that has screencasts that demonstrate the tips that I provide in part three.
So to go back to the first book, in the first part, it's basically about the situation, the challenges, the problems, and opportunities we face, we knowledge workers and higher-ed students, in processing information, working with knowledge, learning with technology.
Part two is all about the cognitive science, and part three was "Okay, here's how you can use existing applications to apply to general ideas that are discussed in the book." To solve the problems, basically, that are discussed in the book.
I had seen Macs, or a Data Sparks book, yes, so it would have even been 2012, I got turned onto that idea of, "Hey wow, wouldn't it be cool [to have screencasts?" That's the background.
Len: That's fantastic. You've written, just to give some context, that, "The cognitive productivity books can be read as proactive responses to the post-truth era."
Len: Even though you mentioned elsewhere that the books don't yet directly discuss post-truth. I wanted to ask you what, what do you mean by the "post-truth era?"
Luc: Well, it's this era in which the respect for truth has decreased. I think that term came out - I think it was put in the OED in 2016? The year that the United States elected the president they did. That's basically I think what people mean by "post-truth." It's the lack a respect for truth and I think it does matter. It's also post-expertise. There's a professor in the States who wrote a book called The Death of Expertise. So that's kind of all tied together.
I've got a campaign with CogSci Apps, "Apply knowledge." I haven't said much yet, except for a blog post I put out last year. But it's basically to get people to re-understand the importance of understanding knowledge, and applying it. "Apply knowledge," is actually also the static principle of my latest book, because ultimately, that's what we should seek to do with knowledge, right? Particularly as knowledge workers, it's not about the exam, right? Even as students, we shouldn't be just studying for the exam. But as knowledge workers, we want to do something with the knowledge that we process.
So all of my cognitive productivity stuff, there's not a term for it, in terms of what I focus on, it's called meta-effectiveness. It's basically the skills and dispositions of using knowledge to become more effective. So, so my books are about that, and Hook is really very much about facilitating the use of knowledge.
[After this interview, Luc contacted us to clarify this point: The first couple of paragraphs of this web page summarize Meta-effectiveness: Developing Oneself with Knowledge, Technology and Cognitive Science. In its most concise form, I define meta-effectiveness as one's effectiveness at becoming more effective. - Eds.]
Len: I've got quite a few questions to ask you about Hook, going - in a few minutes, but before doing that, I just wanted to ask you - I don't know if you actually are teaching at university these days, but -
Luc: No, actually, no.
Luc: I give workshop presentations, etc. I have been a teaching professor, but at the moment I'm more of a research professor. I do research and development - write papers and try to push the boundaries of knowledge into different areas that are interrelated.
Len: I'm curious - I just wanted to ask another question about post-truth, the post-truth era. Is this something that people in the sciences, in academia, are seeing, or concerned about, on campuses? Because it's very easy to just kind of like something on Facebook that's nonsense. But when you sort of get a bucket of cold water dumped on you in physics class, it might be a little bit harder to sustain a kind of post-truth attitude on the part of a young student.
Luc: Right, exactly. I don't want to make that historical pronouncement, because it's very hard to actually measure these things, but I will say that university's always been about helping people with that transition. So the post-truth thing is more of a societal thing, of how society is shifting. Whereas university is about helping minds shift out of being just a child, at home, etc., to interacting with the greatest minds of all time - and trying to absorb, assess, understand, and absorb their ways of thinking. So that would be my response to that. I don't want to pronounce myself on the specifics of what's happening on campus these days, because there's so much that's affected with technology and exchange of information having an impact.
But there are complaints. If you look at that book on The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols, he's really calling that stuff out. His experience with it - students are coming to university with a lack of respect for expertise that's really hard to shake, that probably wasn't there before. I mean, there was more respect for experts. Now a lot of people think, "Hey, my opinion’s as good as yours, all a matter of opinion." And some academics, to a certain extent, are responsible for that. Not all of them, but postmodernists who lack respect for knowledge, understanding objective truth, etc.
They played into that, right? So we're seeing some of the results of that. Maybe parents bringing up their kids and telling them things about knowledge that are not true. And then kids show up at university and have less respect for knowledge, so - that's kind of a long-winded, non-committal answer.
Len: Ihat's really interesting. I don't want to go down this path too far, and I don't want to take you down a path you don't want to go down. But what does "postmodernism" mean to you? Because I've heard from people who don't necessarily have a background in literary theory and architecture and things like that, they often seem to have what, to me, is a very inaccurate view of what postmodernism is.
Luc: Well Len, probably more important is your view of postmodernism. My view - the echoes of postmodernism to which I'm exposed are basically relativistic with respect to truth. That's an epistemological slant on knowledge. So with David Hume - Hume kind of shook the foundations of knowledge in the western world, making us realize that a lot of our knowledge is essentially conjectural, to make a long story short.
And Karl Popper had a response to that, "Yeah, but we can falsify, and we've got methods in science to falsify - to show what isn't truth." And science can proceed in certain ways that are rigorous. There's actually a logic - he wrote a book called, The Logic of Scientific Discovery. There's a logic to it. And in some circles, relativism is taken very far on the epistemologica - epistemology being the philosophy of knowledge. So what's your assessment? Am I misuse -? Am I -?
Luc: Am I painting postmodernism with a brush that I shouldn't be?
Len: I would say, yes.
Len: One thing that happened in, not just architecture and literary theory - which is where, more or less, the term originally comes from. But there was something in philosophy which you've probably heard of in the 20th century called - and this is a broad generalizations here, right? - the "linguistic turn".
One of David Hume's insights back in the day was that there's this divorce between our consciousness of reality and reality itself. That's why I can have a sense of causality, but I can never truly confirm it, because my consciousness is not identical with the reality out there.
When it comes to language, you can have a similar approach to it - which is that no matter what words we use, they are divorced from the reality that they're referring to.
And so what comes across as relativism, I think, is actually often a misunderstanding of observations that are being made in language about how language is imperfect.
It's that particular problem that partially is the reason so many postmodern writers get very meta in their way of writing, because they're using writing to talk about writing.
Anyway, that's the short answer, that there's actually very serious observations about the lack of a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols we use to refer to reality, and reality itself. If you really take it seriously, it leads you down some pretty interesting paths - not just with respect to epistemology, but with respect to ontology itself - being - and the different types of being, and how they interact with each other.
Luc: Pitched at that level of abstraction, I don't have much of a problem with that. I would qualify in terms of the indeterminacy of language that it's maybe not as bad as it's sometimes made out to be - i.e. translation kind of works, for instance with colors, there's lot of stability to how people represent the reality. And you might say, "Well, it's just that humans happen to have a perceptual apparatus that's concordant across cultures and so on."
Len: Yeah that reminds me of a philosopher friend of mine says, "The best proof that language works is skyscrapers. If we couldn't communicate, they couldn't stand."
Luc: Exactly. I think a lot of interesting things follow. There's deep truths about that, but I mean, we mustn't be led to naively question - there's a way to question, to progress knowledge, basically. I guess you could say a lot of us are optimists. We think that science actually does make progress - and that we can engage, and that criticism is part of that. Criticism is part of that. But it does not mean that my opinion is as good as yours, type of thing. So there's still experts, there's still domains of knowledge, there's still a valid attempt to get at objective truth. And then there's progress.
Len: Thanks very much for that, and before being game for talking about this, which I kind of sprung on you.
Luc: Sure. That's good.
Len: So what is the difference between productivity, cognitive productivity - and what you mentioned just now, meta-effectiveness?
Luc: So, productivity is a very general term that applies to machines as well as to humans, basically. And to jobs that don't have a lot to do with knowledge at all, with objective knowledge, with the knowledge that you get out of books and that you can expand, etc. So if you work at McDonald's, I mean, there is objective knowledge. There's explicit rules that you use, and of course there's tacit knowledge. But the productivity there, as we're seeing - it can be replaced by machines. The amount of knowledge that's being used is very sparse.
Productivity in general - if you look at productivity frameworks, like Getting Things Done for instance, a lot of the examples in that book are actually just about everyday productivity. It talks about organizing your garage and filing paper mail and stuff like that. So that's productivity in general.
Cognitive productivity is everything productivity-oriented to do with knowledge, and that involves knowledge. Meta-effectiveness is basically a subset of that cognitive productivity. It's basically effectiveness and efficiency at becoming more effective at using knowledge - and at solving problems, at creating artifacts and improving yourself.
The cognitive part has to do with knowledge and the use of knowledge. I'm really interested in that, particularly self-improvement. But I'm into learning, right?
The books try to be general than that. They also address solving problems and so on. Improving ourselves is one of the key forms of cognitive productivity.
Len: It's really interesting. I'm not sure if this is related - but in a paper that you sent me a link to in advance of this interview, called, "Perturbance: Unifying Research on Emotion, Intrusive Mentation and Other Psychological Phenomena with AI", in the abstract, there's a statement that says, "cognitive architectures need to consider requirements of autonomous agency."
Len: I wanted ask you about that. Is that related to some extent, to what you were just talking about? I mean, it's sort of at a crude level about self-improvement. But there's a theoretical layer about autonomy and agency that - at least I drew a connection between those two things. But that might just be my invention.
Luc: So to me that's one of the deep, hopefully true - it's certainly one of my beliefs about how we should understand, and seek to understand ourselves, and each other - particularly as scientists, right? Looking at ourselves as autonomous agents. Which incidentally, that's the title of my Ph.D. thesis was, "Goal Processing and Autonomous Agents". So the backstory to that is, it's a requirement-driven design process. We called it the "designer stance." Daniel Dennett called it "the design stance," saying basically the same thing.
So design stance is a stance used in AI, which is to reverse engineer a system if you want to understand it. So if you want to understand this and reverse engineer it, and say, "Okay, well what are the capabilities of this thing? What requirement does it meet? If I were to try to build it, what would I do?" You've got to start with the requirements and an ecology. And then you move on to designs and so forth. So that's kind of the general approach.
And then, to understand emotions and other things that are discussed in that paper - which is quite a few things - I say, "Well, we've got to think of ourselves as autonomous agents." Let's start from our competence, that we're able to create and process multiple goals, our own purposes. And then we do all kinds of interesting things with them. We assess them, we choose them, we plan for them, we schedule them - we do all these kinds of things.
I guess this could lead us into a big discussion. But I found using that perspective that really, it's a way to gain insight into human emotions, and it's a bit of a long story.
But actually, it makes sense of some recent developments in the psychology of emotions. I'm think of a few recent papers by a Belgian psychologist of emotions. Her name is [?] Morse, who's looked at emotion and said, "I'm a little bit skeptical about emotions." And so are some of us. I think the key to success here is to look at human beings as motivated people, and look at emotions through the lens of motivation.
And then emotion, well, she doesn't take it in this direct - she does use the word "emotions." But in our framework, emotions could turn out to be something like an emergent phenomenon. So that's a long story.
But to tie it back to all the cognitive productivity stuff is a little bit-- I mean the overlaps are quite abstract. But I can basically use the same approach scientifically, across all the problems that I'm interested in, to reverse engineer ourselves, and try to build big models of ourselves.
Len: Before getting closer to Hook, I had one more question about your research, which is - I think you're writing a book now on discontinuities? I was wondering if you wouldn't mind talking a little bit about that idea?
Luc: This is actually a project about which I've been very passionate the last few years, and kind of possessed. Do you have projects like that - where they kind of have a life of their own, and you just have to do them? Discontinuities, for me, is that.
Discontinuities addresses a lot of interrelated themes. What it tries to do at one level, and that's the main part of the title, "Discontinuities" - the idea there is that there's an alternative or an additional way to think about some of the realities of the human mind, and the problems that we face in the world that we're in.
People tend to say, "The situation's not that common. It's not black and white - it's a continuum. There's shades of grey." But oftentimes actually, there's something more - there's something deeper at play, which is that there's a bunch of discontinuity. So it's not all quantitative.
Of you look at a lot of what's happening in AI these days, artificial intelligence has become machine learning. These are number-crunching systems, and they're doing very interesting things. But, they're all quantitative and they're having difficulty - they're struggling with the symbol, still struggling with the symbolic aspect of human thought mechanisms and so on.
So Discontinuities kind of addresses that big idea, but - in case anybody's put off by it, "Well that sounds meta-mathematical," which it is. But actually, it's kind of a background, underlying idea. I'm trying to convey that deep idea, without actually having more than one chapter on it, at the end, basically. The subtitle is "Love, Art, Mind." So it deals with love - romantic love in particular. And art - various forms of art, and the human mind. In particular, I'm interested in the sapiosexuality aspect of romantic love.
Jeffrey Miller had this hypothesis that human intelligence evolved through sexual selection, and we tend to prefer mates who are at least as smart as us - and preferably a little bit smarter than us. That's called a sort of matching or mating. I'm exploring the attraction that we feel towards people of our preferred sex who for their brains, basically - for their smarts. That's the theme of the book. But I'm also exploring epistolary love. So it's going to be bits about communication through love letters and that kind of thing.
Those are several themes in that book that are going to play out. It's discontinuous in that, where it goes from one type of work to another, from one author to another- I was a little bit inspired by Brainstorms, which is a book by Daniel Dennett, a very famous philosopher, and also, Society of Mind, by Marvin Minsky. So there's multiple contributors, there's going to be visual art in there. There's short stories, essays, references to music - hopefully even a soundtrack, if I can pull that off. And different authors exploring these themes. I'm very excited.
Len: That sounds really fantastic. I look forward to seeing that book come out, touching on so many interesting things.
I haven't thought about Dennett in a long time, but I remember, I think it might have been in Consciousness Explained where he wrote about pandemonium. He was borrowing from Milton, but it's the idea that the mind has many voices. It was just one way of expressing a familiar idea that the mind has many voices, shouting at it all the time.
Luc; Yeah, I think that's a guy called Selfridge you're talking about, and Minsky picked it up. I don't remember if Dennett had a chapter on that too, in that book? That doesn't surprise me that he talked about it.
Len: So, going from - all the way from romantic love and the way the mind works, to the way our files are stored.
I've got a selfish question. There's a little bit of setup here, but you'll see where I'm going pretty quickly I think.
One of the things guaranteed to get me shouting at the computer, is when I'm deprived of the ability to see how information is structured, and to give it a structure myself. And in recent years, I've noticed - what to me is a really disheartening trend - we're all used to the idea of that products like Facebook and YouTube will use algorithms and other kind of processes to curate what we see when we use their products.
But I'm seeing it creep, not just into like where we go to watch videos and posts, but also the organization of our information itself. For example, Google Docs and Dropbox, and even things like bookmarks in Chrome, hide the structure of information from you basically, and instead serve you up with whatever stuff they feel you're most likely to click on.
And tools like, you know, Spotlight in Mac - while they're super powerful and amazing at what they do, now seem to be there in part to encourage us to search, like for terms, tather than structuring our information that we've gathered, and things that we've created ourselves, as well.
What are your general thoughts on this? Does this capitulation to the app - is this something that you're concerned about, with respect to people's cognitive productivity?
Luc: Yeah, there's a major problem there. The principle basically is, one needs to be able to identify each knowledge resource. Every knowledge resource needs to have a handle, so that you can connect to it. And ideally you can put that link somewhere where you can use it in the context.
You've got a lot of services that are trying to hide that. Google Docs still gives you a URI, so that's good. But if you look at Facebook, I mean it's crazy. Try getting a URI for a post, or whatever. I mean, I don't use it anymore, but it frustrated me a lot. I was on Twitter this morning, and somebody - Ian MacDonald was there, I think his name is Ian MacDonald, a CBC writer - had published something, and Andrew Coyne at the Toronto Star tweeted about it, and I tried to find it. Actually, here we had a failure of search. I used Twitter search. Have you ever found Twitter search to be useful?
Len: Oh my God, it's terrible.
Luc: That shows it's good to have a search engine, right? It is awful! Why couldn't I find it? I needed to use Google. Obviously, that's where they excel. But Google couldn't find it either, so it was very tedious, to get back to that particular tweet. We've got some major problems, and I think we need tools that are up to the task.
Len: I guess the specific thing I'm preoccupied with is, with my computers that I've had in my life, there’s been kind of a top level, let's say folder. And then it branches off into my writing projects, or my academic projects, or blog posts. And then lets say it's my blog. Then there will be like a different folder in the blog folder for all the different things I want to write about.
And then in each one of those, there will be a folder for the actual text files that I'm writing, and there will be different versions with numbers. And then there will be another folder for research. And then I'll have my documents related to the research for the blog post in there. But it seems that what we're being pushed towards, by all the services that we use, is to actually not structure anything, at all really, and to just have it all in one box. Is that - et me just ask you straightforwardly - which way do you think is better for people to think about it?
Luc: I think our information needs to be organized. Or, I think multiple principles apply. You do want a great search tool. It doesn't hurt to have a smart recommendation system. But you need to be able to organize information in a few different ways. We've already got access. in most systems, to a hierarchy. But Google - you're right, Google Drive kind of takes that away. It's very tedious in a web app. Web apps in general make life slower, difficult, often. So it's very tedious to organize things hierarchically. To me that's a major problem.
And in information management circles, that is - a guy called Whittaker, I've forgotten his first name - they recently published an important book on personal information management. They published a lot in that area. They emphasize the importance of curation. Curation is their metaphor. People need to be active organizers of information in order to be able to survive, let alone thrive in the knowledge age. I have to agree that information should be accessible and manipulatable and organizable in that way.
That's one set of requirements. But also, it's very useful to be able to tag things. I use Pinboard, I discuss it in my book, and Pocket. They've got a tagging and search system. I often find information back that way. So that's one way. Finder on Mac - Finder has tags. I think Windows introduced them too. So that's a different way of accessing information. There's obviously search.
And what Hook brings that's different, is it enables linking.
We know from the internet, with the World Wide Web, not the internet but the World Wide Web - its, the original basic idea. You've got resources that are addressable and links that connect them. And if you add a search engine on top of that, wow that can very handy, right? I'm kind of drawing into Hook to say that one of the problems in our information management tool kit before Hook, was linking information - you couldn't do it very easily, very well, before Hook. Certainly you couldn't easily link one document to another and not have those links break.
Len: Why don't I sort of go ahead and give my little description of what Hook is, and you can correct it?
Len: Luc has recently launched this product, Hook. It's pretty amazing, particularly, if you're the kind of person who likes to have organized information, and in particular, being able to - I guess being able to validate things that you've written later, by referring to the source materials.
For example, let's say you're a journalist and you publish something, and then someone calls you on it, "What's your source for this?" Historically, you have have convetions for bibliographical citation, and things like that. But we all know the reality is that - like, let's say you downloaded a PDF and it's in some folder on your computer or whatever, and then you wrote your article. And you've got that reference somewhere. But if you're very particular about this kind of thing, tracing evidence and supporting materials, you can't really be sure that the file that you're going to later, is the same one that you used initially. That's one sort of problem with organizing information.
The magical thing that Hook does, at least from what I've discovered so far - one of the magical things it does is, let's say I'm writing an article in Microsoft Word. I can select the article, and then I can use Hook to establish a link between that article and, say, a PDF document that I'm using in my research for writing that article. Later on, I can select my Word document, launch Hook - and then it will show me all of the documents that that document is linked to.
Another amazing thing that Hook can do as well, is that it can actually link documents to web pages. So that if I write an article and I've been doing research on the internet for it, I can select the article in Finder on my Mac. And then with the file selected, I can launch Hook, and actually see all the links to all of the web pages that I used in the research, and click on them right there. So I don't need to separately go hunting in my bookmarks in Chrome, or something like that, and hope I find the right thing. They're actually there.
For example, I used it to do research for this interview. I got copies of your books and I could link them to each other, and this might sound to people listening to be a little bit in the weeds, but I tested it, and I moved one of the book files from one folder to another, and the link was maintained - which was just amazing. Does that capture at least the big picture of what Hook is meant to do?
Luc: It captures a lot. What you've described is true. It could be used in all kinds of different ways, but that's definitely a major set of use cases.
The links are robust, meaning that, as you said - you can move files around and the links will still work. That ends up being very important.
The backstory is that this product has come out of years of research and development, including research that led to my two Cognitive Productivity books. There's a set of problems that I addressed, or I discussed in the first book, called a meta-access problem.
Around any important bit of - around a document, let's say - around any important doc, or it could be a video or whatever, a resource, there often is a network. You can think of it in terms of like the sun and planets going around it. I drew it that way in the first Cognitive Productivity book. Orbiting around this central document, there's other documents. And one needs to be able to quickly navigate between them in order to do one's knowledge work and one's learning.
Hook allows you to set up these links between a focal resource and other resources, and then basically navigate between them. So that, if like a journalist or a student or whatever - if you're giving a presentation for instance, you want to be able to get back to that information. So there's a popup window that comes up, where you can basically add and remove links, and utilize links. And by the way, you can do that not only from the Finder, but also in supported apps.
You can actually open the app - whatever it is - like if you happen to like Word, you can bring up the Hook window in Word, and it'll show you the related links in our little Hook window, so that you can answer questions.
One of the big features of Hook is to get the address of almost any document, as many as we can support, aand then you can paste that in your notes too. So if you don't like things in a Hook popup window, you can just put them in your notes or in your to do's. "Today, I need to read these three documents," for instance, and just paste the links or a doc.
Len: And you can link to emails, as well. Including, you sent me - in our email exchange before this interview, you sent me a Hook link to the emails themselves. I played with it and so I've got - one of your book files is, in my computer, linked to my email in Gmail, that I access through Chrome. I mean, it's just amazing.
Luc: It's based on a lot of thought. There is this nexus of problems that I discussed in Cognitive Productivity - it's major pain point - it's like the iPhone. Before the iPhone, people didn't realize they needed an iPhone. I'm sorry, I don't mean to boast here saying it's like the iPhone. But I mean, I fancy that there's these pains. I've just thought about these pains. I like thinking about these pains, and I try to solve them.
And email's definitely one of them. If you want to refer to an old email, like from six months ago or three months ago or even last week - because there's been 100 since then - to somebody else, it's a pain for that other person. And then people end up copying these big threads - personally, I don't like that. I think it's a waste of storage space. I don't want to have to look at all this information. Just send me a link so I can get to the information, and a quote - send me the quote that's relevant, maybe a link so I can get to it if I want to. But I don't want to see the entire email right now, thank you.
Len: One question, I'm very curious. I mean, not that I will necessarily understand - but if you could explain a little bit about how Hook works under the hood?
Luc: Various applications on the Mac already have kind of an API or some scripting that we can use to get a few key pieces of information. So if you're in an email, for instance - you bring up the Hook window. There's a "copy as link" command, and that link will try to get the name of the current resource and the URL or URI of the current resource. So we need the app to play friendly and give us that information.
The other thing we need is to be able to open a resource with a particular address. Iff you're familiar with data finder, file systems need a path, right? Or they could be something else, like mail messages tend to have an ID. Notes have IDs. OmniFocus - for instance, has its own URI. So as long as the app will respond to that, then we're good to go.
Most apps will provide that kind of information. So under the hood, we make calls to the applications to get the information that we need. We, being Hook. And if that support isn't there, well we've got a little script editor so that developers can add scripts of their own. And then they can send us the scripts and we'll put them in.
For instance, today Michael Tsai, who's one of the biggest, most well respected names in the Mac blogosphere, sent me a script. We had already supported EAGLE file, but we didn't have the open for some reason, the script to open an EAGLE file - no, to create a new EAGLE file or resource. That's the fourth thing that we need. Anyway, he sent me that. So he noticed - probably, that it was missing, and he sent me that. We put it on our script server, and now anybody who does an update should be able to get that.
That's some of the stuff that happens under the hood. The concept of Hook is very simple in the end.
But under the hood, we do other things. For instance, if we're referring to a file, we'll actually create an alias under the hood. And we've got a database that refers to the alias. And aliases on macOS, they look simple, but they're actually doing a complicated work, and Hook leverages that.
Len: And its origins go back all the way to 2002, I imagine? Going back that far, can you remember how the ball got rolling?
Luc: Well, I received a very nice golden handshake from Redback Networks in 2001. And rather than seek a job, I thought, okay - because I had been a founding employee of two startups before, I thought, "Okay, this is my turn now." And I'm a cognitive scientist, so I was interested in developing products to help people with the problems that they faced, learning and using technology to learn. Which I had analyzed and experienced as a knowledge worker in tech startups.
I saw that software really isn't designed for [?] mind, that was the impression I got. So I wanted to rectify it. So I've worked on that. Sold a business proposal, and incubated that at Simon Fraser University with Phil Winne for many years, and then popped out of that. At one point, actually I thought - for this particular problem, which I call the meta axis problem - I thought, "Only Michael West can solve this, to do it right." So I'd given up on it.
We'd addressed this problem, this meta axis problem, the linking problem if you will, in two personal learning environments that we developed. And they were great, but the linking was all happening within essentially a single big app, which had all the different pieces you might want - well, as many pieces that you might want. And I said, "We really need a tool that's outside particular apps, where you can link anything." That led to my exchange with Steve Jobs, where I actually proposed something to him. I proposed many things that ended up going into Cognitive Productivity, one of which was what later became Hook.
Len: You were corresponding with Steve Jobs about the iPad, if I understand the situation correctly?
Luc: Yes, it was rumored that Apple was going to release a tablet, in late 2009. And I was tracking these things very carefully - because there's an educational application, which was my space. And so I was exchanging with SharpBrains, and they wanted me to write for them. And I said, "Okay, how about I do something on the iPad." We didn't know it would be called the iPad, Apple's upcoming rumored tablet. And they'd announced that there'd be a keynote.
So I said, "Let's do something cheeky. I'm going to write the requirements for this thing." Because that's the way my brain thinks. "This is what this thing should do - 10 things it should do." And then after it comes out, this was the deal. After it comes out, after he does this keynote, I’ll assess how well this tablet meets the requirements that we set for it.
So that's exactly what I did. A week before, I think, we published the requirements, and then it came out. I looked at the video. It blew me away. I just studied that video by the second, because the hardware wasn't there. All he had was the keynote, right?
So I studied it. And then I wrote my second article assessing it - I thought he did a great job. And actually, the iPad was not well received - you can read the Steve Jobs biography to see that he was disappointed about that. Bbut I thought it was a really promising thing. I knew that it had not been well received, and I could tell there were things it could better in terms of my requirements - which were not what anybody else was talking about. So I mailed Steve Jobs about that, because his email address was well known. And I said, "Hey, you know I think it's great but I think the app could do even better. And if you'd like my input, and I could fly down, or we could have a phone call, or I could write you a white paper."
And he said, "Send me a white paper on it." So I did. I wrote a 30+ page white paper, which is way too big, on how Apple can improve cognitive productivity in its ecosystem. And then I didn't get a response. I actually pressured, "Come on, I haven't heard back from you. I might pursue some of these ideas myself." Which is a real dumb thing to say, but I'd like to give Apple a shot. He said, "We have no interest, actually." And I said, "Okay, fine. I'm going to write my Cognitive Productivity book to elaborate these ideas that I've been thinking about all these years, and researching."
That led to the first Cognitive Productivity book, and we resumed Hook. I thought, at the time, that only Apple could do something like Hook properly. But then I had a key insight, and we looked under the hood and verified that actually, we can do it. So I felt a little bit silly that way.
The idea is actually an outgrowth of my experience at Tundra Semiconductor, my first tech job, where I was actually a technical writer for them. They did bus bridges, which connect hardware pieces together. They specialized in the bus bridge, which connects one semiconductor on one bus to another on another bus - or as many as you want on either side of the bus. Like a PCI to VME bus bridge, those are two bus bridge standards. Busses are communication protocols on hardware.
It just occurred to me all of a sudden, "Hold on, we can just be the vendor of this little -" like the bus, if we just provide the bridge between documents, that's a very useful product. And it's a viable business, because I had seen it, at Tundra, the bvaluation went over $1 billion. So I knew that if you saw that pain point for people, then people will use your tool. Just keep it simple and just be the connector. So then, I pitched that to my colleague and then we decided we'd go for it.
Len: Thank you for sharing the story by the way, that's fantastic. My next question was going to be - so how are you going to monetize Hook?
Luc: We're going to publish this pretty soon. And it should really be there, we're a bit behind on our documentation. It's bare bones. I think it's enough to get started, but we need more. And of course, we want to know how much is this going to cost? Because it's free public beta right now.
So these are the tiers. Basically, you get your trial. After 30 days, as usual, the trial expires. But instead of just going away completely, it transforms into light mode. Same binary, so you can keep the same package if you want the same program. And then it will transform itself into light mode. And in light mode, you can create, send as many email links as you want. You can create, or you can use any links that you've created or that have been sent to you, but link creation itself will be limited apart from creating email links.
That's the model right now, the model for those tiers. And then there's going to be an essentials and a pro version. We'll have different features. The essentials will have everything you need, or most of what most users will need, and then the pro tool has additional features.
So there'll be these three different tiers, and the prices are TBD. It's in the teen range for the essentials, as what we planned. And we're looking into late, maybe $29 - I hesitate to say, because it's not 100% - but anyway, that's the ballpark that we're looking at. We'll get feedback on that to see well is that too high, or too low.
The license model will be similar to Timing, if you happen to know the Timing app on a Mac. We're inspired by a lot of other apps. So, we're going to monetize it by charging for the essentials and pro version.
Len: And so for people are interested, it's currently in beta. And correct me if I'm wrong here - but is the version that I downloaded myself yesterday - is that going to expire? And then I'll have to download it again when it gets into the next stage of development?
Luc: Basically every beta we've just made expire - I think it's on the 1st of the month. So, because it's in beta, we don't want people having a beta forever. It's a beta, so there's going to be bugs. I mean, software always has bugs, but beta's in testing phase. And then we decide , do we need to renew, are we ready? It depends on the state of readiness. But in any case, it'll then shift over to trial mode. So people will get a month, people will not be stuck with an app that they can all of a sudden not use. We want the transition to be predictable, graceful for people.
Len: Fantastic. Well, everyone listening, I definitely recommend if you're into things like this, definitely check it out. It's a really amazing tool and it's got great potential. So good luck with everything, Luc, with the launch, and with all the development work that I know you guys are doing. And thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. It's been six years, so hopefully it won't be that long until we next chat. Maybe the time your next book comes out, we can try this again?
Luc: That'd be great. Thank you for having me on. It's a pleasure to talk to you. and to connect directly with the Leanpub audience.
Len: Thanks very much.
Len: And as always, thanks to all of you for listening to this episode of the Frontmatter Podcast. If you like what you heard, please rate and review us in iTunes, and subscribe if you haven't already. And if you're interested in becoming a Leanpub author yourself, please go to leanpub.com and click on Why Leanpub at the top left.