Outliners Redux

February 18, 2002
by James LaRue
Copyright, 2002
All Rights Reserved



As I wrote in "A Blast from the Past: Classic Outliners," outliners (also called outline processors) are a powerful tool for the manipulation both of text, and of its underlying structure.

I also recommended two "classic" outliners (where "classic" means "created in the early 1990's"): KAMAS for DOS, and MORE 3.1 for the press X Macintosh.

I used KAMAS (an acronym for "Knowledge And Mind Amplification System") for years, from its earliest incarnation in the CP/M world, to its magnificent 2.3 release in 1987. (I believe that it eventually went to 2.5.) A stunning example of quality programming, this was the brainchild of one Adam Trent. It took a platform change for me to leave it first to Windows, then to the Macintosh. Altogether, I suppose I used KAMAS for close to 8 years. But I was seduced by fonts, and mice, and the graphical Internet.

KAMAS remembered

So I left KAMAS behind. But I never stopped looking for something like it. There were several reasons.

KAMAS was small and fast. As a former software reviewer, I had formed a prejudice for software that did a lot with minimal resources. KAMAS ran in 131 K, and took up about that much disk space. During my Windows phase, I got increasingly annoyed by software bloat: memory and disk hungry programs that got bigger and bigger, and slower and slower, and clunkier and clunkier.

KAMAS was powerful. I didn't know much about outlining then, so didn't realize just how full-featured it was. Compared to the most sophisticated outliners I've run across since then, KAMAS was almost startlingly well-equipped.

KAMAS was elegant.

It had two modes: outlining, and text editing. In the outline mode, wonderfully complex operations could be performed, almost always, with just one or two key taps. Want to mark an outline heading for some later operation? Easy. Tap "T" for "tag." And the software moved me to the next outline level.

Here's a more complex example: I could designate an outline heading as bin number 1. Then, working through a long list of topics and subtopics, I could just tap "M" (for Move), then "1" (to bin number 1). The heading (and associated text) would obligingly refile itself, and leave me to redirect the next heading. I could work with up to 8 bins at a time.

All the commands were logically and mnemonically grouped. At the outline level, I tapped "C" for Copy; "I" for "insert;" "G" for Gather; "M" for Move; and so on. All of these could be applied to the next level ("N" for Next), the level Down ("D"). Similarly, I could move the cursor rapidly Down, Next, or Up.

It was uncluttered. KAMAS didn't use a mouse. At the outline level, it didn't need control, option, or function keys. I could keep my hands on the keyboard and create, manipulate, hoist, split, and swiftly join headings and their associated text.

In its text editing mode, KAMAS mimicked WordStar, another surprisingly rich program that allowed the user to keep his or her fingers on the keyboard. My fingers still know the commands.

KAMAS was, finally, both simple and deep. I learned basic editing commands in a few minutes. But years later, I was still finding handy tricks and applications.

KAMAS was useful.

At first, KAMAS was simply my To Do list. Then, when it proved a wonderful place to track the progress of various projects, I "extracted" the notes for a particular project into its own outline. There, the outlines focused more precisely on project planning, and progress notes.

Later, I learned to use each KAMAS outline as a sort of textbase collections of smaller text "leafs" or files that could be quickly searched with one powerful command. At work, I tracked all kinds of things. At home, KAMAS files stored correspondence, newspaper columns, and articles. Some of these textbases grew to many megabytes. But KAMAS dealt with big files as handily as with the small ones.

Every now and then, I'd run across various other KAMAS enthusiasts. One fellow, an academic reference librarian near St. Louis, used it as a reference desk tool: he would put the question in the outline heading, and the answer in a text leaf. In this way, he developed his own reference tool, based on demand.

My favorite use of KAMAS was in writing long documents: everything from articles to technical pieces to book outlines.

KAMAS was fascinating.

At first, I found the "Knowledge and Mind Amplification System" description pretentious. But over time, I came to appreciate it. The program forced me to distinguish between hierarchical arrangement (outline editing) and text (word processing). KAMAS had two limitations: headings could be no longer than 88 characters, and a text leaf could be no longer than 32K. The second limit never bothered me; the first one sometimes did. Yet that distinction also gave free rein to both sides of the brain: one focused on structure, the other on intuition.

Just as the program's headline limitations drove me to think more abstractly, and, finally, more effectively, the program commands taught me to "leverage" (a word that appeared a lot in the KAMAS manual) an idea into something more fully developed. KAMAS made me a better writer and administrator.

The mark of really good software is that you use it even when you don't have any pressing reason to. Case in point: one afternoon, I even used KAMAS to catalog comic books. KAMAS was not only fun, it made me feel like I was learning something every time I used it.

The Dark Years

Then came the dark years. After trying various Windows and Mac-based programs, I settled on the Clarisworks (now Appleworks) suite. It too was lean and responsive. It even had outlining. But the outlining was clearly an add-on to the word processing module, not central to it. Even when I did use the outline functions of Appleworks, I found myself unhappy with them. Some of my favorite commands just weren't there no mark and gather, no move to bin, no hoist. If I pasted an Appleworks outline into an email message all the formatting disappeared. Frustrating.

On occasion, I would pull out my old Toshiba 8086 laptop, still running KAMAS with blinding speed. I'd look over some files, crank out a column or two, then go through the steps it took to move it to the Windows or Mac platform I was using at the time. And every time, I thought: "God, I miss this program."

Most of the time, of course, I got along fine. Like most folks, my files tended to be short word processing documents. At work, I had the occasional spreadsheet and database tasks, which Appleworks dispatched with grace and speed. Netscape handled my email and browsing chores. The Palm Desktop looked after my contacts and time management issues. When you go graphical, you generally stay there.

Yet every now and then, I'd comb the web for something like KAMAS, doing searches in shareware archives for "outline processor." Most of the time, I found nothing. And there was nothing new in the computer magazines. It was as if the whole category of outlining had disappeared.

Sometimes, life sucks. You get used to it.

MORE: Too Much?

Then, one day, a Google search for "outlining" (as opposed to "outline processor") brought up Dave Winer's www.outliners.com. Here was a site devoted to people who loved outliners. Lots of people raved about a program Winer and associates had written for the Mac, back in 1991, called MORE. I'd never heard of it.

I was even more intrigued to learn that this program was available for free (although also without support) from Symantec. I downloaded both MORE and Acta, another Mac processor offered for free.

I really enjoyed Acta, a program that had its own elegance. Unfortunately, it wasn't nearly as powerful as KAMAS. Acta was more of a list processor than a writing tool. I toyed with it for awhile as a sort of occasional tool, but eventually set it aside.

The first couple of times I looked at MORE, I found it daunting. There were several reasons.

MORE had all kinds of spectacular but, at first glance, complex "extras." For instance, it could produce slide shows. It could do tree diagrams. Each of these had its own subsets of menus and options.

MORE also had "rules" in essence, cascading stylesheets that allowed you to attach formatting options (font, indents, color, styles, etc.) to one or more outline levels.

The big thing, I think, was that I'd grown used to KAMAS's separation of outline editing and text editing. I did stumble across MORE's "comments" (a mini-word processor window), but didn't find the trick to expanding it to fill the whole screen until I plowed through the pdf manual, also plucked from the Internet.

Until then, MORE just seemed like too much, an inelegant bundle of options activated by a bewildering combination of mouse clicks, options, and command keys.

A Second Look: Is MORE enough?

Yet that read of the manual, (prompted by a lingering longing for KAMAS), showed me that MORE might be just the graphically based outline processor I'd been looking for.

I set myself a couple of tasks: moving a couple year's worth of newspaper columns into a KAMAS-style textbase. I used MORE to set up the dates and names of the columns as outline headings. I used the comments fields to stash the text.

Along the way, I learned the various keystrokes that (in good software) make writing a pleasure. Here's one that every word processor should have: move your cursor, or select text, by sentence!

I also learned the joy of breaking through the KAMAS-imposed limit of short headings. I found that I could treat each text paragraph as a heading, bringing the power of the outline down another grammatical level.

Then, I discovered how easy it was to apply a simple rule set to the whole outline and instantly reformat it to a word processing format, ready for printing.

MORE isn't perfect.

It doesn't have the simplicity of design I so admired in KAMAS. Even simple commands require the use of a mouse or two fingers. Sometimes it's hard to remember which command needs an option key, or a command key.

I have to admit, too, that there are a few commands KAMAS had that I miss (that move to Bin, mentioned above).

But MORE has many compelling advantages.

It is graphical. It knows about fonts, styles, and color; it understands the mouse. Despite this, MORE is amazingly small and fast: 618K of disk space for the program, 1.2 megs of memory. Moreover, it saves files that are not much larger than a straight text save.

The price is perfect. The only way it could be better is if someone paid me to use it.

It has all the outline processing power I was looking for, with many commands (Cloning, long headings, selection by sentence) absent in KAMAS entirely.

Like all the programs I come to love, it has marvelous depth not just of extra features, but of hidden power, the power to illuminate the dark recesses of my own thought processes.

The Future of Outlining

I've learned this: I can't, I won't, live without one. Outliners are the best tool I've found for the kind of work I want to do.

I have a lingering sadness. I moved to the Mac platform years ago. Why the hell didn't I find out about MORE back then? I passionately admire this program, and with it, I could have accomplished far more than I did. I've wasted years.

Yet my curse is this: I have the disturbing penchant of finding altogether extraordinary but abandoned software. Even if I had heard about MORE, there was no legal channel to buy it. Perhaps it was best that I didn't find out about this until it was freely available.

The future of the Mac is OS X. MORE not only doesn't exist in that world, it isn't under development of any kind. While there are a number of other OS X alternatives coming out, all of them are quite a distance behind what MORE was doing a decade ago. Most of the emerging options still see themselves as list processors or project managers. I want a superlative writing tool. MORE is that tool, right now.

I might shift platforms again. At home, I have three Macs, the DOS laptop, and an old CP/M machine. None of the Macs will run OS X. I have a bias against Microsoft, but do see some outliners running on NT that interest me. None of them, as far as I know, is anywhere near as good as either KAMAS or MORE. I'm interested in Linux. But Linux outliners are laughably primitive.

I won't shift platforms unless there's a reason to. An old Mac (and they're dirt cheap at used computer stores) runs MORE just fine. I think I could do most of the writing I intend to do, for the rest of my life, on obsolete equipment and software.

On the other hand, it would be great to have a writing platform that ran on both desktop and Palm devices, that I could transfer with a minimum of fuss, probably through the Internet, from my local machines to those of others.


Thank you, Symantec, for giving me MORE. You have given me joy. This is truly classic software.  Please concentrate your efforts on developing and disseminating similarly wonderful software. Such software has the ability not only to aid businesses in managing their assets. It has the ability to profoundly improve the quality of individual life.

Thank you, too, to Adam Trent, to Dave Winer, and to the other gifted programmers whose efforts gave the rest of us the great gift of time, and the pleasure of a tool so beautifully crafted. I am in your debt.


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