Humanity is the medium. Humanity is the message.

While contemplating orality and indigenous cultures and how they used their own memories, conversation, and dialectic as a means of communicating and storing their knowledge, I thought about Marshall McLuhann’s idea “the medium is the message.” In this framing, indigenous cultures certainly got things right: Humanity is the medium. Humanity is the message.

Life imitates art. We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.
— John M. Culkin, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan” (The Saturday Review, March 1967)

Culkin’s framing also makes humanity its own self-contained tool (hopefully for the greater good). We shape our brains and thereafter our brains shape us. While we may use technology and tools, props, and crutches to help us do more or do faster, we shouldn’t loose sight of our humanity. It may be our greatest technology. Perhaps we need to remember to pull it out of our toolbox more often as it’s better evolved and often better fit for more jobs than the tools we’re apt to turn to.

The first session of my Art of Memory course went well this morning.

My favorite part: a student suggested doing a project to memorize knowledge related to (urban) foraging (what’s available, safe, identification, etc.)! Its a fantastic example because this is exactly the sort of practical knowledge many indigenous (primarily oral) peoples have used these techniques for over time.

If you’re late to the game, I think you can still register (and I’m happy to catch people up) before our next session in two weeks on July 24th.

Course Announcement: The Art of Memory

I’m teaching an upcoming course on the Art of Memory. It’ll be an hour a week for five weeks starting on July 10th at 10:00 am on Saturday mornings. I’ll be using the online learning platform Hyperlink.Academy. I hope you’ll have the chance to join me and a group of people interested in exploring the topic.

I’ve had a personal memory practice since I was about eleven years old. I started with an old correspondence course from the 1940s that I found on my parents’ bookshelf. I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty expansive. I’ve realized that the original system I learned was only a small fraction of some of the powerful techniques that humankind has created and evolved over the last 20,000 years. Sadly, the majority of this knowledge, which was once commonplace, has disappeared in Western culture.

As a kid, I used the techniques as they pertained to magic and parlor tricks like counting cards and Rubic’s cubes. Later I learned how to bend and apply them other methods. I learned new methods and used them to memorize material for classes. I discovered I could remember vast troves of information both for pleasure and for work.

Since then, I’ve been researching into the history of mnemotechniques in Western culture. I’ve been uncovering the practice in other oral and indigenous cultures. As a result, I’ve seen and experimented with dozens of other methods. Some are better and more flexible than others.

It’s rare that I encounter people familiar with even one or two of these methods. There are lots of books and internet fora dedicated to some of them. They’re generally esoteric, incomplete, or both. On the whole, they’re difficult to discover, and often even harder to learn—much less practice.

In 2011, Joshua Foer ignited some interest with his book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He describes the magic of some of the extant systems and nibbles around the edges. But he doesn’t detail how to enter the space and leaves the topic as esoteric as he began. His book motivates the “why”, but doesn’t describe the practical “how”.

I have seen and read scores of hucksterish and facile approaches. They usually outline a handful of memory “tricks” which some people use intuitively. Most touch on only one or two aspects of a much larger and richer memory tradition.

I’ve also followed some of the bigger memory-related sites online. They discuss many pieces of the whole. But they don’t help newcomers get a bigger picture of what is possible or how to start a practice. Most people want something more practical for daily life. Many start out with interest, but they don’t get very far before abandoning the idea because they don’t find the benefit.

I know there is an easier way.

Based on my experience, I’d like to provide a solid overview and history of the topic. My goal is to give beginners a practical entry point. We’ll look at and practice the bigger and most useful techniques. We’ll also discuss some of the lesser known methods and where they can be applied.

I encourage students to bring a practical list of things they’d like to memorize for use in the course.

After a few weeks, students should have a solid base of knowledge upon which to found a regular memory practice for the rest of their lives.

Those interested can read a copy of the syllabus. If you have any questions about the course or want to discuss if it’s right for you, please reach out.

If you can’t join us for the first cohort this summer, I’ll likely offer it again in either the Fall or Winter.

I look forward to seeing everyone in class.

Just days before the 10th anniversary of the Smallest Federated Wiki, Ward Cunningham will be talking about the future of note taking tomorrow morning.

Free registration for the event at I Annotate 2021 should still be open.

There are also expected appearances by Daniel Doyon, Co-Founder of Readwise; Tienson Qin, Creator/Founder of LogSeq; Oliver Sauter, Founder of WorldBrain/Memex, and Flancian of the Anagora.

With any luck, it may help mark a resurgence of digital versions of the commonplace book on the order of magnitude represented by the works of Rudolphus Agricola, Desiderius Erasmus, and Philip Melanchthon during the Renaissance.

Promo card for I Annotate 2021 with the subtitle Reading Together and featuring a drawing of a book with two hands writing on each other in an ouroboros-like style

Replied to Bird sound encoding by Douglas HoffDouglas Hoff (Art of Memory Forum)
Rey’s star book (already ordered!) is a wonderful way to rekindle my adolescent interest in the stars while learning more about memory methods like pareidolia to finally complete my identification of the skies. I never stored more than three or four constellations permanently. @chrisaldrich, I’ll be intested to see how you help bring together your knowledge to create a more mnemonic way to visualize and remember bird calls and traits. I’ve also added your blog to my news reader with all the goo...
I’ll apologize in advance for the noisy-ness of my website. I use it as a commonplace book and post almost everything I do on the web there first (including social media). If it gets to be too much, you can subscribe to individual topics of interest (like https://boffosocko.com/category/Memory/feed/, which is sure to include any bird related work) so that you’re just getting what you want instead of the overzealous firehose which can be upwards of 10 to 20,000 posts a year, depending on how much of my stream I make public.
Replied to Peter of Ravenna by ehcolstonehcolston (Art of Memory Forum)
Thanks for those links! Originally I wanted to translate the original Latin texts, but I felt like that was better put to rest and that I should first try to translate it from the English version since I can actually speak it. Iirc, there was an Italian version of the book as well.
I haven’t searched all the versions of Peter of Ravenna’s name (yet) in all locations, but I recall hearing of an Italian version as well (and it’s likely that there was one given its popularity).

A bit of digging around this morning has uncovered a digital copy of a French translation in the Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de santé (Paris)]:
* 1545: L’art de memoire qui est aultrement inscript le phenix livre treffort utille & profitable a tous professeurs des sciences, grammariens, rheteurs, dialetiques, legistes philosophes & theologiens

Given the date and the scant 16 pages, this is likely to be the edition which was the source of Robert Copland’s English translation. As the edition doesn’t appear to have an author, it’s possible that this was the reason that Copland’s translation didn’t list one either.

The Latin -> French -> middle English -> modern English route seems an awfully muddy way to go, but without anything else, it may have to suffice for some of us for the moment.

Read Learning Log, Mar 2021 by Melanie RichardsMelanie Richards (melanie-richards.com)
Starting an experiment of the month, and succumbing to my curiosity around Python.
I love how the tired old link log idea has been re-framed here as a learning log. I might have to borrow the idea for my digital commonplace book.

I’m also glad to have stumbled across this so serendipitously for its mention of WaniKani for learning 日本語 (Japanese) kanji. I’m not quite sure what to make of their Crabigator yet, but perhaps Jack Jamieson might appreciate this as well.

I’ve been trying to catch up to a fourth grader in a dual immersion program, and I’ve been falling behind lately while working on my Welsh project. I’ve been too (slowly) working on a memory palace of Kanji with a lot more detail and historical information based on Kenneth Henshall’s A Guide To Remembering Japanese Characters, which seems to be one of the best texts I’ve seen for raw data. This app looks like it uses mnemonic associations in a different way along with spaced repetition that might allow for better immediate fluency.

Naturally I’m always happy to come across apps purporting to use mnemonics and spaced repetition, though I am still search for something with a more fluent focus for Japanese that is similar to SSiW’s immersion method.

Melanie Richards in on Twitter: “@SunhouseCLG Here’s a couple resources on Webmentions if you’d like to learn more about them: https://t.co/ilaWmEmX1T https://t.co/P8jI1kYfSq”

Replied to New discoveries about Stonehenge by Lynne Kelly (Lynne Kelly)

Firstly, an entire tribe moving from Wales to the Salisbury Plain took their encyclopaedia with them. This would require the circle to be erected in the same order as in Wales and oriented in the same direction. In effect, these people were taking their database of knowledge with them, the structure in the stones, and the data in their memories.

Secondly, a different tribe conquering those in Wales might identify just how effective this memory technique is and steal only the technology. Essentially, they stole the database structure and filled it with their own data. The bluestones are particularly suited to a mnemonic purpose due to the blotches and blobs in their material makeup.

Perhaps there’s a third possibility not mentioned here?

Perhaps the group at Waun Mawn, traded a portion of their knowledge and database to a more powerful and potentially more central nearby group of people? The evidence indicates that many of the people buried at Stonehenge were originally from the area of Wales where some of the stones originated. The fact that some stones remained behind may mean that some of the needed local encyclopedia stayed behind.

While searching for a digital copy of Cursus mathematicus (1634-67) by Pierre Hérigone (as one is wont to do), I serendipitously stumbled across Seth Long‘s (@SethLargo) brand new book Excavating the Memory Palace: Arts of Visualization from the Agora to the Computer (University of Chicago Press, December 2020). Naturally it was an immediate impulse buy. Looks like he’s also got some interesting papers on rhetoric/memory kicking around. These look pretty awesome in terms of substantiating some of the memory related work I’ve been looking at lately.

Sadly, I still need a clearer copy of Cursus. Is there an English translation out there? Any academics have non-published copies? Like to publish a copy? I’m happy to muddle through Latin or French especially if it’s an OCR/searchable copy, but it’s a stupidly long text for the assuredly short section on memory I’m seeking.

I’ve just gotten a copy of Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting by Lisa Genova which came out earlier this week.

Simple white book cover of Remember by Lisa Genova featuring a piece of red string tied into a knotted bow

I’ve thumbed through it quickly and done some targeted searches of the text. From all appearances, it looks like she’s approaching the topic of memory from a neuroscientist’s perspective and talking about broad psychology and culture.

There are a few references to the method of loci and a tangential reference to the phonetic major system in chapter 5. She approaches these briefly with a mention of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein and his PAO system (without using the word Person-Action-Object), but dismisses all too quickly.

But you would have to do a lot of memorizing before you can actually use these techniques (and others like them) to remember the stuff you’re interested in remembering. If the thought of doing this kind of mental labor sounds exhausting, I’m right there with you. I don’t have the dedication or time. Unless you’re motivated to become an elite memory athlete or your life’s dream is to memorize 111,700 digits of pi, I suspect you don’t, either. Most of us will never want or need to memorize that kind or that amount of information. But many of us would like to be better at memorizing the ten things on our to-do list, our Wi-Fi password, or the six things we need at the grocery store.

Sadly she doesn’t bring up the much easier to use phonetic major system, but blows right by it.

I’ll try to delve into the rest of the text shortly, but I was really hoping for more on the mnemonics front. I mnemonists won’t get much out of it on the techniques front, but might find it useful for an overview of the neuroscience or psychology fronts from Hermann Ebbinghaus onwards.

Read Transclusion and Transcopyright Dreams (maggieappleton.com)

In 1965 Ted Nelson imagined a system of interactive, extendable text where words would be freed from the constraints of paper documents. This hypertext would make documents linkable.

Twenty years later, Tim Berners Lee took inspiration from Nelson's vision, as well as other narratives like Vannevar Bush's Memex, to create the World Wide Web. Hypertext came to life.

I love the layout and the fantastic live UI examples on this page.

There are a few missing pieces for the primacy of some of these ideas. The broader concept of the commonplace book predated Nelson and Bush by centuries and surely informed much (if not all) of their thinking about these ideas. It’s assuredly the case that people already had the ideas either in their heads or written down and the links between them existed only in their minds or to some extent in indices as can be found in the literature—John Locke had a particularly popular index method that was widely circulated.

The other piece I find missing is a more historical and anthropological one which Western culture has wholly discounted until recently. There’s a pattern around the world of indigenous peoples in primarily oral cultures using mnemonic techniques going back at least 40,000 years. Many of these techniques were built into daily life in ways heretofore unimagined in modern Western Culture, but which are a more deeply layered version of transclusion imagined here. In some sense they transcluded almost all of their most important knowledge into their daily lives. The primary difference is that all the information was stored visually and associatively in the minds of people rather than on paper (through literacy) or via computers. The best work I’ve seen on the subject is Lynne Kelly’s Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture which has its own profound thesis and is underpinned by a great deal of archaeologic and anthropologic primary research. Given its density I recommend her short lecture Modern Memory, Ancient Methods which does a reasonable job of scratching the surface of these ideas.

Another fantastic historical precursor of these ideas can be found in ancient Jewish writings like the Mishnah which is often presented as an original, more ancient text surrounded by annotated interpretations which are surrounded by other re-interpretations on the same page. Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia have a good discussion of this in their book Annotation (MIT Press, 2019).

page of Jewish text with Mishnah in the center and surrounded by various layers of commentary in succeding blocks around it
Image of a super-annotated page of Torah from chapter 3 of Annotation (MIT Press, 2019) by R. Kalir and A. Garcia

It would create a more layered and nuanced form of hypertext – something we’re exploring in the Digital Gardening movement. We could build accumulative, conversational exchanges with people on the level of the word, sentence, and paragraph, not the entire document. Authors could fix typos, write revisions, and push version updates that propogate across the web the same way we do with software. 

The Webmention spec allows for resending notifications and thus subsequent re-parsing and updating of content. This could be a signal sent to any links to the content that it had been updated and allow any translcuded pages to update if they wished.

Annotated on February 09, 2021 at 02:38PM

In this idealised utopia we obviously want to place value on sharing and curation as well as original creation, which means giving a small fraction of the payment to the re-publisher as well.We should note monetisation of all this content is optional. Some websites would allow their content to be transcluded for free, while others might charge hefty fees for a few sentences. If all goes well, we’d expect the majority of content on the web to be either free or priced at reasonable micro-amounts. 

While this is nice in theory, there’s a long road strewn with attempts at micropayments on the web. I see new ones every six months or so. (Here’s a recent one: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqrvNoDE35lFDUv2enkaEKuo6ATBj9GmL)

This also dramatically misses the idea of how copyright and intellectual property work in many countries with regard to fair use doctrine. For short quotes and excerpts almost anyone anywhere can do this for free already. It’s definitely nice and proper to credit the original, but as a society we already have norms for how to do this.

Annotated on February 09, 2021 at 02:46PM

Transclusion would make this whole scenario quite different. Let’s imagine this again… 

Many in the IndieWeb have already prototyped this using some open web standards. It’s embodied in the idea of media fragments and fragmentions, a portmanteau of the words fragment and Webmention.

A great example can be found at https://www.kartikprabhu.com/articles/marginalia

This reminds me that I need to kick my own server to fix the functionality on my main site and potentially add it to a few others.

Annotated on February 09, 2021 at 02:59PM

We can easily imagine transclusions going the way of the public comments section. 

There are definitely ways around this, particularly if it is done by the site owner instead of enabled by a third party system like News Genius or Hypothes.is.

Examples of this in the wild can be found at https://indieweb.org/annotation#Annotation_Sites_Enable_Abuse.

Annotated on February 09, 2021 at 03:04PM

Acquired The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H. A. Rey (HMH Books for Young Readers)
This is a clear, vivid text with charts and maps showing the positions of the constellations the year round.
I’ve always wanted a copy of this book since I was little. Now I’ve got it.

I’m planning on integrating this into my memory practice shortly as well.

I just ran across and am happy to follow Anasuya Sengupta (@Anasuyashh) and
Whose Knowledge? (@WhoseKnowledge) via the New_Public Festival (#NewPublicFestival). Whose Knowledge is “a global campaign to center the knowledge of marginalized communities (the majority of the world) on the internet.”

As I’m reading Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly‘s (@Lynne_Kelly) Songlines: The Power and Promise, I’m curious to explore how the work of  Whose Knowledge might possibly help to empower oral cultures that are neither written down nor on the internet? Also how might this also empower their “third archive”?