On hand held objects and material culture

Should we view it as a coincidence or not that the information management carrier of the early 20th century is the same size and scale as the carrier at the opening of the 21st century?

The humble index card and the cellular phone have more in common than we might expect.

Read The Quest for a Memex 2022-07-31 by Kevin MarksKevin Marks (kevinmarks.com)
This week John Borthwick put out a call for Tools for Thinking: People want better tools for thinking — ones that take the mass of notes that you have and organize them, that help extend your second brain into a knowledge or interest graph and that enable open sharing and ownership of the “knowl...
I got stuck over the weekend, so I totally missed Kevin Marks’ memex demo at IndieWebCamp’s Create Day, but it is an interesting little UI experiment.

I’ll always maintain that Vannevar Bush really harmed the first few generations of web development by not mentioning the word commonplace book in his conceptualization. Marks heals some of this wound by explicitly tying the idea of memex to that of the zettelkasten however. John Borthwick even mentions the idea of “networked commonplace books”. [I suspect a little birdie may have nudged this perspective as catnip to grab my attention—a ruse which is highly effective.]

Some of Kevin’s conceptualization reminds me a bit of Jerry Michalski’s use of The Brain which provides a specific visual branching of ideas based on the links and their positions on the page: the main idea in the center, parent ideas above it, sibling ideas to the right/left and child ideas below it. I don’t think it’s got the idea of incoming or outgoing links, but having a visual location on the page for incoming links (my own site has incoming ones at the bottom as comments or responses) can be valuable.

I’m also reminded a bit of Kartik Prabhu’s experiments with marginalia and webmention on his website which plays around with these ideas as well as their visual placement on the page in different methods.

MIT MediaLab’s Fold site (details) was also an interesting sort of UI experiment in this space.

It also seems a bit reminiscent of Kevin Mark’s experiments with hovercards in the past as well, which might be an interesting way to do the outgoing links part.

Next up, I’d love to see larger branching visualizations of these sorts of things across multiple sites… Who will show us those “associative trails”?

Another potential framing for what we’re all really doing is building digital versions of Indigenous Australian’s songlines across the web. Perhaps this may help realize Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly’s dream for a “third archive”?

[[wikilinks]] and #hashtags as a portal to cross site search

[[wikilinks]] and could act as snippets for custom searches on various platforms. I’d like to be able to either click on a link or possibly right click and be presented with the ability to search that term (or nearby terms) on a variety of different platforms or trusted websites. This could be a useful form of personal search that allows me to find things within a much smaller space of knowledge I’m aware of. Sometimes the serendipity from the wisdom of the crowd via major search engines like Google, DuckDuckGo, or Bing may suffice, but shouldn’t I be able to more easily search a trusted personal group of hand curated sources?

Platforms like Wikipedia and Twitter already have these patterns as links to resources within themselves, but why couldn’t/shouldn’t a browser or browser plugin allow me an option when clicking on them to go to other resources outside of the expected (narrow) search provided? Perhaps I’m in my own wiki and a redlink [[wikilink]] obviously doesn’t exist on my site. Why shouldn’t I be able to click on it to go to another source like Wikipedia to find it?

These search resources can still be larger platforms like Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter, but could be subspecialized to include Twitter users I follow, smaller wikis I use (including my own), websites of people I follow in my feed reader or social reader (by searching on categories/tags or even broad text search). I should be able to easily define a multitude of resources for each custom search using common standards. This affordability could give me a much more refined and trusted set of search results, particularly in a post-fact society.

One could go further still and highlight a word or words on one’s browser screen and use these as a custom search query.

If built properly, I ought to be able to create “playlists” of sites and resources to search for myself and be able to share these with other friends, family, and colleagues who may trust those sources as well.

I’m curious what others think of this idea. What should the UI look like to make it clear and easy to use? What other things might one want to search on beyond plain text, hashtags, and wikilinks? Am I missing anything? What downsides or social ills might this pattern potentially entail?

Questions as a tool for thought: “Only the questions, ma’am”

The Almighty Question

Asking questions is one of our most important tools for thinking. Questions force us to think. We’re wired to want to give them answers. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was the proximal question that started it down the slippery slope.

Socrates is still rightly famous for his pedagogic method featuring the almighty question. Creating good questions are one of the most valuable parts of the idea behind Cornell notes. Scientific research is all about asking solid questions.

The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.
—Claude Levi-Strauss

Teachers often analogize the period as the proverbial “stop sign” of a sentence, but they’re off base—the majority of periods are barely worth a rolling stop at best. I think it’s far more valuable to treat the question mark as an actual stop sign. It tells me to stop and actively think about what I’ve just read. What might the answer be? Is it answerable? Will the text indicate where to go? Will I be left hanging?

As I read, I always actively look out for the question marks in a text. When annotating, I’ll frequently highlight them in situ or in the margins with a simple “?”. What does the question mean for the current context? What might it mean for other tangential and even non-related contexts?

Questions can be used as rhetorical tools by the author to highlight what is important in their narratives or reasoning. Other times, unanswered questions in pieces are some of the most important and pressing portions of a text. They indicate what we don’t know. They indicate where we might try exploring, researching, and expanding our knowledge and place within the world.

Only the Questions

When evaluating whether or not a book will have value, it can be useful to know what sorts of questions the author is asking. Towards this end, I’ve recently come across a great digital tool called Only the Questions from Clive Thompson. It will parse through large bodies of text and extract out only the questions which were posed.

So feel free to throw in your favorite novel, your current non-fiction read, songs, poetry, speeches, religious texts, philosophy, even comics and see what comes out. Read the questions posed before you start. Once you’re done reading, revisit them to determine which ones were answered. Which ones were left as an “exercise for the reader”? Which ones can you provide the answers to now that you’ve read the text? Which questions were left open and will gnaw at your brain for years to come?

My fascination with questions has been super-charged by having such easy access to so many more of them. How will you use this tool?

Do you know of any other clever tools relating to questions? I’d love to know what they are and how you integrate them into your work.

I did some reading and annotation and learned something deplorable about Perusall. What grade does your AI give me?


https://hyp.is/A9EcXpR0Eey_JGdvKnxDPg/twitter.com/perusall/status/1495945680002719751

Replied to a tweet by Anna GátAnna Gát (Twitter)
I made a note about this last year https://hyp.is/i3iUMtOSEeudHIML10vbwQ/iannotate.org/2021/program.html (particularly with respect to some diversity for the IAnno21 session on a similar topic).

You should also have at least one historian: maybe Ann M. Blair, Richard Yeo, Matthew Daniel Eddy (@BookScribbler), or Markus Krajewski?

Jeremy Dean (@Dr_JDean) and Remi Kalir (@RemiKalir) are intriguing within both the education and technology space.

For a dramatically different perspective from most of both my suggestions and others I’ve seen on the thread, a Sketchnotes representative like Mike Rohde (@RohDesign) would be nice.

Time lapse of The Dawn of Everything Book Club (End)

The final (?) time lapse of the contributions to the Obsidian vault for Dan Allosso’s The Dawn of Everything Book Club. I know I’ve still got hundreds of notes to process and add myself and I’m sure that there’s more that people may/might work on, but the club is officially over, so I thought I’d do one last video before the vault is “frozen”.

Zettelkasten Overreach

The zettelkasten is just that, it isn’t a calendar, a rolodex, a to do list or a hammer, saw, or even a jackhammer.

The basic zettelkasten note taking method is very simple and clear cut as originally described by Konrad Gessner in Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium (Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20, 1548) to Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Just a handful of bullet points can outline the elegance and simplicity of the system. This dramatic simplicity leads to some tremendous value and complexity.

However, in modern use as seen online since roughly 2018 on, the idea and the digital tools surrounding it, has seen some severe mission creep. Zettlekasten has moved to the fad stage and we’re “zettlecasting” everything under the sun. While it can be used as a productivity tool specifically for writing, some are adapting and using it (and tools built for it) for productivity use writ-large. This includes project management or GTD (Getting Things Done) functions. Some are using it as a wiki, digital garden, or personal knowledge management system for aggregating ideas and cross linking them over time. Others are using it as a journal or diary with scheduling and calendaring functions tacked on. Still others are using it to collect facts and force the system to do spaced repetition. These additional functionalities can be great and even incredibly useful, but they’re going far beyond the purpose-fit functionality of what a zettelkasten system was originally designed to do.

Ahrens highlights the zettelkasten method as being simply and specifically designed to do its particular workflow well—no more, no less. He cleverly analogizes slip boxes to their larger box cousins, the shipping container, and the way that that they revolutionized the shipping industry.

In hindsight, we know why they failed: The ship owners tried to integrate the container into their usual way of working without changing the infrastructure and their routines. They tried to benefit from the obvious simplicity of loading containers onto ships without letting go of what they were used to.

Following this analogy, many people are currently trying to not only revolutionize shipping, but sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing as well. While this may be interesting and the digital tools might accommodate some of these functions, are they really custom built from start to finish to really excel at these functionalities? Can they really do all of them at once? While some may come close and do well enough, the added complexity and overreach of all these functionalities may be diluting the base power of what the zettelkasten is capable.

People conflate the idea of note taking and the zettelkasten with tools like Obsidian, Logseq, and Roam Research. This is not necessarily a good thing. If they expect it to do everything and it’s not capable of that or well designed to do what they expect, they’re more likely to get confused, frustrated, and eventually give up. I’ve seen it happening more and more.

As an example, in a book club related to Ahrens’ text in which many highly educated and talented people have been using these tools and have even previously read the book, many are still far too confused about what these tools are and the value that can come from them.

For those who are just coming to the idea of a zettelkasten, I recommend you limit yourselves to just that basic functionality. Don’t muddy the waters with other productivity functions, to do lists, journals, diaries, kitchen sinks, or the latest wiz-bang plugin. Don’t throw in buzz words like GTD and MOC. Stick to the simplest script for a few months and focus on finely honing a small handful of questions and ideas each day from your reading to see what happens. Write, link, repeat. Don’t get caught up in the collector’s fallacy by keeping and saving every single fleeting note (thought) you’ve got (or if you must, put them into a folder off to the side). Focus on the core idea.

Once you’ve got that part down and it’s working for you, then consider adding on those other functionalities. Experiment with them; see what works. But don’t be surprised if those other portions aren’t the magic bullet that is going to revolutionize your life. We’re likely to need new tools, functionality, and a system built from start to finish, to make those other things a useful reality.

Featured image: zettelkasten flickr photo by x28x28de shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I’m excited to join Dan Allosso‘s book club on How to Take Smart Notes as a means of turning my active reading, annotating, and note taking into papers, articles and books using Obsidian.md and Hypothes.is

Details: 

cc: Ian O’Byrne, Remi Kalir

Replied to a tweet by TfT Hacker - Exploring Tools for Thought and PKM (Twitter)
Good tools for thought encourage or allow me to:

  • Easily and quickly capture interesting ideas and their original or related contexts so I can artificially remember more of what I’ve seen, read, and thought.
  • Link these ideas to related and non-related ideas and contexts.
  • Dramatically accelerates the creation of new ideas with respect to combinatorial creativity and ideas having sex.
  • Have a greater ability to focus on bigger ideas by letting me forget some less familiar minutiae. I can think more by remembering less though repeated good ideas filter up to the top and through repeated linking and use are more easily remembered.
Replied to a thread by Phil Windley, Jon Udell, Matt (Twitter)
There are still many in the (dare I use “old school”?) education space like @CogDog and @JimGroom who still do blog to blog conversations via comment sections.

I’ve seen a growing group of others who are using and displaying Webmentions for site-to-site conversations. If you use WordPress, there’s the Webmention plugin for the notifications part and the Semantic Linkbacks plugin for the display part. (One day the two will merge, we hope.)

Plugins and modules exist for a number of other systems if they’re not already built in.

I’m using all these on my site to have site-to-site conversations with others. I’m also using Brid.gy to bridge the gap between WordPress and Twitter (and others). If you prefer, you could read all this on my site.

Happy to help others set this up for themselves, should they need help.

I’ve downloaded my copy of The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow for Dan Allosso’s forthcoming Obsidian-based book club. https://danallosso.substack.com/p/obsidian-book-club-the-dawn-of-everything

Curious to see how these tools can be communally used for collaborative note taking, knowledge creation, and discussion.

Pen and paper publishing to your website? PaperWebsite is on to something.

Handwriting to Website #​​​FTW

While browsing today I ran across an awesome concept called PaperWebsite.com. It allows you to write on paper, take a photo, and then upload it to a website. Your handwritten words published to your website. A tactile writer’s dream.

My immediate thought—I need to have this now!

Articles written by hand in my journal to my website? Short notes that I write on index cards published as microblog updates.  How cool would that be? I was also talking to someone this morning about voice-to-text as a note taking concept. What about that too?

Of course, as you may know, I’ve already got a website. Do I need another one like this for $10/month? Probably not.

Value Proposition

But this has got me wondering “what the value proposition is for Paper Website as a company?” What are they really selling? Domain names? Hosting? Notebooks? They certainly seem to be selling all of the above, but the core product they’re really selling is an easy-to-use interface for transferring paper ideas to digital publishing. And this is exactly what I want!

The problem now is to buy this sub-service without all the other moving pieces like a domain name, hosting, etc., which I don’t need. Taking just the core service and abstracting it to the wider universe of websites could be a major technical hurdle (and nightmare).

IndieWeb and Micropub

Perhaps I could try find an OCR solution and wire it all together myself? I’d rather see the original developer run away with the idea though. So instead I’ll quietly suggest that they could take their current infrastructure and add a small piece.

Since PaperWebsite’s already got the front end up and running, why not add on Micropub support to the back end? Maybe Ben Stokes could take the OCR output and create a new Micropub client that could authenticate to any website with Micropub support? I have to imagine that he could probably program it in a couple of days (borrowing from any of the pre-existing open source clients or libraries out there) and suddenly it’s a product that could work with WordPress, Drupal, WithKnown, Craft, Jekyll, Kirby, Hugo, Blot, and a variety of other platforms that support the W3C spec recommendation or have plugins for it.

The service could publish in “draft” form and allow editing after-the-fact. There’s also infrastructure for cross-syndicating to other social services with Micropub clents, so note cards to my website and automatically syndicated to Twitter, Mastodon, or micro.blog? Yes, please.

And maybe it could be done as a service for a dollar a month or a few dollars a year?

I made a short mention of the idea in the IndieWeb chat, and it’s already a-buzz with implementation ideas… If you’re around Ben, I’m sure folks there would lend a hand if you’re interested.

The website, commonplace book, note taking, stationery, and fountain pen nerd in me is really excited about where this could go from a user interface perspective.

How Moleskine, Leuchtturm, LiveScribe or the other stationery giants haven’t done this already is beyond me. I could also see serious writing apps like  iA Writer or Ulysses doing something like this too.

Read Introducing the HyperText Coffee Pot by James Gallagher (James' Coffee Blog)
I was thinking about how I could mix coffee and technology. After some thought I remembered the Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol (HTCPCP), a protocol defined by the IETF that describes ways in which one can send commands to coffee machines. For coffee and technology enthusiasts such as myself, the protocol is a must read, especially if you find yourself interested in operating coffee pots remotely.
This is awesome James. Can’t wait to see it in action with an actual coffee pot… Until then, you could have the physical endpoint return a 418?
Replied to a tweet by Harold Jarche (Twitter)
E.P. Thompson also has additional perspective on the invention of the clock and pocket watches as a powerful technology with respect to this in Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism. AND , ora pro nobis.