Based on some recent discussions with a variety of people I’m helping to organize an IndieWebCamp pop-up session on personal libraries online. If you’ve ever considered how to own all your own Goodreads-like reading data and still interact with others or you’ve got an website, product, or application that attempts to do this, this is sure to be your cup of tea (or maybe we should say “favorite genre”).
We’ll focus discussion on personal libraries on one’s site(s) and how they can interact with each other. How can we pool data and resources for the common good? How can we provide Goodreads like functionality in a decentralized manner? What pieces are we missing? How can we add them? Are there any easy ways we can standardize the pieces for better site-to-site interoperability? How can we interoperate with other projects like Mastodon and BookWyrm or data sources like Open Library?
Organizationally, depending on attendees and needs we may break our time up into two or three facilitated sub-sessions to focus on and cover specific topics of interest. If you have an idea for a sub-session topic (we’ll operate Bar-Camp style the day of the event) you’d like to see or facilitate please indicate it below.
If you’d like to help facilitate the session or volunteer in running it, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Want to start discussing the topic prior to the session? Feel free to meet up online in the IndieWeb chat.
We’ll try to announce a date around mid-January to provide time for people to reserve the time.
A few weeks ago I saw Ben Stokes’ post about PaperWebsite.com and my immediate reaction was, “I have to be able to do that!” I’ve long enjoyed writing by hand over typing as the tactile feel of of pen or pencil and paper is such an enjoyable one. I particularly enjoy using a nice fountain pen on high quality paper.
Obviously there was a route to doing a workflow like this as Ben had shown. I just needed to figure out a method with a low enough barrier that I could personally implement for doing this with my own WordPress website.
A Quick Solution
Not being a serious coder, I immediately began looking for ways I could leverage some of the IndieWeb building blocks my site supports. Micropub seemed like a no-brainer for the posting portion since I’ve got an endpoint using the Micropub WordPress plugin. Certainly not wanting to manually re-type everything once I was finished writing, I needed a way of converting my handwriting to text and then automating a way to plug that into my micropub client.
A short burst of searching revealed that Google Docs could do Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on photos. I pulled out my IFTTT app and found a recipe for taking a photo and saving it to Google Drive. Then I set up another recipe to watch a particular folder in Google Drive and take whatever text appears in new documents and send it to my website using a webhook that uses my Micropub endpoint. The whole thing only took a half hour from idea to a working prototype. In the end it took a tap to open IFTTT on my phone and another tap to take the photo. Then I had to manually open the document to trigger the OCR. Finally, I had to manually open and edit the post before posting.
I had set the micropub client to post as a draft as a default just in case the OCR wasn’t perfect. This was fortunate as the Google photo OCR was so solid that the letters “Dia” of the microscopic text from the word “Diamond” partially visible on my pen cap that was in the photo got pulled into the post.
In the few times I’ve used this workflow so far, I’ve mostly done straight text and syndicated posts to Twitter, Mastodon, and Micro.blog. Perhaps in the future I might set things up to add HTML links, but they’re fairly easy to add at the editing stage.
Since I started my experimentation, a few others in the IndieWeb community have noticed the paperwebsite.com site. Greg McVerry popped up and linked to it as well. He mentioned that he had a digital notebook with OCR capability. This reminded me that I’ve got both a Livescribe Echo pen and a Rocketbook notebook with a Pilot Frixion pen that has an app for uploading digitized images of notebook pages. I hadn’t done OER with Livescribe in ages, so I pulled out the Rocketbook, which is cleverly erasable and thus reusable not to mention being fairly inexpensive. A bit of quick set up allowed me to take a photo of a page which automatically uploads to Google Drive and does its own OCR process. This already dovetails with my prior process, so the whole thing is much smoother. As a result, I’m composing this post in my Rocketbook notebook and will automatically upload and post it to my site as a draft. I’ll probably add some links, a photo or two, and then publish it in a bit.
The Rocketbook notebook has some solid pages with an odd shiny texture and feel, presumably part of the technology that makes it easy to wipe them clean for reuse. The bottom of each page has seven different faint icon images which are meant to allow the app to determine where to send the digital copy of the notes. One can send them via email or to a variety of storage or sharing services. I could imagine having different recipes set up to allow one to publish their notes to different websites based on the icon X-ed out. Given the micropub possibilities, one could also use the icons as a means of differentiating post kinds (for example, indicating that a particular post is a note, an article, or a bookmark). Another alternate idea would be to use the icons as a means of selecting which services to syndicate your content to (for example, the diamond could mean syndicate this post to Micro.blog, the bell could mean Mastodon, and the clover syndicates the post to Twitter).
The overall process is quite elegant and pleasant. The OCR for Rocketbook is reasonably good aside from a few spelling errors which are easy enough to click and fix. I’ll admit that I far prefer using a fountain pen on some Tomoe River paper to using the Rocketbook paper and the Frixion pen, but really, who wouldn’t?
Handwritten notes for your digital zettelkasten or personal wiki
Since I’ve already got most of the infrastructure, I’ve gone the extra mile and set things up so that I can take notes on index cards zettelkasten-style and use a similar set up to post them to my Obsidian vault using similar IFTTT recipes.
I’m sure, now that there are multiple proofs of concept, some enterprising developer will build a custom micropub client to do all of this work automatically or with a few options built into a clever interface.
I could see pen and paper manufacturers (Moleskin, Leuchtturm, Rocketbook, etc.) creating apps for doing this too. I’d love to see and hear about others trying this out for themselves. Hopefully it can be done with almost no code or some easy cut and paste from my example. Ask if you need help, and I’ll see what I can do to help.
IFTTT Webhook settings
This following will be roughly standard for WordPress endpoints using the plugin, but they can obviously be modified for your platform of choice.
While doing some of this I did come across some older examples of handwriting to websites. Aside from handwriting typography which I think is usually ugly, I saw some interesting examples from Jeff Bridges , gRegor Morrill, and scrolled through some great examples of handwritten and typed Tweets by Alton Brown. In his case, he was simply taking photos of his writing, but it worked! I’ll admit he had some fun and was definitely creative about it. Hopefully Twitter always exists to save the copies for him.
In short, I’ve now got another great way to post to my website. I love the great old school tactile user interface of pen and paper. Now I’m glad to have a reason to be able to do more of it in an ever-digitized culture.
Until I start working on cuneiform solutions…
Write On! 🖋
Editor’s note: This post was originally handwritten on Dec 16, 2021 at 20:15.
Imagine a Micropub client that could accept any form of feed (RSS/Atom/JSON/h-entry/etc.) as an input and publish the content to your personal website.
Then any silo service (Soundcloud, Goodreads, Flickr, etc.) with such feeds could be used to syndicate all of one’s content to their own personal website with reasonable fidelity.
I’d love to see services like IFTTT, Integromat, Zapier, etc. provide this sort of service. Using the individual APIs they’ve already got, they could provide higher fidelity of content mapping (eg. tags which many feed types don’t support) to people with their own websites.
Social media services that have widgets that people can embed into their websites should pivot to this sort of model for publishing their users’ data. They could still serve as discovery clearinghouses/hubs and serve ads. This would help make them less dependent on the major corporate social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for ancillary distribution and engagement.
I suspect it may take a while before such a color feature might be built in, if ever. (Here I’ll note that I don’t work for or speak for the company or any of the other open source developers on the project, but I am one what one would consider a “heavy user”.) If they have the time (I know they’re very busy), perhaps they may chime in with a potential roadmap or other ideas.
Color highlights are a difficult user interface problem
While I’m thinking about it, in an academic context for students, colors may be slightly better indicators of different users’ annotations of a particular text as a means of differentiating one annotator from another more subtly, particularly on texts that are extensively marked up.
Just this difference points out what a mixed bag of functionality colored highlights brings from a usability, design, and user interface perspective. While colored highlights is a seemingly “simple” sounding feature in the analog world where a single document is only annotated by one user, mapping it into a digital shared context is a difficult engineering problem to navigate and solve for. What if your color meanings aren’t the same as those of another?, for example.
While colors can be useful for individuals, do they have the same place in a social annotation product?
I already find it difficult to annotate heavily annotated pages that all use the same color, much less a rainbow of others’ colors. (If this is also you, I’ll note that there’s a handy “eye” icon in the annotation drawer that will allow you to turn them on/off.)
Potential Color Highlight Hacks
While the value of colors may be useful in some contexts, you could potentially use a few other features, functionality, and methods to creatively achieve a similar feature in Hypothes.is for yourself today. Below are a few potential creative “hacks” that some might try.
Use the tagging functionality
You could use the tagging system to create specific tags to stand in for your desired colors: As an example, in some systems I might use the following color designators:
Yellow—general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange—Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green—Reference to read
Red—Example to work through
Instead of colors in Hypothesis, for example, one could use the tags “words” or “vocabulary”, “reference” or “citation“, “typo“, “quotes“, or “examples” to stand in for these particular “colors” respectively. I sometimes practice some of these which you can find by clicking on the links, though you may note that in practice I use other tags for them.
In some sense, this is what the software would be doing, particularly with regard to search for these after-the-fact. If you wanted a list of all your “citations” for example, you’d have to search for the color for that and be able to find them all, presuming this search functionality existed with such a color feature. This isn’t really much different than simply tagging all those particular highlights with words like “citation” or “reference” in the first place.
Use the Group Functionality
You could created different “groups” (private or public) to stand in for the colors you wish you had, thus a “yellow group” could be used for one “color” of highlight and a “green group” for another. ( See Annotating with Groups for more details.)
Switching between groups for annotating isn’t going to be drastically different than a user interface for switching colors of highlighter. The one drawback (or perhaps it’s a feature?) here is that you will only be able to see one “color” at a time.
Roll your own solution with open source
As ever, with some work, you could self-host the open source software and modify your copy to add this functionality in for yourself.
Some clever hacks in your browser with CSS might also give you your preferred output. I know some users have done custom work to the Hypothes.is UI in the past: eg. https://tomcritchlow.com/2019/02/12/annotations/, see his gist at the bottom of the post.
Perhaps adding custom classes on the tags or usernames might allow people the ability to target highlights on a page so that one could define custom CSS rules for each highlight using either usernames of tags as well? Of course, just like the “eye icon” described above, I’m sure there are times that people will appreciate the ability to turn these colors on and off. I personally don’t want the clean interface dressed up in Josephs Amazing Technicolor Annotation Dreamcoat.
Other solutions and problems?
Are there ideas or potential solutions for color highlights I’ve missed? How about design problems that might be encountered in implementing color-coded highlights in the older single document/single user model being transferred to a multi-user space with infinite scale? Is color the best and most accessible solution? Are there better things that could be done with color in the product?
Feel free to comment below with your ideas or links to examples.
On a slip in his zettelkasten (a card catalog or filing cabinet of personal notes), entitled “Does Spirit hide in the filing cabinet?”, Niklas Luhmann wrote a note about people who came to see his system:
“People come, they see everything and nothing more than that, just like in porn movies; consequently, they leave disappointed.”
This is a telling story about people’s perception of the simplicity of the idea of a slip box (zettelkasten, card catalog, commonplace book or whatever you want to call your note taking system).
It’s also a testament to the fact that the value of a zettelkasten is in the upfront work that is required in making valuable notes and linking them. Many people end up trying out the simple looking system and then wonder why it isn’t working for them. The answer is that they’re not working for it.
Just as sex can be fun, working with a system of notes can be fun. (“Just” can be a problematic word, n’cest pas?) In either framing, both partners need to do some work—neither necessarily the same work. The end result can be magic.
As Potter Stewart might have said, “I may not be able to define proper note taking, but I know it when I see it.”
I’ve been thinking it for a while, but have needed to write it down for ages—particularly from my experiences with older manuscripts.
In an age of print-on-demand and reflowing text, why in goodness’ name don’t we have the ability to print almost anything we buy and are going to read in any font size and format we like?
Why couldn’t I have a presentation copy sized version of The Paris Review?
“I could fit this in my pocket,” I thought when the first newly re-designed @parisreview arrived. And sure enough editor Emily Stokes said it’s was made to fit in a “large coat pocket” in the editor’s note. pic.twitter.com/tra25GOk6e
Why shouldn’t I be able to have everything printed on bible-thin pages of paper for savings in thickness?
Why couldn’t my textbooks be printed with massively large margins for writing notes into more easily? Why not interleaved with blank pages? Particularly near the homework problem sections?
Why couldn’t I buy my own hardcover, custom edition of Annotationwith massive five inch margins to really make having a handwritten #AnnoConvo easier? (C’mon MIT Press, I know it’s part of a pre-existing series, but editorial considerations should have necessitated leaving at least an inch!)
Why can’t I have more choice in a range of fonts, book sizes, margin sizes, and covers?
When are publishing platforms going to give us this?!?
It is far from the only source to exhibit this “oddity”. Biblical references from the time of King David exist as well as in Neolithic archaeology.
I’m increasingly confident of a hidden meaning here of which Western culture is unaware (it having been long forgotten) and which is likely that Indigenous peoples may have forgotten (read: had ripped and stolen from their identities during colonialization).
References to this lost knowledge in oral and written sources still remain as evidence of my theory: “communication” or “conversations” with rocks was literally a “bedrock” cultural knowledge underpinning many human cultures and ways of life for millennia.
I’ll define this “communication” more fully shortly as I continue to collect examples in the literature as well as examples in archaeological contexts.
I’d welcome other references from others should they come across them in any contexts.
I’m reasonably certain that he’s raised the question or issue about the definition of “interlink” or “backlink” before, but it’s come up again today with some discussion and notes which I wanted to capture permanently here with few modifications for myself:
tantek 12:39 PM
doubleloop[m], what’s the difference between “just” a link and an “interlink” from a user perspective?
genuine question (feel free to also answer if you have an idea @chrisaldrich) because Wikipedia seems to consider “interlink” as a common noun to be a synonym for “hyperlink” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interlink
Chris Aldrich 20:45 PM
I think that the definition for interlinking is expanding based on actual use cases. Historically Tim Berners Lee tried to create hyperlinks as bi-directional and then scrapped the idea as not easily implementable. As a result we’ve all come to expect that links are uni-directional.
In the digital gardens, wiki spaces and now, even with Webmention, there’s an expectation (I would suggest) by a growing number of people that some links in practice will be bi-directional.
If Neil puts a link to something within his own wiki/digital garden, he’s expecting that to be picked up in a space like the Agora and it will interlink his content with that of others.
Many who are practicing POSSE/PESOS are programatically (or manually) placing backlinks between their content and the copies that live on silos creating a round trip set of links that typically hasn’t been seen on the web historically.
Because we’ve mostly grown up with a grammar of single directional links and no expectation of visible reverse links (except perhaps in the spammy framing of SEO linkfarms), the word “interlink” has taken on the connotation seen in Wikipedia. I think that definition is starting to change.
Among a class of users in the note taking/personal knowledge management space (Roam Research, Obsidian, Logseq, TiddlyWiki, et al) most users are expecting tools to automatically interlink (in my definition with the sense of an expected bi-directional link) pages. Further, they’re expecting that if you change the word(s) that appear within a [[wikilink]] that it will globally change all instances of that word/phrase that are so linked within one’s system.
In many of those systems you can also do a manual /redirect the way we do on the IndieWeb wiki, but they expect the system to actively rename their bi-directional links without any additional manual work.
tantek 1:08 PM
ok, the bidirectionality as expectation is interesting
Chris Aldrich 1:08 PM
By analogy, many in the general public have a general sense of what /syndication is within social media, but you (Tantek) and others in the IndieWeb space have created words/phrases/acronyms that specify a “target” and “source” to indicate in which direction the syndication is being done and between sites of differing ownership (POSSE, PESOS, PASTA, PESETAS, POOSNOW,… not to mention a linear philosophical value proposition of which are more valuable to the end user). There is a group of people who are re-claiming a definition of the words “interlink” and perhaps “backlink” to a more logical position based on new capabilities in technology. Perhaps it may be better if they created neologisms for these, but linguistically that isn’t the path being taken as there are words that would seem to have an expandable meaning for what they want. I’d classify it as a semantic change/shift/drift in the words meanings: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_change
I suspect that if Roam Research, or any of the other apps that have this bi-directionality built in, were to remove it as a feature, they’d loose all of their userbase.
tantek 1:11 PM
yes, such a semantic shift in the meaning of “interlink” seems reasonable, and a useful distinction from the now ubiquitously expected unidirectionality of “hyperlink”
Chris Aldrich 1:12 PM
I’m expecting that sometime within the next year or so that major corporate apps like Evernote and OneNote will make this bi-directional linking a default as well.
tantek 1:12 PM
in sci-fi metaphor terms, one-way vs two-way wormholes (per other uses of “hyper”)
Chris Aldrich 1:14 PM
I can only imagine what a dramatically different version of the web we’d be living in if the idea of Webmention had existed in the early 90s. Particularly as there’s the ability to notify the other end in changes/updates/deletions of a page. Would the word “linkrot” exist in that world?
Joe Crawford 1:22 PM
Or in a world with Xanaduian transclusions, for that matter.
Chris Aldrich 1:25 PM
Related to this and going into the world of the history of information is the suggestion by Markus Krajewski in “Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929” that early card catalog and index card systems are really an early paper/manual form of a Turing Machine: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/paper-machines.
One might imagine the extended analogy libraries:books:index cards :: Internet:websites:links with different modes and speeds of transmission.
The annual page for IndieWeb New Year’s Commitments is up. I always have trouble with coming up with something new and interesting to work on. (There are really so many things, to be honest, and so many that I ought to do, but which seem so droll… What might be fun!?!)
I was recently enamored of the idea behind Paper Websites, so I quickly wired up something as a minimal example. It works, but I’d like to commit to rounding off some of the rough edges, exploring other potential methods, maybe slipping in the ability to write HTML into it as well, and writing up some of the details of how I’ve done it.
As a stretch goal, I’m also considering publishing a physical paper notebook/journal to have as a companion to the project—a true “Paper Blog”. To be honest, this sounds like some quirky, creative fun, so maybe I’ll do it first. 😀
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.
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?
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.
Over the years in academic settings I’ve picked up pieces of Spanish, French, Latin and a few odd and ends of other languages.
Six years ago we put our daughter into a dual immersion Japanese program (in the United States) and it has changed some of my view of how we teach and learn languages, a process which is also affected by my slowly picking up conversational Welsh using the method at https://www.saysomethingin.com/ over the past year and change, a hobby which I wish I had more targeted time for.
Children learn language through a process of contextual use and osmosis which is much more difficult for adults. I’ve found that the slowly guided method used by SSiW is fairly close to this method, but is much more targeted. They’ll say a few words in the target language and give their English equivalents, then they’ll provide phrases and eventually sentences in English and give you a few seconds to form them into the target language with the expectation that you try to say at least something, or pause the program to do your best. It’s okay if you mess up even repeatedly, they’ll say the correct phrase/sentence two times after which you’ll repeat it again thus giving you three tries at it. They’ll also repeat bits from one lesson to the next, so you’ll eventually get it, the key is not to worry too much about perfection.
Things slowly build using this method, but in even about 10 thirty minute lessons, you’ll have a pretty strong grasp of fluent conversational Welsh equivalent to a year or two of college level coursework. Your work on this is best supplemented with interacting with native speakers and/or watching television or reading in the target language as much as you’re able to.
The experience will give your brain a heavy work out and you’ll feel mentally tired after thirty minutes of work, but it does seem to be incredibly effective. A side benefit is that over time you’ll also build up a “gut feeling” about what to say and how without realizing it. This is something that’s incredibly hard to get in most university-based or book-based language courses.
This method will give you quicker grammar acquisition and you’ll speak more like a native, but your vocabulary acquisition will tend to be slower and you don’t get any writing or spelling practice. This can be offset with targeted memory techniques and spaced repetition/flashcards or apps like Duolingo that may help supplement one’s work.
I like some of the suggestions made in Lynne Kelly’s post about Chinese as I’ve been pecking away at bits of Japanese over time myself. There’s definitely an interesting structure to what’s going on, especially with respect to the kana and there are many similarities to what is happening in Japanese to the Chinese that she’s studying. I’m also approaching it from a more traditional university/book-based perspective, but if folks have seen or heard of a SSiW repetition method, I’d love to hear about it.
Japanese has two different, but related alphabets and using an app like Duolingo with regular practice over less than a week will give one enough experience that trying to use traditional memory techniques may end up wasting more time than saving, especially if one expects to be practicing regularly in both the near and the long term. If you’re learning without the expectation of actively speaking, writing, or practicing the language from time to time, then wholesale mnemotechniques may be the easier path, but who really wants to learn a language like this?
The tougher portion of Japanese may come in memorizing the thousands of kanji which can have subtly different meanings. It helps to know that there are a limited set of specific radicals with a reasonably delineable structure of increasing complexity of strokes and stroke order.
The best visualization I’ve found for this fact is the Complete Listing of the 214 Radicals and Major Variations from An Introduction to Japanese Kanji Calligraphy by Kunii Takezaki (Tuttle, 2005) which I copy below:
(Feel free to right click and view the image in another tab or download it and view it full size to see more detail.)
I’ve not seen such a chart in any of the dozens of other books I’ve come across. The numbered structure of increasing complexity of strokes here would certainly suggest an easier to build memory palace or songline.
I love this particular text as it provides an excellent overview of what is structurally happening in Japanese with lots of tidbits that are otherwise much harder won in reading other books.
There are many kanji books with various forms of what I would call very low level mnemonic aids. I’ve not found one written or structured by what I would consider a professional mnemonist. One of the best structured ones I’ve seen is A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters by Kenneth G. Henshall (Tuttle, 1988). It’s got some great introductory material and then a numbered list of kanji which would suggest the creation of a quite long memory palace/journey/songline.
Each numbered Kanji has most of the relevant data and readings, but provides some description about how the kanji relates or links to other words of similar shapes/meanings and provides a mnemonic hint to make placing it in one’s palace a bit easier. Below is an example of the sixth which will give an idea as to the overall structure.
I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’d found an online app called WaniKani for Japanese that has some mnemonic suggestions and built-in spaced repetition that looks incredibly promising for taking small radicals and building them up into more easily remembered complex kanji.
I suspect that there are likely similar sources for these couple of books and apps for Chinese that may help provide a logical overall structuring which will make it easier to apply or adapt one’s favorite mnemotechniques to make the bulk vocabulary memorization easier.
The last thing I’ll mention I’ve found, that’s good for practicing writing by hand as well as spaced repetition is a Kanji notebook frequently used by native Japanese speaking children as they’re learning the levels of kanji in each grade. It’s non-obvious to the English speaker, and took me a bit to puzzle out and track down a commercially printed one, even with a child in a classroom that was using a handmade version. The notebook (left to right and top to bottom) has sections for writing a big example of the learned kanji; spaces for the “Kun” and “On” readings; spaces for the number of strokes and the radical pieces; a section for writing out the stroke order as it builds up gradually; practice boxes for repeated practice of writing the whole kanji; examples of how to use the kanji in context; and finally space for the student to compose their own practice sentences using the new kanji.
Regular use and practice with these can be quite helpful for moving toward mastery.
I also can’t emphasize enough that regularly and actively watching, listening, reading, and speaking in the target language with materials that one finds interesting is incredibly valuable. As an example, one of the first things I did for Welsh was to find a streaming television and radio that I want to to watch/listen to on a regular basis has been helpful. Regular motivation and encouragement is key.
I won’t go into them in depth and will leave them to speak for themselves, but two of the more intriguing videos I’ve watched on language acquisition which resonate with some of my experiences are:
Both Western culture and a tremendous number of indigenous cultures throughout history have used a variety of mnemonic techniques to teach students and help them remember a variety of knowledge. In her seminal work The Art of Memory (University of Chicago, 1966), Francis A. Yates indicates that this tradition in the West declined following the Puritan education reforms of the late 16th century led by Peter Ramus.
This decline is unfortunate as there is a lot of value and even entertainment in these methods. The difficulty of returning to some of these older forms of mnemonics or even revised and modernized methods is coming up with examples that a variety of teachers will quickly grasp and then be able to create lesson plans that will leverage the power of mnemonic techniques for their students.
The break in pedagogy is now so severe that most mentions of mnemonics I’ve seen in modern educational settings are viewed as one-off “tricks” rather than as a bedrock of teaching and learning techniques that they were in our recent past. (How our culture has managed to lose these traditions instead of the scala naturae is beyond me.)
In the Western tradition they were one of the major pillars of rhetoric. In many oral cultures they were integral to those peoples’ lifeways and means of survival to the point that colonizers over history have been known to specifically target, minimize, and even destroy the means for indigenous peoples to use them. My hope is that we might learn from our shared past and resurrect these methods.
This is where a very powerful example of mnemonics pedagogy from the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Bros., 2004) may be a great illustration.
Before we start, I realize that the idea of mnemonics pedagogy is both a neologism and a new concept for almost everyone, so let’s take a moment to define it.
Mnemonics pedagogy is the design of lessons, hopefully in a seamless manner, that combines a lesson and attendant facts with the arts of memory (in the Western tradition) or songlines and various mnemonic devices (in the tradition of indigenous cultures). It could be considered a sub-area of instructional design. In it we might hope that the art of memory serves as the bedrock upon which the lesson is built in such a way that it becomes more natural that the students both understand the lesson, but also find it easy to store in their long term memories with minimal revision.
The design should be such that the art of memory is integral and demonstrated organically. The student or learner need not have a pre-existing idea of the arts of memory, but they naturally hear or see them occurring without the need to do the additional work of creating memory palaces, songlines, or doing numerical translations into words or images. At some point, after seeing many examples, the students will have all the attendant mnemotechniques and they’ll be able to more quickly and easily do the memory portion of the work for themselves either in real time, or after-the-fact when browsing their notes.
These techniques may already be practiced by those in curriculum and course design, particularly in digital spaces, though they may be using some “gut feeling” in their practice because they’re not explicitly aware of our shared memory traditions. Hopefully with a stronger knowledge of the space, the instructional design may be more intentional and thus more useful.
For those who are still lost on the art of memory portion, stick with me, and we’ll explore some by example. I’ll also provide some references at the end which will provide some additional description of other practices and methods which may help teachers educate themselves in these techniques and begin experimenting with them in their teaching philosophies.
There’s nothing difficult about any of these techniques; I find that they can be easily taught to even beginning elementary school students. In a moment or two, you’ll have your first one mastered.
Learning to ban boggarts
The scene in the third installment of the Harry Potter film series which we’ll focus on is that in which Professor Remus Lupin in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class teaches his students how to fend off the shape-shifting boggart. Boggarts take the form of what a person fears most. The charm for banishing them begins by creating a strong image in the student’s mind’s eye that takes the form of that feared thing in a silly or absurd context. This followed by the incantation “Riddikulus” (ri-di-KULL-lis) will cause the boggart to take the new shape and the laughter will take the boggart’s power away from it allowing it to be banished.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m including a clip from the scene in question as it provides some incredibly valuable context. Most of mnemonics occurs in the practioner’s mind, so in this scene consider the boggart and its various forms as something which is happening in the student’s mind, but through the magic of filmmaking, these images can be seen by everyone in the class as well as viewers of the film.
Those with a background in the art of memory may immediately see where I’m going with this. The remainder may be clueless—if this is you, worry not. A few small hints will speed us along and provide not only a beginning foundation on creating a broader practice of the art of memory, but the example will provide a memorable example of something that we can all see physically compared to the exercise which is usually only practiced in each practitioner’s “mind’s eye”.
Hopefully the additional creative visual scaffolding that the movie example provides will give us enough support to more easily imagine what is going in the thought process we hope to create in our students’ minds. When we remove that scaffolding both teachers and students will be able to expand their learning and study practices. Sometimes it’s having the ability to imagine what is going on in the art of memory that is the most difficult part of beginning to use it.
Lupin makes a suggestion to the first student and tells him that if he “sees it, we’ll see it.” The example is solid enough for other students to easily follow its creativity. Again, the wizarding magic in combination with movie magic allows the viewer to see physically what would otherwise be happening in each mnemonic user’s mind.
The example Lupin provides is incredibly similar to what Rhetorica ad Herennium would suggest. The Rhetorica ad Herennium (translation: Rhetoric for Herennius), formerly attributed to Cicero, but in fact of unknown authorship, is the oldest surviving Latin book on rhetoric, dating from the late 80s BC. It tells us in 3.22 (English translation by Harry Caplan (Loeb Classical Library 403, Harvard University Press,1954)):
Now nature herself teaches us what we should do. When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonourable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember a long time. Accordingly, things immediate to our eye or ear we commonly forget; incidents of our childhood we often remember best. Nor could this be so for any other reason than that ordinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and novel stay longer in mind. A sunrise, the sun’s course, a sunset, are marvelous to no one because they occur daily. But solar eclipses are a source of wonder because they occur seldom, and indeed are more marvelous than lunar eclipses, because these are more frequent. Thus nature shows that she is not aroused by the common, ordinary event, but is moved by a new or striking occurrence. Let art, then, imitate nature, find what she desires, and follow as she directs. For in invention nature is never last, education never first; rather the beginnings of things arise from natural talent, and the ends are reached by discipline.
We ought, then, to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory. And we shall do so if we establish likenesses as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague, but doing something; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we dress some of them with crowns or purple cloaks, for example, so that the likeness may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking, or by assigning certain comic effects to our images, for that, too, will ensure our remembering them more readily. The things we easily remember when they are real we likewise remember without difficulty when they are figments, if they have been carefully delineated. But this will be essential — again and again to run over rapidly in the mind all the original backgrounds in order to refresh the images.
Lupin cements the lesson to his students by having each come up with their own unique image which they associate with their fear. Having students come up with their own images will almost always be more interesting and more memorable in the long term than them using images that the teacher devises. While using teacher supplied images to start may be helpful from a demonstration perspective, the mnemonic associations will be more relevant, useful and long lasting if the student provides them.
The incantation in the lesson is a logical one as riddikulus is cognate with ridiculous, but has a quirky sounding pronunciation. This funny pronunciation will help the student to more easily remember it. I can also imagine students getting some of the sound of the word “kill” in the middle of riddikulus, and by association they may intend to “kill” the boggart with its use.
Few who have seen the film are likely to forget the worst fears of Neville Longbottom, Ron Weasley, Parvati Patil, Harry Potter, or Remus Lupin. (Go ahead and try it. Can you remember them all? I’ll bet you can.) They will remember them because the images which each conjures to banish their boggart are so well exaggerated, strong, creepy, and funny. Who could forget Professor Snape in a tatty old woman’s dress, hunched over clutching a purse, and wearing a vulture hat? I can almost smell what I’m sure are his elderberry wine-breath, patchouli oil perfume, and his musty stockings. I still chuckle at the concept of a monster sized spider attempting to remain standing while wearing roller skates. For the benefit of coulrophobiacs I’ll stand on apophasis.
While not as strong an association in the exercise, many viewers may be able to remember the order of the participants based on the transformations that occur to the boggart as each takes their turn. Perhaps a stronger grounding in a technique like a the songline or memory palace could have improved our example for this sort of retention.
These undeniably memorable images we see on screen are just the same sorts of images most good treatises of memory have suggested we try imagining in our minds’ eyes to improve our memories for millennia. These include the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Giordano Bruno among others. I’m sure I could also cite a ceaseless variety of elders, but the vicissitudes of orality versus literacy and the brutalities of erasure and colonialism prevent providing proper credit.
These writings and teachings admonish us to take objects associated with the thing we want to remember and exaggerate them, make them bigger or smaller, give them a smell, texture, sound, movement. Make them stand out. Make them funny. Make them absurd. These things make the ideas incredibly sticky. They make them hard to forget. They make them dead simple to remember.
As students in the exercise, the creative and absurd images are difficult to forget, so they’re more likely to remember the boggart-banishing spell. As viewers of the movie, the lesson works on a similar level as it makes it easy for us to associate each individual character’s fears with them.
From a pedagogical perspective, the boggart lesson is incredibly well designed because it builds the mnemonic structure directly into the exercise. The students are forced to use their creative imaginations to come up with memorable mental images. For the novice, there would appear to be only one lesson here: the charm. But the clever instructional designer using mnemonic pedagogy will also see a subtle parallel lesson in mnemotechy.
This sort of lesson should be much more prevalent at the lower grades from kindergarten through fourth or fifth grade. They should also be used in upper levels for those just acquainting themselves with these sorts of techniques. Later on in fourth to seventh grades a variety of specific techniques could be taught in turns over a month or so to help students learn the broader variety of thirty or so techniques they might employ over the remainder of their academic careers or even their lives. Some of these techniques might include creating memory palaces, songlines and related journey methods, the phonetic major system, peg systems, and mnemonic devices like lukasa and neolithic stone balls among many others. We might also incorporate into these uses art, music, and dance as well. One would hope that crafty students may learn to use the Guidonian hand and find that it’s easier and more effective than cheating by writing the answers on their hand because it’s less work and the answers are etched more indelibly in their minds.
For those new to the incredibly rich history of the art of memory, keep in mind that this example is very simple and concrete. It only scratches the surface of available techniques. I would hope that folks take some time to delve into the broader practice of mnemonic techniques and experiment with ways of embedding them into their teaching.
Having read a vast swath of books, treatises, and pamphlets on these techniques written over the past two thousand years, one of the best resources I would recommend for teachers is Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft: Improve Your Memory with the Most Powerful Methods in History (Allen & Unwin, 2019). She outlines one of the largest collections of mnemotechniques in print along with examples of how they might be best used and in which settings. She’s experimented with a wide variety of these techniques and outlines how many of them might be used in practice including the idea of creating what she calls rapscallions to memorize things like multiplication tables or points of grammar in foreign languages.
Some of these techniques are also becoming the focus of some specific research as can be seen in an article earlier this year in PLoS ONE:
Reser D, Simmons M, Johns E, Ghaly A, Quayle M, Dordevic AL, et al. (2021) Australian Aboriginal techniques for memorization: Translation into a medical and allied health education setting. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251710. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251710
I’m curious to hear from teachers and researchers who are familiar with these techniques. I’d love to hear examples of how you’ve used or embedded them into your lessons. How effective do you feel they were? Did you use them with spaced repetition techniques as well?
It would be great to create a resource book of examples for others to use in their teaching for lessons at all age levels and abilities.
I’m eager to chat about this topic with others curious about its use and potentially help design lessons that integrate them. I encourage you to reach out.
I’m also happy to provide more focused reading lists and suggestions to those who want to delve deeper.
If you’re curious to delve into the specifics of mnemotechy more seriously, I’m planning on leading another cohort of my course The Art of Memory soon. Feel free to sign up to get notifications.
Antonin Sertillanges’ book The Intellectual Life is published in 1921 in which he outlines in chapter 7 the broad strokes a version of the zettelkasten method, though writing in French he doesn’t use the German name or give the method a specific name.
The book was published in French, Italian, and English in more than 50 editions over the span of 40 years. In it, Sertillanges recommends taking notes on slips of “strong paper of a uniform size” either self made with a paper cutter or by “special firms that will spare you the trouble, providing slips of every size and color as well as the necessary boxes and accessories.” He also recommends a “certain number of tagged slips, guide-cards, so as to number each category visibly after having numbered each slip, in the corner or in the middle.” He goes on to suggest creating a catalog or index of subjects with division and subdivisions and recommends the “very ingenious system”, the decimal system, for organizing one’s research. For the details of this refers the reader to Organization of intellectual work: practical recipes for use by students of all faculties and workers by Paul Chavigny.
Sertillanges recommends against the previous patterns seen with commonplace books where one does note taking in books or on slips of paper which might be pasted into books as they don’t “easily allow classification” or “readily lend themselves to use at the moment of writing.”
 Antonin, Sertillanges (1960). The Intellectual Life: Its Sprit, Conditions, Methods. Translated by Ryan, Mary (fifth printing ed.). Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press. pp. 186–198.
 Chavigny, Paul (1918). Organisation du travail intellectuel: recettes pratiques à l’usage des étudiants de toutes les facultés et de tous les travailleurs (in French). Delagrave.
I originally bought tickets for this show at the Hollywood Bowl on January 25, 2020, but the pandemic obviously delayed the original show date of May 29th. In a fit of optimism on July 16, 2020, the show was rescheduled for October 1, 2021. I really didn’t expect the show to stick. It was my second major crowd outing since the start of the pandemic.
I drove to the Pasadena park and ride location which had just closed because the last bus had just left. They indicated the Zoo location was still open and would have buses until 7pm. So we drove to the LA Zoo bus stop and parked and rode from there. Doing this, even with crowds well masked, was certainly a lot less taxing than sitting in crazy traffic or worrying about parking. The two way fee was a much lower $6 whereas I expected it to be $12 per person.
We got to our seats a bit after the opening act started because of the COVID-19 check-in lines. The lines were miserably managed and social convention went out the window for people cutting in line and generally shifting around.
While vaccination cards or negative tests were required for entrance, they weren’t well organized about it. It would have been all-too-easy to sneak around the COVID check and get directly into the ticket/bag check area which was much more closely guarded and well executed.
Once past the checkpoint not many people were wearing masks. There was approximately 60% masking in public areas outside the Bowl itself, but once seated with a nearly capacity crowd at a sold out show, there was only about 20% masking. I kept a mask on the entire night. Knowing that this would be the case we didn’t take the traditional Hollywood Bowl picnic basket or food.
The weather for the evening was about as lovely as one could have hoped. Not to hot and not too cold which is notable when October evenings can be uncomfortably warm with temperatures in the high 80s to mid 90s.
Opening act: Squeeze
I think I enjoyed the opening act most this evening. They played a few of their hit songs certainly, but I enjoyed the more experimental late 70’s material they played that fell into the vein of Pink Floyd and The Alan Parsons Project as part of the New Wave movement. It was very much the sound of the late 70’s and they recreated it wonderfully in a way that took me back to that space and time. While there were some nice flourishes and musical improvisation sprinkled in, it was closer to their studio/album work in sound and flavor, particularly in comparison to Hall & Oates. Their material generally matched the mood of Hall & Oates’ She’s Gone.
I almost feel like this performance wasn’t as flashy as it may have been in the day. It would be quite something to see them in a more intimate setting like the Troubadour.
The day was one of the band member’s birthdays, so the entire crowd sang happy birthday to close out the performance.
There were a number of women in their 50s standing up and singing and dancing to every number which was interesting to see.
I could only recall Mussels, Cool for Cats, Tempted, Annie, Black Coffee, and Happy Birthday from the top of my head as I didn’t keep a written setlist like I did for Hall and Oates. The list below is courtesy of setlist.fm, but all the big pieces appeared in the order that I remember.
Take Me I’m Yours
Up the Junction
Is That Love
Slap and Tickle
Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)
Please Be Upstanding
Cool for Cats
Annie Get Your Gun
If I Didn’t Love You
Black Coffee in Bed
Happy Birthday to You (Mildred J. Hill & Patty Hill song)
(Sung to bassist Owen Biddle; each band member took a solo spot)
Main Act: Hall and Oates
Starting at 8:50 PM and finishing out at about 10:30 PM
Out of Touch
Method of Modern Love
Say it Isn’t So
You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling
She’s Gone (High on Consolation)
Is it a Star (according to setlist.fm, I didn’t catch the title at the time)
Back Together Again
I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)
—- Encore —
Your Kiss is on My List (with a slick transition to)
The concert was generally solidly produced. The opening was electric and the crowd gave them a lot of early energy in a nearly packed Bowl. Unfortunately the energy waned within a song and a half. Daryl Hall took about three songs to really warm up his voice. Prior to that I was worried about what I was in for. For someone in his mid-70’s it was a solid performance, but he’s definitely not got the energy of the early 80’s. Late in the program he moved to keyboards and did alright for his age, but there were some obvious rough spots in his solo play.
Given their spot in the Yacht Rock pantheon of highly produced music, I expected to hear more of the polish of their 80’s work, but there was a lot more Jazz and R&B influence on their performance. This was probably great for the Hollywood Bowl regulars where there’s often quite a bit of Jazz programmed, but it just wasn’t the 70s experimental material or the Rock/Pop I was either hoping for or expecting.
Hall’s patter was a bit stilted for me. The quote of the night came between Sarah Smile and the lead into Is it a Star with a drug culture reference:
“I think all the 70’s were experimental.”