The Zettelkasten Method of Note Taking Mirrors Most of the Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy

Between zettels (the space where new ideas often occur) this morning I realized that there is a high correlation to Bloom’s Taxonomy and the refined methods of keeping a zettelkasten, particularly as delineated by Dr. Sönke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes. As a result, even if one’s primary goal isn’t writing or creating as framed by Ahrens’, the use of the system as a pedagogical tool can be highly effective for a variety of learning environments.

Recall briefly that Bloom’s Taxonomy levels can be summarized as: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

Outlining the similarities

One needs to be able to generally understand an idea(s) to be able to write it down clearly in one’s own words. This is parallel to creating literature notes as one reads. Gaps in one’s understanding will be readily apparent when one realizes that they’re not able to explain an idea simply and clearly.

Regular work within a zettelkasten helps to reinforce memory of ideas for understanding, long term retention, and the ability to easily remember them. Many forms of zettelkasten software have functionality for direct spaced repetition if not dovetails for spaced repetition software like Anki or Mnemosyne.

Applying the knowledge to other situations happens almost naturally with the combinatorial creativity that occurs within a zettelkasten. Raymundus Llullus would be highly jealous here I think.

Analysis is heavily encouraged as one takes new information and actively links it to prior knowledge and ideas; this is also concurrent with the application of knowledge.

Being able to compare and contrast two ideas on separate cards is also part of the analysis portions of Bloom’s taxonomy which also leads into the evaluation phase. Is one idea better than another? How do they dovetail? How might they create new knowledge? Juxtaposed ideas cry out for evaluation.

Finally, as argued by Ahrens, one of the most important reasons for keeping a zettelkasten is to use it to generate or create new ideas and thoughts and then use the zettelkasten as a tool to synthesize them in articles, books, or other media in a clear and justified manner. 

Other examples?

I’m curious to hear if any educators have used the zettelkasten framing specifically for scaffolding the learning process for their students? There are some seeds of this in the social annotation space with tools like Diigo and Hypothes.is, but has anyone specifically brought the framing into their classes?

I’ve seen a few examples of people thinking in this direction and even @CalHistorian specifically framing things this way, but I’m curious to hear about other actual experiences in the field. 

The history of the recommendation and use of commonplace books in education is long and rich (Erasmus, Melanchthon, Agricola, et al.), until it began disappearing in the early 20th century. I’ve seen a few modern teachers suggesting commonplaces, but have yet to run across others suggesting zettelkasten until Ahrens’ book, which isn’t yet widespread, at least in the English speaking world. And even in Ahrens’ case, his framing is geared specifically to writing more so than general learning and education.

Featured image courtesy of Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (CC BY 2.0

IndieWeb Readlists: Tools and Brainstorming

Readlists revived

Apparently early last year Jim Nielsen (Twitter) cleverly rebuilt an IndieWeb friendly version of readlist functionality! He describes his motivation and provides some examples in his post (Re)Introducing Readlists. You can try it out at https://readlists.jim-nielsen.com/.

Missing ReadLists.com

I fondly remember the original ReadLists site, and I too have desperately missed my account and the ability to more easily create and share “mixtapes, but for reading” from my own site or in formats like .epub, .mobi, and .pdf. I still remember the now missing textbook I made with ReadLists because I foolishly relied on an embeddable widget to display content on my website.

Just a month ago I wanted to pull out all the archived articles of Manfred Keuhn’s excellent and now memory-holed blog Taking Notes and turn them into an e-book. The process was just too painful and tedious, in part because some of the individual articles weren’t individually archived though they were archived on monthly archive pages.

With Jim’s tool the process has now gotten a bit easier.

Brainstorming improvements and other options

It does make me wonder how we might make the the process of doing this sort of thing easier. What sorts of formats and building blocks could mitigate some of the work? Are there an potential standards that could be leveraged? How could one take linkblogs and convert them into a book for reading offline? Could one take an h-feed and pipe it into such a tool? Or RSS/Atom to e-book tools? Could I take collections from tools like Zotero and pipe them into such a service to bundle up journal articles? Could the idea be expanded into something along the lines of Huffduffer and provide similar sorts of native APIs? How could it be made more IndieWeb friendly? Micropub support, perhaps? Could Microsub readers take inputs and provide e-book outputs?

I know that there are a handful of browser extensions that will help one convert URLs into e-books. Some even take lists of open browser tabs and automatically convert them into an e-book, but these don’t allow one to easily share the lists so that users can pick and choose what to omit, or add other content to them.

How might we encourage community curated readlists?

How might this all tie into the rise of the prominence of the newsletter over the past several years? How could I more easily pipe subscriptions into such a tool to give me daily/weekly/monthly e-books of content?

What else are we missing?

Contextualizing Cornell Notes in the Note Taking Traditions

Have we lost too much of the contextual value of what Cornell notes were originally designed for by Walter Pauk in the 1950’s? Or are we not taking the idea far enough into the writing realm?

Cornell notes come from a time closer to the traditional space of commonplace books, academic thinking, and note taking that was more prevalent in the early 1900’s and from which also sprang the zettelkasten tradition. I can’t help but be reminded that the 10th edition of Pauk’s book How to Study in College (Wadsworth, 2011, p.394), which helped to popularize the idea of Cornell notes with the first edition in 1962, literally ends the book with the relationship of the word ‘topic’ by way of Greek to the Latin ‘loci communes‘ (commonplaces), though it’s worth bearing in mind that it contains no discussion of the commonplace book or its long tradition in our intellectual history.

One was meant to use Cornell notes to capture broad basic ideas and facts (fleeting notes) and things to follow up on for additional research or work. Then they were meant to be revisited to focus on creating questions that might be used for spaced repetition, a research space that has seen tremendous growth and advancement since the simpler times in which the Cornell note taking method was designed.

Additionally one was meant to revisit their notes to draw out the most salient points and ideas. This is part of the practice of taking the original ideas and writing them out clearly in one’s own words to improve one’s understanding of the material. Within a zettelkasten framing, this secondary review is part of the process of creating future useful literature notes or permanent notes that one might also re-use in their future writing and thinking.

Missing from the Cornell notes practice but more directly centered in the zettelkasten practice is taking one’s notes and directly linking them to other related thoughts in one’s system. This places this method closer to the commonplace book tradition than the zettelkasten tradition.

While a more basic and naïve understanding of Cornell notes in current academic environments still works on many levels, students and active researchers might be better advised to look at their practices in view of broader framings like that of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking.

It also bears noting that one could view the first stage of Cornell notes in light of the practice of keeping a waste book and then later transferring their more permanent and better formed ideas into their commonplace book.

Similarly one might also view full sheets of finished Cornell notes as permanent notes mixed in amidst fleeting notes and held together on pages rather than individual cards. This practice sounds somewhat similar in structure to Sönke Ahrens’s use of Roam Research to compile multiple related ideas in individually linked blocks on a single page holding them together in a pseudo-project page for more immediate and potentially specific future use.

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.

Refinished Architect’s Table from The General Fireproofing Co.

The Newest Piece Comes Home

It’s been far too long since I’ve done a furniture refurbish project, so it’s extra nice to finally have this fantastic piece move into the family room today.

I’ll probably post something more detailed at a later date with some “before” pictures, but these few “after” photos will have to suffice for now.

History

I acquired this 20 gauge steel, stick leg, architect’s table originally manufactured by The General Fireproofing Co. of Youngstown, Ohio eight or so years back as part of a scrap sale. It was once owned by the National Bureau of Standards and had some markings and scrap paper hiding underneath the drawer which made me think that it was previously owned by a college, university, or similar institution in the Southern California region. It’s been hiding patiently in the garage as a general work table in service to my Little Free Library. I’ll have to dig into some paperwork to find it, but I recall this being circa 1959 from my research. It wasn’t in as bad a condition as some of my past projects. The original linoleum top was almost in good enough condition that I seriously considered keeping it.

Refinishing and Specifications

I started cleaning it up in November 2021 and have finally moved it into the house today with a 1/4″ clear annealed 29 3/4″ x 49 3/4″ polished glass top with 1 1/2″ radius corners.

The table itself is refinished in an electric sort of robin’s egg-color called “Waterfall” (SW 6750, loc #162-C1; DE 5722 RL#267, LRV 68, Munsell: Hue=7.36BG, Value=8.5, Chroma=2.6; BM 2050-50, LRV 55.75). The original linoleum top, which actually wasn’t in horrible condition, was completely stripped off, and I did the same sort of brushed steel process as my last tanker desk. There is a bit of blemish on the table top surface in the form of black flecking with a few small manufacturing blemishes that were left untouched for show before throwing down eight layers of clear coat. I also left a few incredibly minor dings to the body and legs for character instead of doing any bondo work.

It’s still got the original General Fireproofing Co. badging. I’ve also left all the original drawer pulls and metal leg caps, though I’ve cleaned them up quite a bit. It has presently got all the original screws, nuts and bolts as well, though many are rusted and in poor though functional condition. Perhaps I’ll replace those with new fittings in the near future, but I’ll have to hunt down the specs and find something that will stand up a bit better for the next century.

I’ve added some 1/2″ thick heavy felt pads on the feet to prevent scratching on the floor as the table is quite heavy. I’ve also got some temporary cork pads between the tabletop and the glass which I’ll probably replace with some decorative felt sometime soon.

You never know what you’ll find when you strip the tops of these types of pieces, but all-in it came out far better than I expected. It truly is stunning.

What’s next?

Still in the queue for future projects, two stick leg chairs, a panel leg architect’s table, and a 1930’s double pedestal tanker desk all of which I have on hand. I’m also due to reupholster a few chairs. If anyone comes across any, I’m on the look out for a 4×6″ index card filing cabinet, a multi-drawer flat file I can convert into a coffee table, and a credenza. 

Commissions

I’ve done this enough times now, I’m contemplating taking commissions from folks who have ideas for pieces. I’ve seen some of the tanker desks go for between $3,000 and $5,000 on Melrose or at HD Buttercup in Los Angeles, but by comparison, I’ve got a far better finishing process for these with better results than I’ve seen in any of the high end showrooms. With the right price on a scrapped or distressed piece, I think I can significantly beat the high end shops and provide a better look and value.

I suspect that when I refinish my next tanker desk for my office, I might be willing to sell the one I’ve been using for the past 13 years

SEO Traffic Increases for IndieWeb Reads, Watches, Listens, and other Bookmarked Content

I usually think not a wit about SEO and web stats/traffic with respect to my personal website, but a recent WordPress notification about an unusual spike in traffic got me thinking.

In the past, I’ve very often posted some social bookmark-type posts of what I read, watch, and listen to online. They’re usually of a very small microblog or linkblog sort of nature and have very little intrinsic value other than to people who may want to closely follow this sort of minutiae to see what I’ve been interested in lately.

Recently I noticed that there’s been a 4-5 fold increase in web traffic to my site, so I thought I’d take a look and it turns out that I’m getting some larger than usual numbers of visitors to my site for an article I bookmarked as having read three years ago.

Here’s a list of the top ten most highly trafficked pages on my website over the past year. 

Most visited pages on my website over the past year

The top post with almost 18,000 views in the last year is essentially a link to an article I read about gaslighting in 2018 which includes a brief reply context (reminder) of what the original post is about. The next two are slightly differently named links to my homepage for a total of 6,500 views followed by an article I wrote about TiddlyWiki (1,500 views). Articles I wrote about commonplace books, my furniture hobby, and my about page are also among my native content in the top ten.

However a watch post about How to Buy a Velomobile (1,310 views), and read posts about configuring an iPhone (I don’t even own one) (654 views) and an article about opinions and fact checking in the Houston Press (619) round out the bottom of the list.

I don’t know what to really think about these short bookmark posts accounting for so many views or that my site ranks so highly in terms of SEO for some of these oddball topics (look at the mnemonics and commonplace aficionado calling the kettle black).

I’m wondering if I should look at my little widget that recommends content and begin to narrow it down to more of my own native content? Should I tamp down on content I was tangentially interested in at some point but don’t really care about or want to rank on? Gaslighting and fact checking are interesting broad topics to me, but velomobiles and iPhones really aren’t. Of the tens of thousands of things I’ve linked to, why should these stick out in particular? I get that there’s probably only a limited number of people writing about velomobiles, but the others?!?

It does make me wonder if other IndieWeb site owners have experienced the same sort of quirky behavior? What implications might this have on SEO if more of the wider web was taken over by personal sites instead of corporately controlled silos like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? I’m sure there are other great questions to be asked here. Brainstorming of ideas, answers, and implications are encouraged below.

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

IndieWebCamp Personal Libraries Pop Up Session

We’ve scheduled a date and time for the previously announced Personal Libraries pop up session. Everyone with an interest in the topic is invited to join and participate.

Date: Saturday, February 19, 2022
Time: 9:00am – 1:00pm (America/Los_Angeles)

Code of Conduct: indieweb.org/code-of-conduct

We’ll focus discussion on personal libraries on one’s site 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.


Format: We’ll try to do something between a traditional all day IndieWebCamp and a single session pop-up over the span of several hours so that we can accommodate a brief introduction and three BarCamp topic related sessions. Feel free to brainstorm session ideas in advance of the mini-camp, but we’ll choose sessions the morning of the event.

Tentative Schedule (all times Pacific):

9:00 AM 30 minute introduction & IndieWeb building blocks
9:30 AM 20 minute session pitches and scheduling
9:50 AM 10 minute break
10:00 AM 60 minute Session 1 (including 10 minute break)
11:00 AM 60 minute Session 2 (including 10 minute break)
12:00 PM 50 minute Session 3
12:50 PM 10 minute closing remarks
1:00 PM pop-up finished
Everyone is welcome to attend.

Resources

RSVP (optional)

  • If your website supports it, post an indie RSVP to this event page; or
  • On that page log in to indieweb.org and click “I’m Going”.
  • RSVP yes, no, or maybe to this tweet.
  • (And if none of this means anything to you, don’t worry about it; just show up on the day!)

Questions? Concerns? Want to volunteer help?

Feel free to comment below or ask in the IndieWeb chat: https://chat.indieweb.org/indieweb/
Organizer(s): Chris Aldrich (chrisaldrich in chat)

A Domain of One’s Own for use as a personal Learning Management System (pLMS)

I love that Johannes Klingbiel’s article Building a new website highlights having his own place on the Internet as a means to learn.

To learn—A rather obvious one, but I wanted to challenge myself again. 

While I suspect that part of the idea here is to learn about the web and programming, it’s also important to have a place you can more easily look over and review as well as build out on as one learns. This dovetails in part with his third reason to have his own website: “to build”. It’s much harder to build out a learning space on platforms like Medium and Twitter. It’s not as easy to revisit those articles and notes as those platforms aren’t custom built for those sorts of learning affordances.

Building your own website for learning makes it by definition a learning management system. The difference between my idea of a learning management system here and the more corporate LMSes (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) is that you can change and modify the playground as you go. While your own personal LMS may also be a container for holding knowledge, it is a container for building and expanding knowledge. Corporate LMSes aren’t good at these last two things, but are built for making it easier for a course facilitator to distribute and grade material.

We definitely need more small personal learning management systems. (pLMS, anyone? I like the idea of the small “p” to highlight the value of these being small.) Even better if they have social components like some of the IndieWeb building blocks that make it easier for one to build a personal learning network and interact with others’ LMSes on the web. I see some of this happening in the Digital Gardens space and with people learning and sharing in public.

[[Flancian]]’s Anagora.org is a good example of this type of public learning space that is taking the individual efforts of public learners and active thinkers and knitting their efforts together to facilitate a whole that is bigger than the sum of it’s pieces.

Call for Interest: IndieWebCamp pop up session on Goodreads replacements and decentralized book projects

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”).

If you’re interested, comment or reply to this post, or add your interest and preferred dates to the IndieWeb wiki.

  • Date: Sometime in February 2022
  • Time: TBD (approximately 3 hours in duration)
  • Streaming video/audio platform: Zoom
  • Hashtag for the session:

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.

Different types of notes and use cases

In taking notes and making annotations recently, I’ve started a list of some of the broad semantic types I’ve come across. 

Ideas

New ideas spurred by reading, potentially for future expansion and refinement.

Questions

Questions relating to the the text. What’s missing? What should have been asked or addressed? What biases exist that should be addressed?

Paraphrases

Paraphrases and [[progressive summaries]] of articles or portions of articles. Restatements of ideas which may be reused in other contexts.

Facts

Basic, usually new, facts highlighted for future use and/or [[spaced repetition]]

Quotes

Old school sententiae, aphorisms, and quotes for use in the future

Replies

Direct communication with others

Phatic notes and Reactions

Reactions, exhortations (Ha!, funny, ROFL, LOL, etc.), reacji, !, ?, ⭐, basic signs of life while reading

Others?

Are there any big holes I’m missing based on your experiences?

Handwriting my Website with a Digital Amanuensis

A Capital User Interface Idea

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.

Rocketbook Interface

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 printed interface at the bottom of the Rocketbook notebook: a QR code eith icons for a rocket, a diamond, an apple, a bell, a clover, a star, and a horseshoe. The last one has an "X" over it to indicate choosing the horseshoe.

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.

Try it yourself

For those who want to set this up themselves, I’ve documented the IFTTT/micropub portion before. I’ll post the specific code I’m using below for these who may want it. The nice part is that as long as you have a micropub server for your website platform (there are many CMSs that have native or plugin support) the WordPress portion isn’t a deal breaker for others.

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.

  • URL: https://example.com/wp-json/micropub/1.0/endpoint
  • Method: POST
  • Content type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
  • Body: access_token=PasswordHere&content=<<<{{Body}}>>>&h=entry&category[]=Social%20Stream&post-status=published&visibility=private

Historical examples

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[1] [2], 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.

Conclusion

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.

IndieWeb as a Service (IaaS) Idea: PESOS from all the Silos with Feeds using Micropub

IndieWeb as a Service idea:

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. 

#BridgeAllTheThings  

Annotation Colors Using Hypothes.is: Problems and Solutions

I frequently see the feature request from Hypothes.is users to have the tool add the ability to choose different colors for highlights.

The first occurrence of the issue is probably documented here: https://github.com/hypothesis/vision/issues/123, by the head of the company.

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
  • Blue—Interesting Quote
  • Gray—Typography Problem
  • 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.

Another custom solution which may give you ideas can also be found at https://web.hypothes.is/blog/do-it-yourself-anchoring-and-the-evolution-of-the-hypothesis-toolkit/.

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.

Interested in other Hypothes.is hacks, tips, and ideas? Try browsing my Hypothes.is archive.

Does Spirit hide in the filing cabinet?

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).

yellowed index card with the identifier 9/8,3 with almost illegible handwriting in German Niklas Luhmann, Zettelkasten II, index card no. 9/8,3

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.”