👓 Humane Ingenuity 8: Ebooks: It’s Complicated | Dan Cohen

Read Humane Ingenuity 8: Ebooks: It's Complicated by Dan CohenDan Cohen (buttondown.email)
In this issue, I want to open a conversation about a technology of our age that hasn’t quite worked out the way we all had hoped—and by we, I mean those of us who care about the composition and transmission of ideas, which I believe includes everyone on this list. Twenty years ago, literary critic Sven Birkerts reviewed the new technology of ebooks and e-readers for the short-lived internet magazine Feed. They sent him a Rocket eBook and a SoftBook, and he duly turned them on and settled into his comfy chair. What followed, however, was anything but comfy:

Image from a deck of cards by Rene Descartes

René Descartes designed a deck of playing cards that also functioned as flash cards to learn geometry and mechanics. (King of Clubs from The use of the geometrical playing-cards, as also A discourse of the mechanick powers. By Monsi. Des-Cartes. Translated from his own manuscript copy. Printed and sold by J. Moxon at the Atlas in Warwick Lane, London. Via the Beinecke Library, from which you can download the entire deck.)

My immediate thought is that this deck of cards was meant as a memory palace. I’m curious what training in rhetoric/memory methods Descartes must have had?
November 06, 2019 at 08:49PM


We are beginning a renovation of our main library at Northeastern University, Snell Library, and have been talking with architects (some of them very well-known), and I’ve found the discussions utterly invigorating. I would like to find some way to blog or newsletter about the process we will go through over the next few years, and to think aloud about the (re)design and (future) function of the library. I’m not sure if that should occur in this space or elsewhere, although the thought of launching another outlet fills me with dread. Let me know if this topic would interest you, and if I should include it here.

Dan, this is definitely interesting. Please include it here or on your main site!!!
November 06, 2019 at 08:43PM


But wait, there’s more. Much more. We generally encounter four different acquisition models (my thanks to Janet Morrow of our library for this outline): 1) outright purchase, just like a print book, easy peasy, generally costs a lot even though it’s just bits (we pay an average of over $40 per book this way), which gives us perpetual access with the least digital rights management (DRM) on the ebooks, which has an impact on sustainable access over time; 2) subscription access: you need to keep paying each year to get access, and the provider can pull titles on you at any time, plus you also get lots of DRM, but there’s a low cost per title (~$1 a book per year); 3) demand-driven/patron-driven acquisition: you don’t get the actual ebook, just a bibliographic record for your library’s online system, until someone chooses to download a book, or reads some chunk of it online, which then costs you, say ~$5; 4) evidence-based acquisitions, in which we pay a set cost for unlimited access to a set of titles for a year and then at the end of the year we can use our deposit to buy some of the titles (< $1/book/year for the set, and then ~$60/book for those we purchase).

Nice to see this laid out. I’ve never seen a general overview of how this system works for libraries.

I’ve always wondered what it cost my local public library to loan me an e-book whether I read it or not.
November 06, 2019 at 08:40PM


It is worth asking why ebooks and e-readers like the Kindle treaded water after swimming a couple of laps. I’m not sure I can fully diagnose what happened (I would love to hear your thoughts), but I think there are many elements, all of which interact as part of the book production and consumption ecosystem.

For me, and potentially for a majority of others, our memories have evolved to be highly location specific. It’s far easier for me to remember what I’ve read when I read a physical book. I can often picture what I was reading at the top, middle, or bottom of the left or right page. This fact in addition to how far I am in the book gives me a better idea of where I am with respect to a text.

These ideas are very subtle and so heavily ingrained in us that they’re not very apparent to many, if at all.

See also Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture by Lynne Kelly (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
November 06, 2019 at 08:32PM

Idea for a spaced repetition user interface for Hypothes.is

While I’m thinking about younger students, I thought I’d sketch out a bit of an add-on product that I wish Hypothes.is had.

Background/Set up

I was looking at tools to pull annotations out of Kindle the other day and ran across Readwise again. Part of its functionality pulls highlights and annotations out of Kindle and then it has some UI that uses the idea of spaced repetition to have you regularly review what you’ve previously read and highlighted and presumably wanted to remember or use in the future.

Of course this is very similar to other spaced repetition/flash card applications like Mnemosyne, Anki, or language apps like Memrise and Duolingo among many others. I also seem to recall that Amazon once had some UI like this built into their Kindle Notebook, but I’m not finding it at the moment, but I know they’ve changed that UI sometime in the last two years–perhaps it’s gone?

The Pitch

Given the number of learners who are using Hypothes.is, wouldn’t it be a fantastic bit of functionality if Hypothes.is had a spaced repetition UI that would allow students to easily go back and review over their prior highlights and annotations?! Presumably this could be targeted for quizzes and tests, but honestly as a lifelong learner I very frequently love using tools like Timehop or even my website’s built-in “On this day” functionality to look back over bits and pieces of things I’ve done in the past, which also includes my annotations, since I’m keeping copies of them on my website as well.

Naturally such a UI should be able to search or sort by tag, date range, or even by source(s) so that a student could more easily wrangle a particular number of sources over which they wanted to review their material–particularly as over months, years, or decades one could build up a huge library of annotations. If, as a student, I was tagging my material by class course number subject area or something similar (like edu522, for example) I could then easily dump that into such a UI and be able to do spaced repetition studying for that subject area. Masters, Ph.D. students, and even the professoriate might appreciate it for occasional spaced repetition to be nudged or reminded of ideas they’d had in the past, but which may need rekindling to put into a thesis or potential future papers.

The more I think about this, the more I’d love to see it in Hypothes.is. If it’s not something the main team takes on, perhaps it could be an add-on for a group like Remi Kalir’s who have done some interesting work with the API to create Crowdlaaers

I’m planning to use import/export manually with tools like Anki to do some testing this coming weekend… I wonder what open sourced code may already exist that I could simply plug my Hypothes.is data into? Hmm…