Listened to The Informed Life: Episode 139 Chris Aldrich on Cybernetic Communications by Jorge ArangoJorge Arango from The Informed Life

Chris Aldrich has the most multi-disciplinary resume I’ve ever seen, with a background that includes biomedics, electrical engineering, entertainment, genetics, theoretical mathematics, and more. Chris describes himself as a modern-day cybernetician, and in this conversation we discuss cybernetics and communications, differences between oral and literary cultures, and indigenous traditions and mnemonics, among many other things.

Show notes and audio transcript available at The Informed Life: Episode 139

A while back, I recorded an episode of The Informed Life with Jorge Arango, and it’s just been released. We had hoped to cover a couple of specific topics, but just as we hit record, our topic agenda took a left turn into some of my recent interests in intellectual history.

Jorge has a great little show which he’s been doing for quite a while. If you’re not already subscribed, take a moment to see what he’s offering in the broad space of tools for thought. I’ve been a long time subscriber and was happy to chat with Jorge directly.

Here’s a version of the timeline of some of the intellectual history I presented today at the PKM Summit in Utrecht. I’m happy to answer any questions, or if you’re impatient, you can also search my online digital repository of notes for any of the people or topics mentioned.

It covers variations of personal knowledge management, commonplace books, zettelkasten, indexing, etc. I wish we’d had time for so much more, but I hope some of the ideas and examples are helpful in giving folks some perspective on what has gone before so that we might expand our own horizons.

The color code of the slides (broadly):

  • orange – intellectual history
  • dark grey – memory, method of loci, memory palaces
  • blue – commonplace books
  • green – index cards, slips, zettelkasten traditions
  • purple – orality
  • light teal – dictionary compilations
  • red – productivity methods

Book Club on Cataloging the World and Index, A History of the

Dan Allosso has been hosting a regular book club for a few years centered around sense making, note taking, and topics like economics, history, and anthropology. Our next iteration over the coming month or so will focus on two relatively recent books in the area of intellectual history and knowledge management:

This iteration of the book club might be fruitful for those interested in note taking, commonplacing, or zettelkasting. If you’re building or designing a note taking application or attempting to create one for yourself using either paper (notebooks, index cards) or digital tools like Obsidian, Logseq, Notion, Bear, TinderBox etc. having some background on the history and use of these sorts of tools for thought may give you some insight about how to best organize a simple, but sustainable digital practice for yourself.

The first session will be on Saturday, February 17 24, 2024 and recur weekly from 8:00 AM – 10:00 Pacific. Our meetings are usually very welcoming and casual conversations over Zoom with the optional beverage of your choice. Most attendees are inveterate note takers, so there’s sure to be discussion of application of the ideas to current practices.

To join and get access to the Zoom links and the shared Obsidian vault we use for notes and community communication, ping Dan Allosso with your email address. 

Happy reading!

Today is the release day for Roland Allen’s new book The Notebook: A History of Thinking on Paper (Profile Books, 2023).  Those in the note taking, , , and intellectual history spaces may appreciate it.

Book cover of The Notebook

Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic by Simon Winchester

In case some haven’t been watching, I’ll mention that Simon Winchester’s new book Knowing What We Know on knowledge to transmission was published by Harper on April 25th in North America. For zettelkasten fans, you’ll note that it has some familiar references and suggested readings including by our friends Markus Krajewski, Ann Blair, Iaian McGilchrist, Alex Wright, Anthony Grafton, Dennis Duncan, and Mortimer J. Adler to name but a few.

Many are certain to know his award winning 1998 book The Professor and the Madman which was also transformed into the eponymous 2019 film starring Sean Penn. Though he didn’t use the German word zettelkasten in the book, he tells the story of philologist James Murray’s late 1800s collaborative 6 million+ slip box collection of words and sentences which when edited into a text is better known today as the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you need some additional motivation to check out his book, I’ll use the fact that Winchester, as a writer, is one of the most talented non-linear storytellers I’ve ever come across, something which many who focus on zettelkasten output may have a keen interest in studying.

Book club anyone? (I’m sort of hoping that Dan Allosso’s group will pick it up as one of their next books after Donut Economics, but I’m game to read it with others before then.)


Book released on 4/25/2023; Book acquired on 4/26/2023

The Memindex Method: an early precursor of the Memex, Hipster PDA, 43 Folders, GTD, BaSB, and Bullet Journal systems

Wilson Memindex Co., Rochester, NY

It was fascinating to run across the Memindex, a productivity tool from the Wilson Memindex Co., advertised in a December 1906 issue of System: The Magazine of Business. Memindex seems to be an obvious portmanteau of the words memory and index.

Black and white advertisement for the Memindex featuring a notebook like card system and a wooden card index. The headline reads: Let your mind go free.

Let YOUR MIND GO FREE
Do not tax your brain trying to remember. Get the MEMINDEX HABIT and you can FORGET WITH IMPUNITY. An ideal reminder and handy system for keeping all memoranda where they will appear at the right time. Saves time, money, opportunity. A brain saver. No other device answers its purpose. A Great Help for Busy Men, Used and recommended by Bankers, Manufacturers, Salesmen, Lawyers, Doctors, Merchants, Insurance Men, Architects, Educators, Contractors, Railway Managers Engineers, Ministers, etc., all over the world. Order now and get ready to Begin the New Year Right. Rest of ’06 free with each outfit. Express prepaid on receipt of price. Personal checks accepted.
Also a valuable card index for desk use. Dated cards from tray are carried in the handy pocket case, 2 to 4 weeks at a time. To-day’s card always at the front. No leaves to turn. Helps you to PLAN YOUR WORK WORK YOUR PLAN ACCOMPLISH MORE You need it. Three years’ sales show that most all business and professional men need it. GET IT NOW. WILSON MEMINDEX CO. 93 Mills St., Rochester, N. Y.

Early Computer Science Influence?

The Memindex product appears several decades prior to Vannevar Bush’s “coinage” of memex in As We May Think (The Atlantic, July 1945). While many credit Bush for an early instantiation of the internet using the model of a desk, microfiche, and a filing system, almost all of these moving parts had already existed in late 19th century networked office furniture and were just waiting for automation and computerization. The primary difference in this Memindex card system and Bush’s Memex is the higher information density made available through the use of microfiche. Now it turns out his coinage of memex appears to have been in the zeitgeist decades prior as well. I’ve got evidence that the Wilson Memindex was sold well into the early 1950s. (My current dating is to 1952, though later examples may exist.) Below I’ve pictured some cards from the same year as Bush’s now famous piece in the Atlantic.

Six different cards from a 1945 set of Memindex featuring cards for automobile expenses; a list of orderable supplies including cards, guide cards, and leather cases; an advertisement for Griptite Bands for holding cards; a pocket calendar for 1945, and a small instruction card on how the cards and system should be used.

Most people are more familiar with the popular 20th century magazine System than they realize. Created and published by A. W Shaw, one of the partners of Shaw-Walker, a major manufacturer of office furniture in the early 20th century, the popular magazine was sold to McGraw-Hill Company in 1927/8 and renamed Businessweek which was later sold again and renamed Bloomberg Businessweek.

Relationship to other modern productivity methods

Some will certainly see close ties of this early product to the idea of the “hipster PDA” or Hawk Sugano’s Pile of Index Cards which appeared in 2006. It also doesn’t take much imagination for one to look at the back of a Wilson Memindex envelope from 1909 or an ad from the 1930s to see the similarity to the 43 folders system, bits of Getting Things Done (GTD), or the Bullet Journal methods in common use today. The 1909 envelope also appears to combine a predecessor to the 43 folders idea mixed with the hipster PDA in a coherent pocket and desk-based system.

With alphabetic tabs for the desktop version, one could easily have used this for “Building a Second Brain” as described by modern productivity gurus who almost exclusively suggest digital tools for maintaining their systems now. The 1909 envelop specifically recommends using the system as “comprehensive card index” which is essentially what most second brain or zettelkasten systems are, though there is a broad disconnect between some of this and the reimagining of the zettelkasten in current craze for using Niklas Luhmann-esque organization methods which have some different aims.

What’s interesting beyond the similarities of the systems is the means by which they were sold and spread. Older systems like the Memindex or related general office filing and indexing systems (Shaw-Walker),  were primarily selling physical products/hardware like boxes, filing cabinets, holders, cards, and dividers as much as they were selling a process or idea. Mid- and late-century companies like  Day-Timer or FranklinCovey also sold physical stationery products (calendars, planners, boxes, binders, books, ) but also began more heavily selling ideas like “productivity” and “leadership”. Modern productivity gurus are generally selling the ideas of the systems and making their money not on the physical items, software or programs which implement them, but with consulting fees, class fees, subscriptions, books which describe their systems, or even advertising against page or video views.

The 1906 version of the Memindex was popular enough to already be offered with the following options of materials for the distinguishing tastes of consumers: 

  • Cowhide Seal Leather Case and hardwood tray
  • Am. Russia Leather Case and plain oak tray
  • Genuine Morocco Case and quartered oak tray

What options is your current productivity guru or system offering? What are the differentiations and affordances it’s offering compared to similar systems in the early 1900s? Where is the “rich Corinthian leather“?

Memindex advertisement on the back of a standard business envelope picturing a hand held card holder for up to three weeks of cards and the sister desk-based card index with  a variety of date and alphabetical tabbed indexes.
Memindex envelope from 1909
A small desk-based card index with tabs for the days of the week and months as well as an alphabetical index.
1930’s Memindex advertisement featuring a pedestal based system with a pocket card holder.

The Memindex Method

The basic Memindex method consists of using 2 3/4″ x 4 1/2″ (vest pocket sized) or 3 x 5 1/2″ cards depending on one’s size preference to jot down to do lists or tickler items on individually dated cards which are kept in a desk-based wooden card index with tabs for both months as well as alphabetic tabs in some systems. One then keeps a small pocket-sized card holder with the coming three weeks’ worth of cards on their person for active daily use and files them away as the days go by. 

Advertisement for the Memindex outlining their method of use.
1930’s advertisement for the Memindex Jr.

Apparently the truism “everything old is new again” is true yet again.

Angle down on a wooden Memindex box with a front locking mechanism. On the front visible card are the words "Jot here reminders of important things to be done this month, so you can see all at a glance."
Memindex box with lock from 1937
Reposted a post by Ryan RandallRyan Randall (hcommons.social)
Earnest but still solidifying #pkm take:
The ever-rising popularity of personal knowledge management tools indexes the need for liberal arts approaches. Particularly, but not exclusively, in STEM education.
When people widely reinvent the concept/practice of commonplace books without building on centuries of prior knowledge (currently institutionalized in fields like library & information studies, English, rhetoric & composition, or media & communication studies), that's not "innovation."
Instead, we're seeing some unfortunate combination of lost knowledge, missed opportunities, and capitalism selectively forgetting in order to manufacture a market.

📅 RSVP to Early Tools For Thought, with Mark Bernstein | Tools for Thought Rocks!

RSVPed Attending Early Tools For Thought, with Mark Bernstein

Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, Inc., is the designer of Tinderbox: https://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/ 

​Join Mark as he turns back the clock to examine some early Tools For Thought, and the people who created them. There’s quite a lot to learn from both, as well as a research literature that repays study.


​The infinite canvas as a thinking space now has a long history, but few of the early systems are well known.  I think some of them might be worth a brief look, in terms of the ideas they brought forward and in terms of the tasks they sought to address.  For example:

Sketchpad: Ivan Sutherland’s system from the 1960 kicked off interactive computer graphics AND object-oriented programming.

NLS/Augment: Doug Engelbart’s original outliner, the first system that explicitly sought to be a tool for thought.

Xanadu: Ted Nelson’s early proposal for a hypertext docuverse.

Storyspace: the first system intended for non-sequential narrative. Introduced in 1987 and still in use today.

Intermedia: a platform for digital pedagogy, developed at Brown and BBN. 

KMS: a hypertext system for technical documentation, the source of Akscyn’s Law

Microcosm: A hypertext system based chiefly on contextual links, the ancestor of all sculptural hypertext.

Aquanet: the 1990 system from Halasz, Trigg, and  Marshall at Xerox PARC, described as a tool to hold your knowledge in place.

VIKI: the first spatial hypertext system, designed by Cathy Marshall as a reaction to Aquanet and the start of an enormously influential line of research

Watched Synoptic Obsidian Book Club by Dan Allosso from YouTube
Announcing our next Obsidian Book Club, beginning next week, in which we will synoptically read two books: Too Much to Know and The Extended Mind. Everybody is welcome, whether or not you have been in a book club before. It's a really good group and I think these books will spark some very interesting conversations. If you're interested, drop me a line at the email in the video and I'll send you the details.
A new session of Dan Allosso’s synoptic Obsidian-based book club is starting April 2 for five weeks with some fascinating selections:

  • The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul 
  • Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age by Ann M. Blair

The last two clubs were incredibly scintillating, so I can’t wait to see what this incarnation holds. Everyone interested in the topics and/or the process is welcome to join us. Details in the video.

In addition to the fun of the two particular texts, those interested in note taking, information management, personal knowledge management, zettelkasten and using tools like Obsidian and Hypothes.is in group settings will appreciate the experience. If you’re an educator interested in using these tools in a classroom-like setting for active reading and academic writing, I think there’s something to be learned in the process of what we’re all doing here.

Obsidian Book Club

Tentative Schedule beginning on Saturday, March 26, 2022 Saturday, April 2, 2022

Week 1
Paul: Introduction and Part 1
Blair: Chapter 1

Week 2
Paul: Part 2
Blair: Chapter 2

Week 3
Paul: Part 3
Blair: Chapter 3

Week 4
Paul: Conclusion
Blair: Chapter 4

Week 5
Paul: Any overflow from before??
Blair: Chapter 5