Top ten tools

In the last few years I could not recommend all my important tools because the RSS reader was out of service and had big problems. Finally I found a new one, so my list for @C4LPT is now, like 2007 and 2014, complete again:

(All my tools are Jane Hart’s category 1 (own personal and professional learning). As previously, I tagged them with LTM (Extension of Long-Term Memory), STM (Extension of Short-Term Memory and I/O (Input/ Output)).

  1. Notepad (LTM)
  2. QuiteRSS (I/O)
  3. Twitter (I/O)
  4. (STM)
  5. WordPress (LTM & I/O)
  6. Evernote (LTM)
  7. gRSShopper (I/O)
  8. FedWiki (I/O)
  9. Diigo (LTM)
  10. Slack (I/O)

1. Notepad: for quick notes to self, for drafts of longer emails, and for texts that will become HTML. With its quickness, immediacy, and lightweight, it is closest to paper.

2. QuiteRSS: as RSS reader. Since I think RSS is a great blend between email and web I don’t like it to be too much integrated into either of them, but rather love a specialized, standalone desktop reader.

3. Twitter: as RSS replacement for those who don’t use RSS.

4. (my own tool): for quickly capturing associations and rearranging items to shorten the distance between related ones, such that new connections can more easily be seen.

5. WordPress: both as blog (the public version, I/O), and for notes management (my private local one on the XAMPP stack, LTM).

6. Evernote: for capturing small text notes when I am away from my normal machine (LTM).

7. and 8. gRSShopper and FedWiki: See idiosyncratic tools below.

9. Diigo: as replacement for Delicious for bookmarks that don’t warrant a whole blog post but are too valuable for being flushed down the twitter stream (LTM):

10. Slack: reluctantly when collaborators insist on it (I/O).

Last year I did not spend as much time as before with Cmap and PBworks (previously 7. and 9. — despite I still like them). Rather, I invested more time in exploring and using a special kind of tools.

Idiosyncratic Tools

There are some less popular tools that might be called ‘idiosyncratic’, such as my own tool, or gRSShopper, or FedWiki, or Luhmann’s Zettelkasten.

All of these differ from the mainstream tools in a certain same way: You notice that they were crafted for the developers’ own use, and tailored to their recurring real needs, not as a fixed offering that exploits low-hanging fruit. While the latter often exhibit the ‘sovereign posture’, push themselves in the foreground and are specialized to a narrow context, the idiosyncratic tools resemble the clerk that Doug Engelbart described in his visionary text about the augmented intellect:

Engelbart did not describe such a fixedly defined way of interaction with, and separation from, the clerk as the modern ‘interface’ that we are used to. Rather, the user seemed to continually readjust this division of labor. The user “would find it very natural to develop further techniques on their own“ (see this post for the context and source).

The idiosyncratic tools are often quite simple and universally applicable (more like Notepad or a sheet of paper). Their strength is not the shiny designed features, but more general affordances and opportunities for adaptation. But their benefit may not always be immediately obvious; they may require a short steep learning curve, and as readjusting they may be ‘perpetual beta’. They require (and also offer) some understanding of their simple mechanisms, and thus avoid the notorious patronization by intransparent black boxes. Their developers invite others to try them out, much like cooking recipes are exchanged for mutual appreciation.

Like WordPress, the Federated Wiki (8.) can also be used locally (thanks to @holden’s post), not only on a public server (where this description is useful). After a short learning phase, I started to notice the charm that comes with the short, modular, and hence well connectable, pages.

The gRSShopper (7.) fascinated me so much that I created several posts and some pictures.

Four sample graphics showing models that are detailed in the linked texts. Two featuring an assembly line, two featuring post-it notes.

Mental and concept models of gRSShopper and Condensr

Posted in Personal Productivity | 1 Comment

Fear of clicking

Fifteen years ago today, I started this blog. Much has changed since.

Not only do I get less clicks, comments or links. According to my wordpress statistics, the resources I link to are also hardly clicked any more.

So why are people so hesitant to interact with smaller sites — to interact with each other? I suppose social media is an intimidating business that generates lots of mistrust.

Initially we subscribed to feeds that we trusted to be not only honest but also relevant and worth our clicks. Today, people subscribe to major news outlets and hundreds of ‘must read’ celebs — and are then surprised to receive tons of rubbish and intrusive popups. Hence it is understandable that they are very skeptical about any new or unknown source. Is it trying to ‘sell’ me something?

As my older readers will remember, before telephone spam became widespread, there were peddlers who went from door to door trying to sell their stuff, and they were most often turned away.

A figure behind a door making the gesture of turning away someone like a door-to-door peddler

Artwork by HiHo

If the sole reason behind blogging was getting readers, small blogers would probably feel sometimes like such peddlers. Fortunately though, writing a blog also helps clarifying and wrapping up one’s thoughts, much like keeping a diary — or a log-book, as the original meaning suggests: the ship log about the findings on one’s cruise across the web.

Posted in Social software | Leave a comment

Categories for Sorting

I need categories. Not for neatly dissecting the world, but simply for sorting. Because unsorted lists require fast context-switching. That’s why I prefer Downes’s articles in a categorized list: (downesarticles) — and why the social media streams exasperate me.

With a sorted list, my brain can leverage the ‘priming’ effect of the similar previous readings, and immerse into their context such that a deep understanding is more likely. By contrast, switching contexts too quickly, is straining and unnecessarily overwhelming and confusing. I suspect, of course, that the confusing and dumbing effect of the stream is very welcome for the big platforms: so they can offer their patronizing guidance and recommendations. The more glaring, screaming and intrusive, the better.

Two colums of color stripes: On the right colirs are sorted by rainbow order, on the left (stream) they are chaotic and screaming.

I must not deny that, sometimes, I fall prey to scrolling the stream. When I am tired and have no energy left for sustained engagement, I look for quick bits of stimulation. (Thanks to Jack Vinson for his multitasking post and pointers.) These bits seem like quickly energizing sugar, while long-digesting fatty acids are then unattractive for the moment. The candy bits promise superficial engagement and novelty. (See here what Iain McGilchrist said about novelty vs. newness if you want a deep dive into his context.) So, the stultification works, and leads people ever more to dependence and from pull to push.

Posted in Classification | Leave a comment

More online meetings, less short-distance flights

Last night, a favorite MP twittered about giving up short-distance flights and suggested: “more online meetings”.

To be clear, I don’t question that some face-to-face meetings are really indispensable, because they seed the trust relationships for long-term future cooperation. But what is the obstinate obstacle against some more online meetings?

I have a very special suspicion. I think it is probably the jostle at the flipcharts and murals that many don’t want to give up.

Participants of a meeting, standing in front of large murals.

Picture by Alan Levine on Flickr

Large walls of post-its are really very important to get a richer picture of a big project. The post-its must be placed and rearranged and ‘connected’ and voted for. And some participants seem to love this — not unlike the jostle at a Cold Buffet. Some temperaments seem to flourish here and they win through. I really wonder if this personality issue is stronger or the technical issue:

The technical callenge is: How does a large mural full of post-its fit on a projector? When you zoom-in so much that you can read the small print (as the participants standing at the mural can) the famous overview gets lost. But shouldn’t such a technical issue be solved by today? Watch my proof of concept and if you want to try it out for yourselves on the demo site please contact me to get an authentication (it does not work unauthenticated, sorry).


I particularly love Saskia’s other points: “more preparation time” (when going by rail), and that it works if all participants do so. If some participants are better prepared but the majority disrespect the meeting so much that they don’t dedicate more time for it than a hectic flight, then usually everybody will still have to listen to unnecessary repetitions. Because those who feel ‘too important’ to invest their time in preparation, usually demand some ‘short summary’, and even more time is being wasted.

The context of the Tweet (domestic flights to our capital Berlin) reminded me of the eighties when the train to Berlin took me nine hours, and when we cobbled together the German parts of the internet. Meetings were often in Berlin (before it became capital), and valuable thoughts were often exchanged in the late-night bar sessions of those who arrived the day before — because they were not flying — and were better prepared.

Posted in Social software | 3 Comments

Invisibility and cognition

Currently in a reading group, we were reading some definitions of “What is Cognition” (

1. There were criteria

  • that were very vague (“complex, human-like”, “something more complex than associative learning”) or very “all-inclusive” in order to include animals;
  • others that IMHO were too narrow: to involve “sentence-like mental representations”, “the use of concepts”, or “the ability to use a model”, “causal reasoning”, or to involve “intentional states” — all of which McGilchrist would probably attribute to the narrow view of the left hemisphere.

Other criteria made sense to me: that cognition is

  • not just automatic/ scripted (“behaviors that escape characterization as a […] scripted program”, or “effortful [distinguished from] automatic”),
  • and conscious (“typically available to conscious awareness”).

Now it struck me that many resonating criteria involved invisibility:

  • absence (“absence of direct stimulation” (Suddendorf), “freedom from immediacy” (Shadlen), “stimulus-independent” (Bayne), “exclude any behaviour to a goal stimulus that is actually present to the animal’s senses” (Webb), “processes that originate in the brain rather than solely with environmental stimuli” (Chittka)),
  • abstraction (“certain abstract operations in between [peripheral senses and motor output]”, Intro),
  • and imagination (Bayne, Mather).

Dashed contours of a rabitt in a magician's cylinder

Some others could at least be related to invisibility:

  • predictions (Chittka, Suddendorf) — of an unknown (invisible) future,
  • transfer (Chittka, Clayton) to new contexts — and to the invisible future,

and maybe even the following ones:

  • flexibility (“behavioral flexibility” (Chittka), “flexible problem solving” (Clayton), “flexibility, as in predating routines” (Mather), “elemental features: flexibility […]” (Shedlon)),
  • adapting (“handling information in an adaptive way” (Heyes), “adapting to environments that were unanticipated”  (Shadlen)).
  • adjusting (“adjust to changes in the world”, Webb),
  • and even the intention mentioned above — which has to do with that unknown future!

2. So, what does this prominent role of invisibility mean for our relationship with artificial intelligence and tools?

First, I think, it emphasizes the importance of externalizing tools (as discussed in week 3), to make invisibles more visible and thus alleviate the cognitive tasks. So, @gsiemens was spot on when he pointed to external devices as early as 2005. (And I cannot resist a hint to my own tool here :-))

Second, it makes it even more difficult to define a relationship between human and artificial cognition: All machine ‘cognition’ is in some way invisible, it is all virtual. So, dealing with the invisible, with the absent, from a reality and presence starting point, as humans do, is strictly speaking impossible for a machine. Or is there an error in my reasoning?

Posted in Visualization | 1 Comment

Zettelkasten visualized

This is the famous Zettelkasten of the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann in a video from 1989.

Now the University of Bielefeld has put it online.

It is in German but it would be a pity if it missed a wider audience, because it is not only an interesting sociology resource, but it has an incredible wealth of cross references.

So I updated my think tool to try some visualizations of its links. The most peculiar thing is the hierarchical numbering scheme of the zettels. I tried to visualize these as a tree, at least the first thousand zettels. But navigating on such a large map, you can get seasick.

The editors in Bielefeld have assembled some “threads”. They do not closely correspond to the numbering scheme. I tried to visualize the relationship in a long map showing the threads alternately as red and black. But you can still get seasick. These threads show a very linear view of the network.

Therefore I created a third view option showing all the cross references. Here I think you will not lose your orientation, even if some long jumps are occasionally needed. Normally you can navigate within the neighborhood.

Finally I’ll show you how you can try it out for yourself. Just download the demo resources, and start the java version of the condensr without installation right from the browser.

If necessary you can also start the demo directly in the brwoser, but this is a very limited version.

Posted in Visualization | 1 Comment

April 7, 1959

Sixty years ago today, I started school.

We got a big School Cone and were very excited. Continue reading

Posted in Learning | Leave a comment

#OpenLearning19 Required Blogging?

In the resources for this past week, there were mentions of required blogging. I am very much in favor of blogging, but I am not sure if I would like to be forced to do it.

Traffic sign turn rightFirst, it’s not everyone’s taste. Since at least Mak, S. F. J., Williams, R. & Mackness, J. (2010), we know that Blogs and Forums are different. And exactly because I myself prefer the (more asynchronous) blogs over the (more synchronous) forums, I empathize with learners who have the opposite learning style, erm, preference.

Furthermore, my problem is to come up with an idea on demand. I like it when I encounter something remarkable and I can sit down and reflect on it. But I don’t want to search for something remarkable to write about. These are two very different modes of operation of the mind.

So I wonder if the requirement may put students off blogging, such that they won’t continue blogging after the course is over. In other contexts, ‘open’ connotates two ways of ‘free’: free of charge and without obligation or, as Suber said, free of most restrictions. Yes, I know that open does not equal free, but I am uncomfortable with the combination of openness and force. In connectivism, openness is combined with autonomy, diversity and interactivity, instead.

Posted in OpenLearning19 | 6 Comments

#OpenLearning19: Paper-like OERs

How are Open Access or OER similar and how do they differ? This is a question of this week of #OpenLearning19, and I found it very worthwhile to think about it.

Both research and teaching materials have in common that copying them does no longer cause expenses. But both need to have some added benefit for being widely shared. For Open Access research, such an additional incentive exists since almost 350 years, as Suber’s chapter on the reading list impressively shows: writing for impact. For OER teaching materials, by contrast, merely transforming paper copies to gratis online copies, is probably not a sufficient benefit for them to flourish.

While the problem of OERs is certainly a lot more complex, there is one simple aspect where paper properties are still perpetuated into the digital world. It is the doctrine of the so-called Split Attention Effect which demands that an annotation needs to be close to the item it refers to.

Of course, for a paper resource, e.g. a diagram of a plant with all of its components, it is very plausible that it costs too much effort to scan the entire page to find the appropriate description item. (The older ones among us might remember former crossword puzzles that had little numbers referring to a text column, and how cumbersome it was to look up “5 down” or “6 across”, before the cue texts were integrated into the grid cells).

But OERs might implement some interactivity and display the descriptions upon clicking an item? Why isn’t this done much more frequently? IMHO this is because it is done by popup windows and delayed hovering labels, and these are distracting and intrusive and just annoying. But the doctrine of proximity demands that they are close to the items being described, because this doctrine has been carried over from the paper world into the digital world — as if a horseless carriage still needed a nosebag full of oats.

Motor carriage

Horseless carriage (Wikimedia, public domain)

Instead, descriptions could be displayed in a fixed location, one at a time. And the student could write their annotations into this location, as well, which would add even more interactivity.

Posted in OpenLearning19 | 3 Comments

#OpenLearning19 Pre-Week

Our task for OpenLearning19 is to annotate this text about the ’30th birthday’ of the web, and to reflect here on the annotations.

What I picked for annotation, are two keywords (Gopher, and Virtual Library curation) of the web history because I am grateful that the text mentions these things that seem almost forgotten already.

Many accounts of the web history sound like the story about a Saint, or as if the web had arrived on a single day like an asteroid. In my memory it was a collective effort of many people and a gradual development of the infrastructures. And I think it is useful to remember this when we are now supposed to collectively fix it.

Here are two older blog posts about my differing experience of this history,

  • one about gopher vs. early www,
  • another about the virtual library.

If you want more, here is a picture from 1994 (archived later), showing how a browseable ‘virtual’ library catalog could appear much more ‘real’ than a merely searchable card catalog. Index cards, a basement rack storage, a bookshelf and database symbols.

Posted in OpenLearning19 | 2 Comments