Zotero to Obsidian

I’ve been dipping into my White Pine Zotero folder and doing a bit of reading over the last couple of weeks. Highlighting and commenting in the Preview app, which is the default app the pdf attached to a citation opens in. Once I’ve read and highlighted a document, I open an Obsidian window next to the highlighted document and make my Reading Notes. I open the “Lumber” folder as a vault, so that all the additional pages I make for links will be saved in that folder rather than in my alphabetical list in the main vault.

I’m resisting the temptation to add bibliographical cards into the Obsidian vault. Niklas Luhmann, you may recall, had a set of cards in his zettelkasten that were source citations. I don’t get the impression from reading his descriptions of his process or Schmidt’s research into it, that these were really an active part of the network of ideas in the boxes, which seem to have been based on his digested reactions to sources. This is similar to the distinction between quoting and paraphrasing that I think is important in making the ideas I put into the vault my own. I’m going to try to split the citations out into the Zotero folder and keep all my pdfs attached. I have begun citing the source documents in the Obsidian pages, using the publication year and author name. This should allow me to locate the source immediately in Zotero.

I don’t think I need to link them any more closely than that. I’m thinking here of the function in MarginNote 3 which would allow me to create a link that would take me directly to the highlighted text in MN3. I think this is an impressive piece of technical magic, but in the year since I’ve known about it, I haven’t really used this capability. I think it’s relatively rare that I’ll want to regularly return to a document I’ve already processed. So I’m not going to do more, right now, than citing the source and then mentioning page numbers when I summarize or comment on a particular fact or point I’m adding to the Reading Note.

I’ve been enjoying the process of adding the notes into Obsidian and making links to other notes in the vault or to new ideas. It’s satisfying connecting a new point from a new source to a body if information I’m building up on a particular idea. Often these are places like my home town of Glens Falls. I’ve been noting passages that talk about this lumber center. So now I can create a page for the city, add source citations, and link other mentions. I can return to the page later and add my own notes. This will be an iterative process, as I discover new sources and add information from them. Over time, I’ll discover how Glens Falls fits into my story.

Sometimes I come across new ideas and make pages for them. A couple of the new things I found when I was looking at accounts of the early years of the Ottawa River lumber industry were timber slides and squared timber. Timber slides were built beginning in 1829 to make it easier to float “cribs” of timber over rapids or waterfalls. And the earliest form that the British preferred for Canadian lumber was in the form of “squared timbers”, so when trees were cut in the woods, before being transported, the logs were squared off using broad axes. This was incredibly wasteful: typically a third of the wood was wasted from the logs that were transported. This is not a feature of the later, US lumber industry. So I’m going to dig into it a bit and see where it takes me.

Although it’s probably totally uncool for a professional historian to admit this, one of my first sources of info on a new topic I discover is Wikipedia. It’s not my only source, of course. But it’s usually a good place to get a basic clue about the topic and often to discover some links to additional information. A lot of people have put a lot of hours into contributing information to this public encyclopedia (I’ve edited a couple of pages myself), and there’s a very active community checking to make sure sources are cited to validate just about everything on a page. And the images people have found and have made available in creative commons-licensed forms are often really useful. As are the links to further information and the bibliography at the bottom. This isn’t the end of a search for useful information. But it’s a great beginning.

A final thing I can do, to preserve a trail when my research takes me to online sources, is to use Hypothesis to highlight and annotate. I don’t have to do this in public — instead I’ve created a private group called “Research” that I alone have access to. This allows me to annotate these public pages to my heart’s content without leaving a trail. And then to use my Hypothesis home page as a place I can easily return to, to either review my highlights and notes or to return to the texts I highlighted. This is another free tool, so I’m going to be sure to feature it when I teach my students how to do all this.

Also available as a video: https://youtu.be/SpATF9Q_nKQ

Heuristics, Part 1

At the end of my Modern World History course, we get very close to the present. Among other things, we cover the rise to computers and the internet, which leads to a discussion of filter bubbles and impediments to understanding.

Over time, as I’ve been covering this the past couple of semesters, I’ve become more interested in incorporating more critical thinking exercises into my course. The discipline of History bills itself as one of those humanities that help foster skills like close reading and critical analysis. While this is definitely true, this result doesn’t happen automatically. To build these skills, you need to practice them. So I’m going to spend some of my time this summer building more opportunities for practice into my course.

I’m also going to build a sequence of readings (which I’ll also produce as videos) about the barriers to clear thinking. I’ve been listening to and reading Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, so I’m going to distill some of Kahneman’s findings and make them available to my students.

Daniel Kahneman (1937-) is an emeritus professor of psychology at Princeton University. He won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for Prospect Theory, which he developed in the 1970s with Amos Tversky (who died in 1996). Kahneman and Tversky argued in Prospect Theory that their empirical evidence contradicted the assumption made in nearly all economic theory that humans make rational choices (often described as Homo economicus).

One of the early episodes Kahneman describes in the book is the famous Gorilla Study which shows that not only can we suffer from attentional blindness, but we aren’t even aware of it.

Kahneman describes two “systems” in the human mind, the automatic, instinctual “System 1” and the thoughtful, deliberate “System 2”. The second system, he says, is our conscious identity and thinks it’s in charge. But it’s not.

He points out that we live in a world of limited information, so we’re constantly creating “a coherent story” that includes causality when correlation is all we saw (or maybe not even that). And he suggests that it’s easier to create a plausible narrative the less we actually know. Kahneman says we have an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance”.

He goes on to say that the confidence people have in their intuitions is not a guide to their validity. It is easier to have intuitions that reflect reality in some circumstances than in others. If the environment is regular enough to be predictable and if the person has lots of opportunity to build up experience, their intuitions are likely to be valid. In chaotic, unpredictable environments, not so much. That’s why a chess-master can intuitively “see” a series of move and predict the number of moves to a checkmate (sometimes at a glance) while a stock-picker can never make an accurate prediction — but feels he can.

Kahneman says “we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” This fits with something Taleb says about how as a species we are optimized for survival, not for self-awareness. This is also vaguely reminiscent of the theme of the science fiction novel Blindsight.

Kahneman lists and describes a bunch of heuristics throughout the book. The term, derived from the ancient Greek word heurisko (I find, discover) refers to a process that helps people make rapid decisions or judgments. A positive description might call them “rules of thumb” while a negative would label them “biases”. Many of the heuristics psychologists such as Kahneman and Tversky have studied seem to provide an evolutionary advantage: we begin running before our conscious mind has identified the tiger preparing to pounce. However, since our world has changed significantly from the one we evolved to survive, in a very short period (from an evolutionary perspective), these shortcuts of thought may no longer be optimal. Many still provide us with “quick and dirty” approximations, but we can often improve on the automatic responses of the “System 1” mental processes (to use Kahneman’s description) by applying the rational thought processes of “System 2”.

Some of the main heuristics Kahneman describes are (I will choose fifteen of these to discuss with my students in the fall):

  1. Affect Heuristic
  2. Anchoring
  3. Associative Coherence
  4. Availability Heuristic
  5. Certainty effect
  6. Confirmation Bias
  7. Correlation-Causation confusion
  8. Endowment Effect
  9. Framing
  10. Halo Effect
  11. Hindsight Bias
  12. Ideomotor effect
  13. Intensity Matching
  14. Law of Small Numbers
  15. Mere Exposure Effect
  16. Narrative Fallacy
  17. Representativeness
  18. Probability-randomness misunderstandings
  19. Regression to the Mean
  20. Theory-induced Blindness

I’ll also want to talk (following Taleb) about the relationship between (low) probability and (high) consequence (the Black Swan).

Also available as a video: https://youtu.be/qgvbwAFT46c

Working with Ideas

Everyone mines every book for the things that are useful to him, especially [books that are] rich and complex.” (Italo Calvino, 1923-1985)

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” (Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862)

Both of the quotes above are basically talking about the same thing. Everything that we read and everything we experience is valuable material for our minds. You may have heard pundits say in recent years the America has shifted from being primarily about making things and has become an information economy. More Americans than ever before have become “knowledge workers”. What we’re talking about here, thinking about texts or experiences and turning them into insights, definitely qualifies as knowledge work.

Let’s examine these quotes a bit more closely. Calvino uses the metaphor of mining, suggesting that we dig beneath the surface of things, to find the gems or maybe the iron ore that will become steel girders supporting our structures of interpretation. And Thoreau — can you believe he only lived to be 45? He wanted to suck the marrow out of life, like a hunter-gatherer intent on getting all the nutrition out of his prey. Or like a modern-day chef, who roasts and breaks large bones and then boils them for stock because that’s where the flavor is.

These are useful metaphors. We can imagine mining the information we encounter, following veins and seams underground, then smelting and refining the ore into useful metals. Occasionally we might come across gems that are nearly perfect when we discover them, perhaps needing only a bit of cutting and setting to reveal their value. But mostly the work involves patience and effort, as we go through the steps of finding, collecting, refining, and concentrating information from a raw material into exactly what we need for our structure. Or, we can picture ourselves collecting bones, breaking and roasting them, and then boiling them for hours or days in a stock pot to release the nutritious and tasty marrow.

In both metaphors, the process takes time and work. This is also accurate. You’ve no doubt heard the saying attributed to Thomas Edison, that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Whether or not he was correct about the proportion, Edison’s point was a good one. People sometimes imagine that working with ideas is essentially different from other types of work; that knowledge workers are a special elite group (or believe themselves to be). In fact, working with ideas is just like any other type of work. It can be very exciting at times! It can also sometimes be very routine and repetitive. But much of the value and most of the inspiration (whether it’s 1% or 10% or more) comes directly from the less exciting, more work-like part.

When you’re working with ideas, the information you are processing is just a basic raw material. You apply techniques and use tools to turn this raw material into something useful and valuable to you. The techniques and tools we’re going to discuss in this first section on note-taking are focused on texts, but they can be applied to ideas that come to you in discussion, listening to lectures, experiment, or life experience.

The first step in creating new knowledge and reporting on it, is finding sources and learning from texts. There are several different ways to approach a text, depending on what you are hoping to get from it. First, you might find yourself assigned to read something you know nothing about. Second, you might choose to read a text because it has been recommended or cited by someone else. Third, you might be reading with a specific question in mind. We will discuss the details of these reading process as we continue this section. For now, a few observations:

  • The way you are going to engage with a text depends on what you are hoping to learn from it. If you are looking for a particular piece of data to answer a specific question, then you are probably going to read much more quickly and with that goal in mind. This is what Calvino was saying at the beginning, about everyone mining the book for what’s useful to them. If it’s a large text, you may be searching for a needle in a haystack. You won’t be paying much attention to each individual stalk of straw, since you’ll be focused on finding your needle.
  • This type of hyper-focus is certainly a lot different from the type of openness to the author’s intentions that you might want to try to practice, if you’re reading a novel for a literature class. Although it is probably impossible for readers to make themselves into completely “blank slates”, bringing no expectations or preconceptions to a text, there are certainly some times when it is useful to try to be as open to surprise as possible and let an author tell their story or make their argument or offer their interpretation without prejudgment.
  • We are not implying here that this openness is something you will do more in a literature class and focus in a social science class. There will be times in both disciplines when it will be appropriate to approach a text with a specific question in mind, and others when a better strategy will be to let the text surprise you.

We read different texts for different reasons, regardless of the subject. It’s probably useful to know, however, that when we are hyper-focused and looking for that needle, we may be missing something else that might be valuable in the haystack. That’s not necessarily a problem — we’re usually not burning the haystack after we find the needle. We can always return to see what else the author who provided us with that useful idea (the needle) might have had to say about other topics. Some of them might be adjacent to the needle topic, others may take us in entirely different directions.

This is one of the cool things about engaging with other people’s ideas: often their interests are just a little different from yours, and can take you in directions you may not have anticipated. We’ll explore this idea more as we dig into some of the techniques and tools of note-taking in the rest of this section.

Also available as a video: https://youtu.be/sXDRsTWms30

Obsidian Class Vault Review

This semester, in addition to trying to run my classes in a HyFlex format as we came out of COVID lockdown, where students would have unprecedented flexibility to choose the mode of interaction they were most comfortable with, I tried using an Obsidian vault to house my reading content. Previously I had been using an Open Educational Resource (OER) ebook I had written; this semester I transferred that to a vault, divided it up into bite-sized pages, added questions for discussion to each, and made the whole thing available to my students in a private Dropbox folder.

Early last Monday morning, I loaded the last batch of “chapter” content into the class vault for my Modern World History this semester. The vault is now pretty much populated with all the content from my OER textbook, along with a few “extra credit” posts of link pages by my students. There are fourteen weekly folders which each have an average of ten pages of content. Each of the pages has links to additional information: names of people, places, things that the students should know something about. Many of these I’ve added pages for; others I’ve left “empty” so the students could add information themselves.

By looking at the graph, I (and the students) can see how the different pages connect to each other. In some cases, this is through a “next page” or “prior page” link that I put on the content pages to facilitate navigation. In many cases, however, this is because ideas such as “wheat”, “The Columbian Exchange”, or the “Ottoman Empire” appear in a number of places, and we can use the graph to visualize these connections. The big gray nodes are the most connected pages of content. The tan nodes are the students’ hashtags, which they use to mark their answers to Questions for Discussion as well as pages that they contribute to the vault. I can click on a student’s node to open a search window that will show me all their activity. This helps me get a sense of what they’re focusing on in the content, and also of course to grade them for participation and for answering questions.

Next semester, I think I’ll try this again in Modern World History. Since I’ll have the headstart of being able to copy and redeploy this vault, instead of needing to add each chapter in and format it, I’ll be able to devote more of my prep time to making additional reference pages and videos. As I’ve been thinking about the equivalence of modes that HyFlex offers, where I’m trying to make the students’ experience and learning outcome similar whether they attend in person, remotely on Zoom, or asynchronously online, I’ve been thinking of trying to emulate that with my course materials. If the stuff I’m telling them in lectures is also available in video, podcast, ebook, and in the interactive Obsidian vault, will there be more chances for students to find the format that engages them and works for their particular learning style? Or the combination of formats that help them reinforce their understanding and do the repetition work that will help them remember? I’m going to be learning more about retrieval and repetition this summer, so I’ll have a chance to try some of those theories out.

I will also begin much earlier in the semester, having the students add pages themselves. One of the things I thought was potentially quite powerful was the ability students had to be authors of information in the vault as well as just consumers of it. I think this could be transformative for History and Social Studies Ed. majors, but also very meaningful for general education students. The idea that knowledge (especially historical knowledge) is a joint construction created by a dialogue between the text, teacher, and student might help them become more active participants in their learning. Helping to add to the vault of information that is the class might be a useful way to reinforce this idea. We could start very early in the semester in small groups. Then move to pairs. By the end I could be asking students to add pages individually. Thirty students producing an average of five pages would be an additional hundred fifty pages of content. That could cover a lot of topics.

Is there an analogous activity I can have the students do, if they are unable to access the class vault? (will there be a mobile version by fall?) Maybe a website with additional wiki-style pages? I don’t necessarily feel that the students who can’t access Obsidian need to have an experience that tries to simulate Obsidian in an older technology. I think it’s different, so the students will have a different learning experience and that’s that. The outcomes can be equivalent without the experience being identical.

The Future of Publishing?

I got a note from the senior executive editor at Yale, who has been my main contact throughout the process of getting my book published. Peppermint Kings has not been flying out of the warehouse so they are going to remainder the excess inventory. They’re keeping it “in print” however. Now it WAS a strange year since the book came out in June 2020, but I can’t see that they did ANYTHING to promote it. Yale is one of the most prestigious academic presses — is the day of the academic press over?

This leads to the obvious question, how should I proceed with my new project. Is there a press or a book series that might want it? If so, is there one that could do it justice? I had been thinking about the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Book Series of the University of Washington Press. It was shaped by its first series editor, William Cronon, into an important series, and Paul Sutter, who has taken over in the past five years, seems to be interested in carrying that forward. But I have some reservations about the audience. Who do I want to be my audience for a story about the White Pines? Academic historians? Do I have anything to say to them? In a recent interview for the UWA Press blog, Sutter urged writers to think of their audience as intelligent non-specialists and also to try to develop cahracters and tell good stories. I think that’s good advice, but does the Weyerhaeuser series deliver these types of readers? If not, is there any reason for me to contribute a brick to the wall of US history? OR, do I really want, as Sutter says, to tell a story to regular readers?

This is not a question that I feel I am temperamentally best qualified to answer. I have been a fan of new media and self-publishing since before they really existed. I self-published a YA novel in 2007 and got it an award at a regional book event. I wrote my own textbook for my first class at UMass. Then for my second class at BSU. Then my third.

My friend and mentor, Ted Melillo at Amherst College, introduced me to the editor at Yale. She had handled his 2015 book, Strangers on Familiar Soil. He published his second book, The Butterfly Effect, through Knopf in 2020. He had some interesting things to say about the differences in the author-editor interaction in the trade press. The gist, it seemed to me, was there was much more energy behind making the book a really good read, rather than an impeccably correct, well produced monograph. This is appealing, as is the energy and quick turnaround that was both expected of the author, as Ted described it, and delivered by the publisher.

Ted’s Yale book made it into a paperback printing, and is currently sitting at a sales rank of about 2.8 million in Amazon’s ranking. The trade book is ranked at about 400 thousand. I’m not sure what that translates to in unit sales, so I have no idea whether the effort has benefited Ted financially. I imagine the royalty check is the least of his concerns.Earning money for writing is not necessarily the first priority for authors who are also academics. If they work at research universities, publishing may be part of their job description. The university where I work respects publication but I don’t think anyone has lost their job or been denied tenure for not producing a book-length publication.

I had another advisor, early in my grad career at UMass, who had published several books in US History. The first two with the Harvard University Press, then one with Yale, and then the last three or so with Basic Books. She claimed that if you were doing it right, the advances should double with each new contract. Her first Harvard book, based on her dissertation, is at about 1.2 million in the Amazon ranks (for the hardcover – it’s also available as a Kindle though). Her most recent, which I haven’t read yet, is available in all formats including audible, and ranks in the 5 thousands in Amazon’s list, so I imagine she actually is earning a living by writing that may exceed her salary as a professor at an expensive Boston area private liberal arts college.

HOWEVER, another important element of the publishing game is a more or less winner-take-all distribution of eyeballs and earnings. It probably doesn’t really pay to go after that brass ring, unless you’re willing to sacrifice pretty much everything else. And even then, as Taleb says, it may largely come down to randomness. I imagine my former advisor might object to that and accuse me of sour grapes. But once again, I’m not really feeling that urge to compete.

Because it is staying “in print”, Yale continues to control the copyright to PK. That doesn’t mean, I think, that I can’t maybe put excerpts on my website. Or maybe read it aloud, one chapter a month. Maybe I should start that. And as for my next project, I think I’ll have a better idea of how to bring it to the public, once I know more about the actual topic I’m pursuing. I can imagine some instances in which, if I want to make a historical point or an “intervention” in the historiographical discussion, it might be useful to publish with a series like the Weyerhaeuser. If I want to tell a fast-paced, energetic story that will teach a “trade” readership, then maybe it would make sense trying to attract the attention of Basic or Knopf. Seems like an awful lot of work and hassle, though. And then there’s the audience available to me directly via these media I’m pushing these words out into. Doing it this way with these words has allowed me to focus on these actual words, rather than on packaging them in a way that will get someone to accept them for publication. That’s HUGELY attractive to me, since it’s the words I like the best.

This is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/rW2WREuA1ns

Back to the written word

Welcome (back?) to History4Today.com. This is a blog and a general front-page for stuff I’m doing in 2021.

Hello! I’m Dan Allosso. I’ve been blogging off and on (mostly on) since 1999. Over the years I’ve run a bunch of different sites devoted to topics that have grabbed my attention and interest.

  • Wireless tech and wardriving when wifi was brand-new in 1999. When wifi was new, NO ONE secured their networks. You could drive around with a notebook open and just make a map of all the open access points in town. Didn’t even need a Pringles-can antenna.
  • British secularist Charles Bradlaugh in the early 2000s. He was very popular with the folks in Northampton England. I even got a press clipping sent to me by a friend of Allan Moore, of a bunch of people toasting Bradlaugh at his statue on his birthday. That was fun.
  • A site called History Punk when I was a grad student. I posted stories of the interesting stuff I was learning, as well as book reviews of the things I was reading for my teaching fields — which got a surprising amount of traffic. Must have been a lot of other grad students out there, I can only imagine.
  • An Environmental History site that still exists (the others you can only see on the Wayback Machine).

In the past, because I came from the computer industry, I used to register my own domains and host my own websites. But I’m no longer on top of the tech and my coding skills have eroded. It’s like a language you used to be fluent in but haven’t spoken for 30 years — literally! I’m going to have to start taking German I again next fall with my son! Use it or lose it.

Luckily, there are now ways to have a website and a blog with a bit less coding. So I’m going to try to talk about all my stuff via this WordPress site.

SO…here I am. After over 20 years. This WordPress site has been dormant for a while. I was using it to blog about Open Educational Resources. Then I thought I might blog about history, but I ended up spending a lot of time the last year making some podcasts and a lot of videos. I’m going to keep doing that, but it seems like some folks still read stuff off of screens, too. So I’m going to start posting stuff here, about all the different projects I’m working on. Over time, some of these projects will probably develop their own subpages. But hopefully, I’ll be able to run them all from here. So wish me luck and stay tuned!

Moving Day

I’m starting to move my History videos from my personal YouTube channel to my new History4Today channel. The first set to go is the American Environmental History series. I’ll be taking it off my personal channel, so look for it in the new location!

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