Your Electronic Brain

Posted on Thursday, Mar 29, 2018
In episode 19 of The New Professor, Ryan talks about off-loading your knowledge, wikis, and General Ignorance.

Show Notes

Some of the things mentioned in this episode include:

Now’s about the time that the production of content begins really amping up around the academy at every level. Spring semester is about two-thirds done, summer conference deadlines are approaching, and graduation is right around the corner. For some, it’s about tying a nice little bow around the 17-18 school year. For others it’s about capping off an entire degree. For some, just business as usual. So as I tend to find myself in the first and last categories simultaneously, I thought I’d share my system … if it can be called a system… maybe kluge is better… of keeping organized, taking notes, and essentially having a second, electronic brain, a necessary augmentation seeing as how my organic brain is full-to-bursting with Monty Python quotes, Pink Floyd lyrics, and Pub Quiz-style facts. Did you know, for example, that raindrops are spherical, not quote-unquote “raindrop-shaped?” Yeah, stuff like that.

Anyway, like I said, today we’re talking about getting that info out of your head and into a form that’s consistently (and perpetually) useful.


As I said, my brain is pretty full. There’s simply no way I can remember everything I need to remember in a way that’s useful and accurate. Whether that’s me being the “absent-minded professor” or just a regular human being, I’ll leave up to you. Regardless, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to figure out the best way to make this work. I needed a system that is persistent, that is, it’s reliably accessible over time; a system that’s portable, ie, the entire collection needs to be movable wherever I go (here I’m thinking of notebooks and what happens when you begin filling them… referencing an older volume is impossible when it’s physically not with you – plus, how do you organize it? Do you put personal stuff in one notebook like what kind of shampoo you ended up trying and really liking but can never remember the name of, in the same notebook that contains your lecture notes? No, of course not, down that path madness lies, surely.) I mean, physically it seems like our brains work that way but it doesn’t mean we organizationally have to do the same. There’s a great book by Gary Marcus called “Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind” that is very much relevant to all this. Link to that in the show notes.

Got a little side-tracked there. Anyway, persistent, portable, and connected. By “connected” I mean that, as it will serve as an external brain of sorts, it needs to act relatively similar to one. And how do brains work, mainly? By allowing us to connect ideas, memories, information, and produce something new. Can physically notebooks do this? I guess, if every time you add something new you cross-reference that piece of information with all the other bits from previous volumes that are related to it (and then go back and add to those bits of information the connection going the other way!). Bit of a logistical nightmare, that. The method shouldn’t be a chore; it should be easy and enjoyable.

For me, it’s an actual wiki. A MediaWiki, to be precise, just like Wikipedia. Same skin, matter of fact, and lots of the same code so I can do neat stuff like have infoboxes and as much of it automated as possible. It’s something I initially began in my graduate work to be used by others, not just me, so originally it was full of nothing but EdTech resources, reading notes, and department-related information like course offerings and schedules. Over time it became clear to me that this was really my passion project and only mine, so I locked it down and threw away the key. At that point it was still online, hosted on my own personal webspace. This was nice as it allowed me to access it wherever I could get online but as time went on and more personal information began showing up I decided it was maybe time to bring it offline. Not shut it down, mind you. Just offline.

So now I run it as a locally hosted installation. It doesn’t live on the internet but I sync it between computers so I can access it from any of my own devices. This may have been overkill and certainly isn’t the easiest thing to do, I admit, but it works. And, see, when I say quote-unquote “personal” content lives on it, I’m referring to things like calculations to determine my daily macros or my weight-lifting regimen and history or an archive of my deceased aunt’s hand-written recipe cards or notes on woodworking projects or details about the film cameras I use. Things that are relevant to me but not anyone else. In fact, I drafted this podcast episode in it, where it lives with all the other episode transcripts, show notes, links, ideas, et cetera. And that’s the beauty of using something like a wiki: it doesn’t matter how much content is there, the content that is there is connected to other related content in ways that cordon off unrelated information so as not to be seen (and therefore distract). As I’m looking through my podcast related pages I’m presented with relevant and related content but random recipes aren’t injected into the mix.

I began it in 2009 and it has nearly 1300 pages now. It’s not a monster quite yet… maybe more of a beast. A beast I’ve tamed and taught to do tricks.

Anyway, as I said, I really enjoy not just adding content to it but building the system, itself. See, everybody needs a system. Not “THE” system, not MY system necessarily, just “A” system. More importantly, a system that you’ll both use and stick to. In the past I’ve used everything from text files in a standard folder structure to note-taking software like ResophNotes to gigantic Word files to Google Keep to Google Docs to Microsoft OneNote to Evernote, from which, incidentally, I extracted my data and deleted my account after their privacy mis-step a few years ago. I know they walked it back and clarified it but… the damage was done, in my opinion. Anyway, across all those platforms I’ve got content still spread (other than Evernote, obviously) that should probably go into my wiki. Maybe that’ll be a project for this summer: collect my disparate content and finally get it in my tried-and-true old friend, the wiki.

Now, it’s not just about organizing content. It’s about creating content. After all, you can’t organize what you don’t have. Is the wiki a great place to write? Not really. So guess what: I very rarely write directly into the wiki when I’m creating content (unlike these podcast scripts, for example; I do put these in the wiki but only because I then have to transfer the content into the webpage and writing it in a third location only to transfer it here for archiving and then transfer it to the webpage is… a bit much). But for, say, ProfHacker pieces or articles I’m working on, all that writing goes somewhere else first and is then transferred here for archiving and inclusion in my external, electronic brain. My thoughts and notes go there first, of course. In truth, everything is satellite to the wiki. If it doesn’t start there it certainly ends up there eventually. Well, most things. I’ve still got that collection to do.

“But what about hand-writing content,” I hear you ask, “Isn’t there benefit to that?” And I would answer, “Yes, absolutely.” There certainly is evidence out there that hand-writing content like creative writing, class notes, even just journaling all benefit from, seemingly, just the physical act of putting pen to paper. I’ve mentioned before the idea of Morning Pages, the notion that longform writing three pages every morning can improve your creativity and clarity. I am 100% behind this idea because, simply put, writing is dialogic, whether it’s a dialog between you and another writer or writers (ie, your reading notes), you and yourself (ie, keeping a diary), or even just you and the medium (ie, keeping track of your daily caloric intake). There is no pure writing; you’re always writing something. Sometimes, like in the last episode, it’s something you’re passionate about and sometimes it’s mundane. Regardless, it’s something.

I’ll add some links in the show notes on how to set up your own wiki locally. It’s a great way to test out the idea before committing to getting some webspace, learning what the heck FTP means, et cetera. I’ll be putting together a much more in-depth look at how it works and what to do, so keep a lookout for that. Again, having a full-fledged MediaWiki installation may not the simplest way of doing things but it certainly can be one of the most effective, at least if you’re like me and enjoy the building the system as much as filling it with content. A simpler way is to use something like DokuWiki, a pure-text wiki with no database to worry about. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles as the beast that is mediawiki but it’s a serviceable alternative if you’re looking for a happy medium. You’ll lose my hands-down favorite part of the mediawiki, the Semantic MediaWiki extension (which was a total game-changer for me and what sort of data I can put in and get out of the beast). Again, watch for a collection of write-ups on this exact topic coming soon.

So that’s it for this week. I encourage you to think about the system you use to offload your knowledge (link to George Siemens’ theory of Connectivism in the show-notes, by the way, which is the theoretical foundation for why this whole crazy thing works so well). Think about whether it work for you or do you have to make it work? Aim for the former. Don’t settle for the latter.

Oh, and I’d like to share a little announcement: I’ve started an email newsletter! I’m not sure how frequent it will be at this point but I’m aiming for the off-weeks when this podcast isn’t published. It’s called “Read, Watch, Woof,” it’s brief, and it consists of a little bit of writing from me, whether it’s news, thoughts, a story, or all of the above, then a short video that I want to share, whether that’s something funny or thought-provoking or (what I consider to be) important, and finally, for dessert, a picture of one of the dogs, Sofie, Menchi, or Chewie. So, Read, Watch, Woof. Get it? The first one goes out next week and you can sign up on my website. I’ll put a link to the sign-up in this episode’s show-notes, as well. (It’s worth getting it just for the pictures of the dogs, alone, I think. Who doesn’t need more puppies in the inbox?)

Thanks for listening. See you next time.