Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Mind The Extensions #4 Monkey GTD

Shopping lists, agendas, diaries, journals, to-do lists, project plans ... all of these, then could be regarded as mind extensions if we accept the extended mind model.
Whether we find the ideas of an extended mind useful, many of us find written lists useful. Back in the 1970s, diaries and jotters morphed into the hugely popular Filofax system with pages for everything from diaries to maps of cities. In business, to do lists evolved into sophisticated paper based systems such as those which continue to be provided by Time Manager International.
A more recent popular approach has been GTD or 'Getting Things Done' from David Allen. GTD rests on the strategy, related to the notion of the extended mind, of offloading tasks to be remembered to a trusted system (paper or software). Freed of the need to spend effort recalling, GTD suggests, the mind can act more efficiently on tasks.

I don't propose to re-describe the GTD system in detail here, there are plenty of places around the Internet to do that. (See references).

I'm starting to look at GTD myself, though I know that similar systems have ended up eating up more of my time than I liked. I tend to prefer using computers to papers, I only recently rediscovered the floor of my study. So I was looking around and found, guess what, an open source project which uses a TiddlyWiki to provide a personal GTD system that can be downloaded onto your computer, memory stick or installed over at Tiddlyspot. The project is called MonkeyGTD and you can find it over at I've started using the system and it works well, (it's sometimes a little slow but I think that's more to do with my PC, which is getting moody in its old age, than it is to MonkeyGTD).

I'm using the system for both work and home projects, 'unencumbered' by reading details and advice about the GTD process at this stage. I expect after a couple of weeks I'll review, read instructions and restart. At the moment I just want to gain a feel for the process and the tool. I'll keep you posted, either here or over at depending on how much I have to write.


Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Mind The Extensions #3: Tiddly Things

There are all sorts of ways, then, that we can 'extend' our minds through the use of tools that support out thinking processes. Of course, simply writing things on paper is a wonderfully freeform way of recording ideas. The 'mind mapping' approaches mentioned in my last post here are one way of breaking away from simply writing lists, which may imply an order or hierarchy of concepts which isn't really there. Sometimes order, priority and hierarchy IS important, but sometime we just want to put ideas down, link them in the way that we recall them and then perhaps recognise the possibility of new links between clusters of concepts. Today, this crosslinking of ideas is something we are used to on the internet so, clearly, there's a possibility that we could use a kind of, 'personal internet' as a way of storing ideas in a way that may feel more natural as a 'mind extension' than just a list of information in a document or spreadsheet.

One tool which addresses this is TiddlyWiki. TiddlyWiki is an opensource 'non-linear personal web notebook'. At its simplest, TiddlyWiki lets you write chunks of information (typically a paragraph or two, these chunks are called 'tiddlers'), give your paragraph a title and tags (tags are similar to the 'labels' on this blog) and then automatically links everything together. Keywords, then, are automatically highlighted and hyperlinked to the corresponding tiddler. You can either define keywords by putting them in double square brackets [[Like This]] or you can use a convention called 'Camel Code' or 'Camel Case' which simply involves using no spaces and starting each word with a capital letter so, instead of [[Like This]] I could use LikeThis. This makes for really easy writing.

As I write this, I realise that it all sounds a little dry, try taking a look at a YouTube video to get a quick idea of what TiddlyWiki is like. Better still, hop over to and get the feel of the software. There's more information at and there's an Aladdin's cave of importable add-ons over at TiddlyTools.

All of the functionality and data is held in your TiddlyWiki file, which is just an html file, so you can copy the whole thing to your memory stick and carry it with you. No need to install special software - it all just runs inside your browser when you open the file, so it's really portable. I'm particularly interested in it as a note-taking tool for students on the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) course I'm designing.

Now, what I'd really like is to be able to import my TiddlyWiki into Personal Brain (see my previous post) so that I can navigate over (selected) tiddlers using the Personal Brain visual tool and then jump back into the TiddlyWiki.

I've posted the idea over at the Personal Brain forums ... let's see if anyone comes up with a slick import mechanism ...

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Mind The Extensions #2: Soft Brains and Virtually Free Minds

So, continuing the theme of the extended mind model - there are more than a few software tools that attempt to provide support to putting ideas down in a non linear way. I've tried a few of these 'mind mapping' or 'concept mapping' tools over the years but always seem to come back to pen and paper when I want to make something truly useful, truly quickly.
The extended mind idea prompted me to have a quick look around at these types of tools again, to see if there was anything new that looked interesting. I skipped past 'Inspiration' (which we have at the school where I teach; it's OK but lacks finesse on the graphics and still feels a bit cumbersome (though we may have an old version). Also, I'm looking for something that I can load onto my netbook, home PC and ideally my memory stick.  The school licenses don't extend to this and Inspiration doesn't, well, inspire me enough to want to part with my cash to buy a copy. There's a beta trial of a related web based product at at the moment, but I'm reluctant to invest time and effort on putting things there only to find that I have to start subscribing once interest reaches a critical mass.
I like the look of Tony Buzan's iMindMap®  ( and I owe a debt of gratitude to Tony Buzan who tickled my interest in this stuff back in the 1970' s with 'Use your Head' as part of (I think) the Open University broadcasts on the BBC back then. iMindMap more accurately reflects Buzan's 'rules' for this style of diagram than some of the other tools (labelling on lines rather than at nodes/junctions) . It also encourages bold use of colour which I like. Looking at prices though, I'd want at least the 'Professional' version to get the key features of being able to expand and contract branches and easily link parent/child diagrams- so I'd be looking at about £100 at the current pricing.
Freemind looks interesting to me Free, but with a bit of a learning curve to become proficient with all of the shortcut keys. I didn't find it immediately intuitive but I think I'll probably spend a bit more time looking at it - there's a nice video showing some of the capabilities of Freemind at  it also touches on how one of these tools can be integrated with a 'Getting Things Done' (GTD) regime (a system credited to David Allen which I'll write a bit more about in a later post).
That is, I'll take more of a look at Freemind if I can tear myself away from the hypnotic wonder that is PersonalBrain I'm currently running the free download and have thrown some thoughts in, mainly to do with the International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge course I'm developing.

I may be breaking the guidelines of PersonalBrain's best practice (I'm only a beginner and usually play around before referring to the instructions) but already the highly visual and dynamic nature of the tool really appeals to me. Thoughts are associated with parent or child thoughts simply by pulling out a thought link and filling in the thought title box. Multiple thoughts can be added at the same time, and thoughts can then be linked, cross linked and linked to documents or websites. As you click on a thought it is automatically brought centre screen with closely associated thoughts close by and more remote thoughts visually pushed into the background or hidden entirely. If you prefer a hierarchical/outline view it's just one click away.
I guess that the diagrams could become very large and unwieldy but I also suspect that refining diagrams could be a useful learning exercise. I'm pretty excited about this tool and I haven't even started playing with things like mapping bookmarks or folders and documents on my PC. I think the free version is probably useful by itself but I'm pretty sure I'll be purchasing the 'Core' edition for about £100. I suspect we could look at trialling the free version at school, need to check with the company about that first to test their attitude towards pricing for state funded schools.
So PersonalBrain is one of my 'extended mind' tools-of-the-moment. There are lists of other similar tools over at Wikipedia of course and you may also want to take a look at Concept Mapping software too.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Mind The Extensions #1: Books, Boxes and LibraryThing

Spring really started to uncoil over the weekend and my brain/spirits show signs of waking up too so I guess it may be time to pop a thought or two down here.

Like many others at this time of year I find myself involved with some spring cleaning. For me the challenge is less to do with cleaning and more to do with clearing and organising.

One prompt was my realising that I had reached some kind of critical mass with books. I was becoming less sure that I could accurately recall exacetly which books I had in my collection and, even when I was sure that I had a book, I was sometimes hard pressed to locate it. On top of all that I was simply running out of bookshelf space.

With gritted teeth I consigned some books (mainly old computing references) to my local Oxfam store. Others I packed away in some enormous 'Really Useful Boxes' and hid them away in the loft. I am partial to the 'Really Useful Box' product line ( ) - sturdy, stackable and semi-transparent; much more reliable and reusable than cardboard archive boxes which (I find) have a tendency to self-destruct when lifted above head level .

I've long considered making a catalogue of my books, toyed with the idea of doing such a thing in Excel or Access but then shyed away from the project as being overly laborious. This year, though, I looked at some online solutions for library cataloguing. I fiddled with Google Books for a while but eventually settled on Librarything ( ) I'm up to 555 books right now. Librarything accepts ISBN numbers, looks them up and pops back records with, typically title, author, publication date, and a thumbnail of the cover. You can assign tags to books so you can look up more easily later using keywords that mean something to you. I have tags to say which room or set of shelves (or Really Useful Box) the book is in as well as subject tags and tags to indicate if I've loaned the book to someone else - the tags are a bit like Flickr tagging. For smaller collections (or just to try it out) you can catalogue up to 200 books for free, over and above that you're best subscribing for either $10 per year or (like me) $25 for lifetime subscription. 

Once all the books are in I'll make a kind of backup in case Librarything goes bust (you can export your library to spreadsheet friendly formats) . I'll probably then also open up the collection to share the list with others. Right now, though, I feel that it doesn't really reflect my collection ... lots of fiction and not many reference books entered so far.

One of the reasons I use LibraryThing is that I LIKE using it. It gives me interesting little views on statistics associated with my collection, recommendations and, quirkily, 'unsuggestions' which suggest the books 'least likely to fit with my own collection'.

Even so, the next few shelves are going to be a bit harder work, mainly old or antique books which take a little more effort to lookup and may have to be added manually.

So why am I bothering sharing all this about cataloguing my library? Well apart from it being something that I'm involved with, it's also an example of something that can tickle our ideas about identity and the mind ... no, really ... it can.

One model about the mind and cognition (knowing) suggests that not all of our knowing is in our heads. Instead (the theory goes) our mind can consciously lean on parts of our environment, blurring the boundary of where the 'edge of our mind' (my term) is.  This active externalism view is described in the paper by Clark and Chalmers available at . If I've understood their ideas correctly, they are proposing that it's arbitrary to constrain the idea of 'mind' to 'within skin and skull' and that a better view would be to consider the when the mind uses some facet of the external world [in particular ways] that a coupled system is produced, such that the external object effectively becomes part of the mind itself. Examples could include a pencil and paper while working out a complicated calculation or simple reminders, shopping lists etc. LibraryThing, then, might be regarded as part of my mind while I am using it.

I'm intrigued by this model, I suspect it leads towards some interesting links with other subjects I'm interested in.  Most directly, the model provides some food for thought about the nature of knowledge so feeds my Theory of Knowldege (ToK) work.

Consider as a thought experiment - 
1. I learn something, such as how to calculate the area of a triangle and write it down on a piece of paper, understanding it as I do so.
2. I file the paper away in my 'mathematics' folder.
3. Months later I am given a problem to calculate the area of a triangle. I can't recall exactly how to do the  calculation.
4. I go to my trusty filing system and get the mathematics folder out to consult my notes.
5. 'Ah yes,' I think 'Now I remember how to do it.' And proceed with the calculation.

Could I be said to have known how to solve the triangle problem at all points after the initial learning? What if someone sneakily removed the page from my file?

I'm reminded of the words of Dr Johnson "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." (Boswell's 'Life of Johnson' ) .

Expect more on this topic soon ...


Image from Wellcome Images

Live-wired brain - artwork
Credit: Heidi Cartwright, Wellcome Images
Image Ref: B0003256
Thanks to Wellcome Images for permission to use this image
License/copyright details available from

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Something to Write About

Clearly, this may stand a chance of being the slowest blog in the world. I had expected to be writing one or two pieces each month but somehow the back end of 2008 filled with other activities. Some of the activities I hope to write about in future posts.

Today, though, I just wanted to mark the inauguration of Barack Obama.
Though I'm British, like many other non-Americans I'm heartened by his apparent intellect and humanity. I watched the inaugural address on TV and then listened to American radio via the Internet for reactions.

I was moved not just by the President, but by the crowds. Something in the spectacle showed me an America in a more positive light than I have seen for a long time, certainly since 9/11.

Personally I was taken with the passages:

Talking about earlier generations

"They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

Talking about armed forces

"We honour them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all."


"This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny."

I, like many others, hope that the new President is as remarkable a man as he now appears to be, and that others, in America and around the world suspend cynicism and take the opportunity to reach together for a brighter future.

"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation ..." John F. Kennedy

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Eclipse 01-August-2008

There's a solar eclipse tomorrow, partial here in the UK.

According to

"From the whole of the British Isles observers will see a partial solar eclipse, with between 1/10th and 1/3rd of the Sun obscured by the Moon. ...

In London the partial phase of the eclipse begins at 0933 BST (0833 GMT). Maximum eclipse is at 1018 BST (0918 GMT) when 12% of the Sun will be blocked. The partial eclipse ends at 1105 BST (1005 GMT)."

The further north you are in the UK, the more the Sun should be blocked.

There are also some rather wonderful diagrams and animations showing how the shadows travel for day/night, total and partial eclipses for the August 1 event at If you prefer static maps, you might like to look at the NASA maps at

As you will gather as these posts progress, some strands which are likely to recur are teaching, science and something called the 'Theory of Knowledge' (TOK). TOK is a course which I am preparing to teach as part of the International Baccalaureate when it begins to be offered at the school where I work in 2009. The prediction made in this post is what TOK might call a 'Knowledge Claim'. TOK would encourage students to not necessarily take such a claim at face value but recognise the basis of the claim, which is often implicit. TOK asks ... "How do we know what we know?"

Well, as a scientist I'm pretty condfident that the models of the universe used to predict eclipses are robust enough for me to rely on. Of course there are elements of trust.

First there is the trust implicit in the scientific process. Does the fact that the day has followed night for as long as anyone can remember guarantee that day will break again tomorrow? If dawn didn't appear, science would be in some short-lived turmoil while it scrabbled around for a better model of the universe but the scientific process would not be broken ... at least, that's the way it seems to me. There's an implicit get out for all of scientific predictions that if the evidence doesn't fit, then we should look for a better model, or at least recognise the limitations of the ones that we are currently using.

There's another level of trust in the eclipse prediction though. While I know that science can apply reason to predict eclipses accurately, I'm not an astronomer myself. I haven't been making measurements of the moon's appearance over the past months in order to predict just when an eclipse will occur. I'm trusting that the culture that I live in is giving me accurate information based on the scientific reasoning; that there isn't some anarchic group behind the websites I've referred to in some bizarre global conspiracy to mislead me into believing that there will be an eclipse when there won't be.

In TOK we look for things called Knowledge Issues as the basis for interesting discussions, reflections ... and essays/presentations for assessment. A knwoledge issue here might be one that asked 'How do you judge whether a source of information is reliable?'

I'm still very new to TOK. I'm hoping that I can develop some ideas and resources through this blog. Feel free to feedback through comments.