Writing my Notions and notes these past months as part of my revamped personal knowledge management system, I realised as the collection grew that using the collection as a thinking tool also requires remembering more of what is in there. Not to make the notes superfluous but to have more top of mind material that serves as a starting point in interacting with the notes I have, as well as to be able to weave that more easily into current tasks and work. I also expect it to aid creativity, as a large chunk of creativity is recombination of previous elements, and remembering more elements lowers the threshold to new combinations.

Both in Andy Matuschaks notes and in this long article by Michael Nielsen about his use of Anki, spaced repetition is discussed in the context of note taking, and it got me thinking (I write ‘thinking’, but it was as much working through the mentioned material and distilling the concepts key to me from it, as it was chewing on it mentally and adding that to those same notes. Thinking is more interacting with my PKM, rather than sitting down looking into the middle distance as per Rodin’s bronze).

Anki is a tool (on laptop and mobile), that allows you to train your memory with flash cards and spaced repetition. I’ve used it in the past, e.g. to increase my vocabulary in French and to better read cyrillic script, but not with much energy or effect. It felt uncomfortable to be using card decks made by others for instance. Making my own flash cards from scratch always seemed a daunting task as well.

With my now much better set-up of notes however I have a great starting point to create my own decks of flash cards. As I am obviously not the first one to realise the potential of notes collections for flash cards, there is already an Obsidian plugin that pulls out questions and answers from my notes, and puts them into Anki. It comes with a wiki that documents how to set it up for yourself, including how to mark various types of questions and answers in your notes.

The key feature is, that I can add a question and its answer as a part of any note, and the plugin will pull it out and export that to Anki. It means I can e.g. end a note on three key aspects of distributed applications, with an Anki question and answer about those three aspects, which will get exported to Anki. Better still, I can add multiple questions in different forms about the same thing to that note, e.g. a follow-up question for each of the three aspects. Having multiple versions of basically the same question means I can phrase them for different memory hooks in parallel. This will enhance my own understanding, and allows me to place notions in specific contexts for instance.

I have now installed the Obsidian to Anki plugin in Obsidian, and the Anki Connect plugin in Anki (so it can ‘listen’ for automated input).

Some things I hope this will yield benefits for is:

  • making it a more deliberate choice what I want to remember long term
  • making it easier to remember the basics of a new field of interest
  • making the effort to remember a habit
  • improving my skilled reading
  • using remembered material to better connect new notes to the existing corpus
  • making it easier to internalise new / relatively new material

The way I’m approaching it is to have all my flash cards, whatever the topic, in the same single deck. This as I see my notes collection and all the stuff I remember as a interlinked network of topics and material. Splitting it up in some sort of thematic structure precludes a whole range of potential connections and associations, and is artificial in that it makes a current perhaps logical distinction the norm forever.

The coming 12 weeks or so I’ll work on two habits:

  • adding questions to my notes as I work on those notes, and
  • using Anki daily to review those questions.

My colleagues Emily and Frank have in the past months been contributing our company’s work on ethical data use to the W3C’s Spatial Data on the Web Interest Group.

The W3C now has published a draft document on the responsible use of spatial data, to invite comments and feedback. It is not a normative document but aims to promote discussion. Comments can be filed directly on the Github link mentioned, or through the group’s mailing list (subscribe, archives).

The purpose of this document is to raise awareness of the ethical responsibilities of both providers and users of spatial data on the web. While there is considerable discussion of data ethics in general, this document illustrates the issues specifically associated with the nature of spatial data and both the benefits and risks of sharing this information implicitly and explicitly on the web.

Spatial data may be seen as a fingerprint: For an individual every combination of their location in space, time, and theme is unique. The collection and sharing of individuals spatial data can lead to beneficial insights and services, but it can also compromise citizens’ privacy. This, in turn, may make them vulnerable to governmental overreach, tracking, discrimination, unwanted advertisement, and so forth. Hence, spatial data must be handled with due care. But what is careful, and what is careless? Let’s discuss this.

"Here"
2013 artwork by Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead. Located at the Greenwich Meridian, the sign marks the distance from itself in miles around the globe. Image by Alex Liivet, license CC-BY

Robin Sloan last month wrote about how newsletters should have seasons like tv shows. Peter Rukavina refers to that in the context of maybe closing up his online shop for letterpress artefacts for a while, something other than a newsletter entirely.

It made me muse about the general application of ‘seasons’ to any type of creative output. Newsletters, knowledge work in general, creation of artefacts, expression. It reminds me of the phases used to describe artist’s lives and work. “She was nearing the end of her blue phase when she met fellow painter X and started experimenting with a new work form.” Van Gogh’s work is described in the ‘Dutch phase’, ‘Impressionist phase’, ‘Arles phase’ and ‘Late phase’, spanning just a decade.

The word season has a rounded pleasant feel to it. Much better than the word phase, which in the context of projects evokes the notions of pre-planned milestones and stress before deadlines. Seasons has a much better fit with things like the natural flow of one’s interests, of (digital) gardening, where there’s a rhythmic change to your activities.

There are internal reasons and external reasons for thinking in terms of seasons for creative production.

Internal ones are about

  • building in rest, and treating rest as a fundamental part of your production process (which fits well with my notion of knowledge work as artisanal work).
  • an opportunity to reflect (mentioned by Sloan), to step back from the work in progress and take a look at the bigger whole in which it fits
  • avoiding the relentlessness that is buried within ‘weekly’, ‘daily’ and other preconceived rhythms, and which always after a while if conceived as ‘endless’ or having an end which is still far away becomes a burden. There is of course the juxtaposed notion of ‘not breaking the chain’. The latter is aimed more at getting the mental satisfaction of keeping up a streak, when the underlying tasks are more of a chore and not likely to provide that satisfaction. With creative production the satisfaction is likely more in the output itself, and then forcing the streak to continue may be counter productive, causing a rut that decreases the fun and satisfaction of production.

External ones

  • a sense of progress (mentioned by Sloan), of exploration. An exploration is always a temporary thing, before it morphs into something else again.
  • an opportunity to alter course (mentioned by Sloan), e.g. because your list of current interests, or current questions you hold has changed
  • a way to change the form of expression, which can bring new inspiration also if themes remain the same. Switching from writing haiku’s to photography, from consultancy to on-line training modules.
  • to embrace a natural end point or evolution, providing the ability to let go gracefully not as ‘I’ve quit doing/exploring that’, but ‘I moved to doing/exploring this’. ‘Seasons’ lend themselves well to weaving them into your or other’s narrative.

Those last three fit well with combinational creativity, in all its three varieties of problem driven, similarity driven and inspiration driven approaches.

seasons
Seasons by Alphonse Mucha, public domain image, shared by Robson Epsig as CC-BY

It seems to me e-readers don’t fully exploit the affordances digital publishing provides. Specifically when it comes to non-linear reading of non-fiction.
My Nova2 at least allow me to see both the table of contents alongside my current page, as well as my notes. This makes flipping back and forth easier. Kindle doesn’t.

But other things that would be possible are missing. With a paper book you have an immediate sense of both the size of the document and your current point within it. My e-reader can show me I am at 12% or position 123 of 456, but not a visual cue that doesn’t require interpretation.

More importantly my e-readers don’t manipulate a book like they should be able to given it is digital. Why can’t I collapse a document in various ways? E.g. show me the first and last paragraph of each chapter. Now add in all subheadings. Now add in all first and last sentences of a sub header and show all images. Etc. More advanced things would be e.g. highlighting referenced books also in my library and being able to jump between them. Or am I overlooking functionalities in my e-readers?

Also welcome: more publishers that sell a combination of a the physical and digital book.

How do you read non-linearly in e-books? What are your practices?

A question I have is whether the pandemic will mean a slow-down or pause in tech-innovation?
Innovation in part is based on serendipity, on the pseudo-random meeting and interaction of people, ideas, skills, capital etc. Those meetings take place in cities for instance, as they are serendipity hubs.
Yet this year I noticed how online interaction tends to stick just to the topic and agenda at hand, and there’s much less place for riffing off eachother’s ideas and suggestions for instance.

Apart from innovation driven by necessity (e.g. vaccin development), would a slow-down be visible in tech start-up founding, start-up funding (maybe not yet, as funding emerges some time after founding so it might be a delayed effect)?

Would there be a discernable impact on a city level?

Are there compensating effects? I’ve noticed that the pandemic in our company and for me personnaly led to more introspection, and meant more focus on developing things, also because there was less activity around us. A reduction of movement, a reduction of social dynamics, but the stillness enabling more action as a consequence.

How would one go about trying to see such effects, and in which data?

After writing 700 Notions I see a pattern emerge w.r.t short, ‘right’ and long ones

Then last week I came across this click-baity posting by Tim Denning, advocating max 200-word posts to reach ‘virality’, while reflecting on my blogwriting pace. Checking the length of my Notions, I looked at the ones that feel just right. Those are around the 200 mark. I suppose they are bite sized enough to not have to make a ‘mental summary’ during reading.

I also looked at other Notions:
Shorter ones are not developed enough, basically stubs.
Longer Notions are mostly not edited enough, either there are multiple notions packed into one, or I’m unclear in my formulation or understanding or both.
The ‘right’ ones fit much better into emergent outlines, where I collate several Notions.

I started calling the optimal notion length ‘Notion Mass Index’, and an NMI of 200 seems a healthy one. (This blogpost has 194 words, the Notion it is based on has 177.)