Some notions about cities, after I came across a 2017 posting asking for potential cities to visit for a month (which yielded a list of over 50). We did some extended city visits over the years (months in Vancouver, Cambridge, Copenhagen, Lucca, and 10-14 days in Berlin, Helsinki). Originally the idea was an adaptation of what Tim Ferris in his book The 4 Hour Work Week called ‘mini retirements’. We wanted to figure out where to go live, and what was important to us in choosing a European city to live. This as there were no other elements (like location of day jobs) that would narrow down our choices.

To get to know a city better, not as a tourist but as part of the local fabric as much as possible, we’d relocate there for a month. Beforehand we’d contact our network there, or search for local introductions to find contacts and network. While we were there we worked and explored the city, and reached out to existing and new contacts. The change of surroundings and people, and taking in the city brings new inspiration, ideas and activity.

Cities are serendipity hubs (1), a heady mix of ideas, people, resources and capital that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. Cities are efficient, when they double in size they don’t use double the resources (2), and that frees up capacity for other things. Cities grow super-linearly, for each doubling it becomes 15% more productive and innovative (as well as more criminal btw) than you’d expect from the doubling (3). The engine behind that is the density of social connections, the more intense interaction fires up the city (4). Social connections have a network effect, which is non-linear.

When you visit as an outsider all that serves as a source of inspiration: you see the traces of other people’s creativity, emerging trends, the rough edges where the friction is. And you meet the people who are involved in all of that.

When you as an outsider first join life in a city you experience a contrast, and the bigger/different/other the city, the bigger the contrast.
I think that contrast between yourself and a city you relocate to is a potential energy. A potential energy that is based on the starting point that is your unfamiliarity relative to the city. As a curious outsider you see more things, hear more diffrences, then as a regular visitor or as an inhabitant. If you seek out that contrast there’s a rush of ideas, impressions, observations and associations to harvest. But like any potential energy, the contrast dissipates as you get closer to it, get more familiar with the city, explore more of it. You get used to your surroundings, and start seeing less that jumps out. So there are diminishing returns from relocating to somewhere for a while. Unless you embrace it, grow roots, and become fully part of the fabric: then cities are well suited to seek out the contrasts within it, more suited than less densely packed environments as they hold so much more variety, but it is a different activity and a qualitatively very different experience from the first ‘rush’ that contrast can provide. These type of stories can be found around the world about people packing up and going to NYC to act, university in London, etc.
Those dimishing returns are good I think, because it provides a natural end to a phase of exploration and discovery, making way for digesting all those impressions from the rush of using up the initial contrast.

I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere I came across someone who applied a Pareto distribution to exploring a place: he spent 80% of a visit seeking out new things (restaurants, places to hang out etc), and the final 20% of a visit going to the best places he found in the first 80%.
That way you don’t stop exploring too early (letting the contrast slip away by quickly settling on a routine), but at the same time also preventing to keep on exploring only (akin to the endless scrolling of a FB timeline), helping the transition to the return trip by visiting some of the highlights again, and ending on a positive note (you don’t want to end up in your worst choice of restaurant on your last night in town). A rule of thumb for how to ease from discovery into digesting the discoveries.

We didn’t go anywhere after I asked for suggestions in that old blogpost I mentioned at the start. A few months before that posting we moved permanently to Amersfoort, and in the end getting to know our new surroundings was more important. We had plenty of contrast right in our own hometown.

Now that we’ve been here for three years, I’m thinking about ways I can heighten the contrast a bit, to be able to see more. And to take a different perspective on what’s really part of the urban zone as a serendipity hub around me. Amersfoort isn’t very big, but is within reach of a number of other cities, including Amsterdam (also not a big city, but the largest in NL). Now, someone from Amsterdam wouldn’t come to Amersfoort much for inspiration perhaps, but I can treat Amsterdam as part of my own urban environment, as it is close, without disregarding Amersfoort itself. I can add them together. The same is true for Utrecht (where I keep my company’s offices).

My friend Paolo‘s answer for any location in London about how far it is, is “about 50 minutes”. It’s funny and it is also true, because our natural surroundings are about one hour of travel in radius. E.g. people tend to treat a commute up to one hour as reasonable. So let’s take that as a measure: how many people do you have access to within one hour of travel? And how many within a circle of 90 minutes? You can use that notion to see where you can get inspiration, or contribute it, where the contrast has the highest potential. Or how to be a connector between one side of your radius and another (because they will be 2-3 hours apart)

Mapumental was an online tool that would show you from any given point in cities like London, Berlin and Helsinki, what was in reach of e.g. at most a 1 hour public transport journey. It usually showed surprising locations where you could go live and have as much access to the things you wanted as more expensive places. That tool is no longer online. I wonder if there’s an easy way to plot such a isochrone radius for public transport on a map with other tools. I found an online tool for isochrone maps that works for walking, and cars. The image below shows 1 hour and 90 minutes distance driving by car from our home (I had to register with the tool, to obtain an API key for testing). Although my actual reference would be public transport travel times, this gives a good illustration. Including that it covers most of the Dutch population, and that it has some surprises (like only needing an hour to get to rural Medemblik in the north-west, which mentally is more like 3 hours.) If you compare it with the coverage at our old address in Enschede, both w.r.t. Dutch and German population centers, the difference is striking.


Isochrone map with our home town at the center. Click to enlarge

Since my early university years I’ve held that from a spatial planning perspective, e.g. for infrastructures like rail, you’d need to take the Netherlands as a single city. Meaning that e.g. the train network should look more like a metro map (circles and cross lines), less like a long distance network (stars, hubs and spokes). More like a distributed network really. The image above underpins that I think. A 2016 report by Dutch middle sized cities came to a similar conclusion about seeing the Netherlands as a single urban area: don’t compete, but specialize and collaborate (5), as a single networked entity in short.

Seen from my hometown, I can reach Amsterdam within the hour by public transport, Utrecht in half an hour. While cities like Den Bosch, Zwolle, Arnhem and Deventer are also all within one hour, Rotterdam, The Hague, Eindhoven, and Haarlem are within 90 minutes. All of these are easily accessible, and I could mentally treat them as home turf, using them to maintain a higher alternating contrast. I think I don’t do that enough, but tend to default to Amersfoort too unthinkingly. A much richer perspective would be to see those other places as quarters of the Netherlands as a city, and use the fact that we live so centrally in this country-as-a-city much more actively.

(1) My talk at Cognitive Cities in Berlin, 2011
(2) Bettencourt e.a. 2007, Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities
(3) Bettencourt e.a. 2010, Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities
(4) Pan e.a. 2013, Urban characteristics attributable to density-driven tie formation
(5) Magazine Midsize NL, 2016, PDF in Dutch

Twelve years ago today I blogged a video by Gary Hayes visiting 50 virtual worlds. Reading Hayes’ accompanying 2008 blogpost which is still online, I wonder what today’s VR trends and hotspots are. How well is the virtual control of the real and the fully virtual a seamless experience these days? How far along are we to the Metaverse?

SecondLife still exists, not surprisingly as it was profitable right from the start, but I have no idea what it has evolved into. At some point I rented a bit of land there, to use as a sandbox. Does it still feel mostly empty?
What is the current status and role of immersive virtual worlds?

Are there any AR worlds that provide a seamless experience between the physical and the digital? I do regularly see people on the streets of our hometown trying to catch Pokemons, but as with a lot of these VR/AR things that seems gimmicky to me mostly. Last year at the Energie.Digital conference in Germany I saw a bit more of Microsoft’s mixed reality Hololens, and while some use cases were convincing, others seemed contrived. Yet at the same time there are many moments where I would love to see a much more seamless transition from the material to the virtual (which is partly why I got myself a Nova2: to digitise my handwriting), and bringing the virtual into the material, or making online exchanges much more immersive.

Digital networks and human networks are alike in their distributedness, and completely embracing that overlap for tool design is a source of enormous agency, imo.

Where does the yellow brick road to The Street of the Metaverse run these days?

A few days ago Om Malik blogged about his writing advice, ‘write like a human‘, saying there’s no need for more bland mediocrity like ‘freeze-dried news reports’. Being real will always be as unique as yourself.

It coincided with me rereading something I blogged around this time in 2003, saying ‘blogging is about people first and people only, personal relationships are the stuff of our lives‘.

Om Malik also writes that writing in your own voice means your words will reflect who you are, that there’s no hiding behind fancy words.

I think it is even impossible to hide behind fancy words, or even freeze-dried reporting, the longer you sustain a personal blog. Through the years your blog will always reflect who you are, as your interests move with your own life and experiences, regardless whether you chose to limit yourself to non-personal topics and interests. It is very hard impossible to portray yourself as anything other than you over the course of many years, or not have your self be revealed through your writing during that time. (For instance Peter and Frank have been blogging for 2 decades or more, and I’m coming up on 18 years on this blog.) Even more so if your blogging leads to face to face encounters, repeated meetings a few years apart, and generates distributed conversations. It’s the reason that when a couch-surfing initiative for bloggers was suggested by Henriette Weber in 2005, I added a requirement to my profile there for anyone interested in staying with us would need to have a blogging history of at least a year. It would let me see you, to decide upon your request.

Your blog is your avatar, not in the one-dimensional sense of a profile pic, but in the original sense of a god made flesh in terrestrial form, in the sense of Ultima IV, where your own ethics determined the outcome by presenting you dilemma’s with short and longterm consequences attached to your choices. Your blog is your avatar, a full representation of yourself, made manifest online in HTML texts. Whether you want it to be or not. Time makes it unavoidable.

In the past 2.5 weeks I have focused some time on building better notes. Better notes, as in second order notes: processed from raw notes taken during the day. Below are some experiences from that note taking.

My intention

This in order to build a better thinking aid, by having an easy accessible collection of my own ideas and concepts, and interesting viewpoints and perspectives of others (and references). It isn’t about collecting factual info.

I want to build a more deliberate practice this way, to enable a flow to create more and better output (writing, blogging, idea development etc.), in which more ideas are turned into something I apply or others can apply. In past years I have regularly stayed away from reading non-fiction books as I felt I had nowhere to go with the thoughts, associations and ideas reading something normally generates. No deliberate practice to digest my readings, resulting in it bouncing around my head and a constant nagging notion ‘I should be doing something with this’. Getting it out in atomic notes is a way of letting those associations and ideas build a network of meaning over time, and for me to see what patterns emerge from it.

In turn this should make it easier and faster for myself to create presentations, e-books, and blogposts etc. To have those writings start within me more. Only doing responsive writing based on daily RSS feed input feels too empty in comparison. And more importantly to not reinvent my own concepts from the top of my head everytime I e.g. put together a presentation (making it very slow going).

Curent state

I’m now at 140 notes. Which is about double the number I expected to be at, as I estimated earlier some 4 notes per day should be possible. Notes get linked to eachother where I feel there’s a connection. The resulting cloud is shown below.


(The singular points around the outer edge are not part of the thinking tool, they’re ticklerfiles from my GTD notes. Similarly there is a series of daily logs that aren’t part of the thinking tool either, but may point to notes in it. I don’t count or discuss those notes here.)

Two tactics helped me generate notes more quickly to incorporate more of my own previous thinking/writing.

  1. Daily I check my old blog postings made on today’s date in previous years. This presents me with a range of postings during the week (not every day), for me to process. Sometimes it will be easy and short to capture key notions/ideas from them, other times it might be a trip down the rabbithole.
  2. I go through presentations I made earlier, and lift out the concepts and ideas from the slides. I’ve done four sofar, one on Networked Agency, MakerHouseholds, on FabLabs, and on Community building / stewardship.

Doing just those two things resulted in the cloud of linked notes above. Especially going through presentations is a rich source of notes. I tend to build new stories every time for a presentation, so they often represent my current perspective on a topic in ways that aren’t documented elsewhere. With these notes I am turning them into re-usable building blocks.

What’s additionally valuable is that making the notes also leads to new connections that I hadn’t thought of before, or didn’t make explicit to myself yet. The first time happened early on, at about 35 notes, which was a linking of concepts I hadn’t linked earlier in my mind. In subsequent notes processing my SHiFT 2010 keynote ‘Maker Households’, that connection was fleshed out some more.
Another type of linkage isn’t so much previously unlinked concepts, but linking across time. A blogpost from a year ago and one from last month turned out to be dealing with the same notions, and I remember them both, but hadn’t yet perceived them as a sequence or as the later post being a possible answer to the earlier post.

Garden of Forking Paths

I call my collection of notes my Garden of Forking Paths. It refers to the gardening metaphor of personal knowledge management tools like wikis, commonplace books etc., often named digital garden, like my public wikisection here.
The fantastic title “Garden of Forking Paths” comes from a 1941 short story by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges titled El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan. It foreshadows the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and has also been referred within hypertext fiction and new media. In 1987 it was worked into Victory Garden, an early hypertext novel, published by Eastgate. Eastgate is Mark Bernstein’s company, an early blogger I first met 16yrs ago, that also creates the Tinderbox software, an amazing tool I use almost daily. Such a rich layering of connections and meaning, both contentwise and personally, are precisely what my notes collection is about, which makes ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ the most fitting title I could hope to find.

The set-up now

My current set-up for taking notes currently is based on using the tool Obsidian. This is a closed source app, but my notes are stored as regular text files, so can be accessed, edited etc through the file system itself. Obsidian provides bidirectional linking, and builds a connection graph on the fly (as shown above). I mentioned Tinderbox, which is also very useful for storing notes. In this case I’m not using it. Though notes in Tinderbox would be available as XML through the file system too, they aren’t easily human readable as the mark down notes I am creating now are, and thus access through the file system is of limited use. While Tinderbox is very useful at visually presenting information, that visual presentation is created by myself. What I am looking for is the emerging patterns from such visualisation, which Tinderbox can’t provide.
Obsidian not being open source is only slightly problematic to me at the moment, as it provides a view on a collection of text files, and nothing is lost except the visualisation if the application falls away. However, an open source alternative exists, which is Foam. However that in turn builds on the only pseudo-open application VS Code by Microsoft, unless I would compile VS Code myself. I may well go that way, but currently I’m experimenting and I’m not sure I want to spend that effort right now. The text files can be used in Foam, so that’s not a barrier. I did install Foam and VS Code, and will try it out in the coming days, although I haven’t fully figured out how to work with it.

Next to Obsidian I use Zotero to keep references to books, documents and snapshots of webpages. This removes these types of material from Evernote, which I count as a positive, without diluting the notes collection as something that are just my views and other things in my own words. In notes I point to references in Zotero where appropiate. It allows notes to be properly referenced, which is valuable when using them to write material based on them.

The note taking process

The process for note taking has several inputs, which currently aren’t all in use:

  1. old blogposts, which I look at daily
  2. old presentations, which I’ve been doing
  3. notes resulting from feed reading, which I am doing
  4. notes from primary notes (made during conversations etc.), which I’m not yet doing
  5. notes from reading books / texts, which I haven’t done yet.

The first two inputs are my key way of building up notes capturing my existing notions, ideas, concepts etc. This is a way to create a repository of existing thought, and that’s the phase I am now in. Especially presentations are a rich source, but can take a lot of effort to process.

Notes as output from feed reading is currently limited but I expect this to grow over time. The same is true for notes from primary notes and from reading books, both I expect to pick up pace over time, once the first wave of ‘braindumping’ is over.

There is another part of my book reading-to-notes process that is already in place, however. That is the part which pertains to Zotero. I am reading non-fiction books on a Nova2 e-ink tablet. Both highlights as well as notes I make during reading, can be easily exported from it, and I add those to Zotero alongside the metadata of the book itself. The same can be done for notes made on a Kindle (find your Kindle notes here). This keeps those annotations as raw material available in Zotero, and allows me to more easily process them into proper notes, capturing a concept or perspective. I have read a few books this way, but haven’t gotten around to processing my annotations from one yet. It’s next on my experimentation list.

My intention, reprise

At the start of this posting I wrote note taking in this way should make it easier and faster for myself to create blogposts and other written output. This post was written re-using notes, which sped up the creation time considerably, so that part of the experiment seems to be working. A true test will come when creating a new presentation I think, outlining a narrative using existing singular notes. The current set-up supports that much in the same way Tinderbox supports it: it’s easy to create a note that contains references to other notes and/or embeds them, turning them into a readable whole, even as you’re still shifting singular points around.

I was surprised to receive a 2am automated message from ‘rocket.cat’ in our company’s self-hosted Rocket.chat instance. It was a notice from Rocket.chat alerting me that from now on registration is mandatory to use the Rocket.chat gateway to enable push notifications to mobile devices.

The reason we run our own instance is to be in full control of the data we share between ourselves in rocket.chat.
However, something that wasn’t clear to me before, push notifications in Rocket.chat involve multiple third parties without users giving explicit consent (which is very problematic in terms of GDPR). Especially as there is no way in Rocket.chat to finetune when/how you want to receive alerts, nor any meaningful instance wide settings, and the default is alerts get pushed always.

When you @user someone, or @all a channel, or even share any message in any channel, the server pushes an alert by default to the mobile devices of the users involved.
That push notification isn’t generated within your own server, or within the mobile applications after receiving the messages concerned directly from our server. It is generated by sending an alert to the Rocket.chat gateway. Through that gateway all alerts from every rocket.chat instance anywhere, self-hosted or not, pass. The connection is encrypted, but the content isn’t. The gateway then sends the alert onwards to Google and Apple, for them to generate the alert on the mobile devices involved when the mobile app isn’t running or in the background. Using Apple’s Push Notification Service and Google’s Firebase Cloud Messaging is common, I realise, but both allow encrypted and/or empty payloads, which doesn’t seem to happen here.
Rocket.chat put in the gateway as a workaround, where every alert gets send with their keys, to prevent independent instance owners needing to have their own keys to APNS and FCM (and as Rocket.chat suggests to compile their own mobile apps and have them accepted in the app store). I’m not knowledgeable enough about how push notifications generally work on mobile devices, but it surprised me that push notifications always require third party involvement this way.

Rocket.chat is now starting to enforce registration of instances to be able to use the gateway, because that gateway is becoming a major cost to them. Not surprisingly if all alerts of every single Rocket.chat user in the world pass through it. Because those costs are rising, they want to start charging for sending alerts above a certain threshold. To start charging they need you to register with them to both show you your usage and store your payment method.

I don’t like the existence of such a centralised bottle-neck. It also comes across as a next step of building on something that seems to have been implemented as a workaround fix to begin with.
This way, even if you run your own independent instance you’re still tethered to Rocket.chat the company indefinitely. It’s completely at odds with why we (and others I presume) run our own instance in the first place.

I therefore disabled all push notifications in our rocket.chat server.

Nick Punt writes a worthwile post (found via Roland Tanglao) on “De-Escalating Social Media, Designing humility and forgiveness into social media products

He writes

This is why it’s my belief that as designed today, social media is out of balance. It is far easier to escalate than it is to de-escalate, and this is a major problem that companies like Twitter and Facebook need to address.

This got me thinking about what particular use cases need de-escalation, and whether there’s something simple we can do to test the waters and address these types of problems.

And goes on to explore how to create a path for admitting mistakes on Twitter. This currently isn’t encouraged by Twitter’s design. You see no social reinforcement, as no others visibly admit mistakes. You do see many people pilig onto someone for whatever perceived slight, and you do see people’s reflex of digging in when attacked.

Punt suggest three bits of added functionality for Twitter:

  • The ability to add a ‘mea culpa’ to a tweet in the shape of “@ton_zylstra indicated they made a mistake in this tweet”. Doing that immediately stops the amplicifation of those messages. No more replies, likes or retweets without comments. Retweet with comment is still possible to amplify the correction, as opposed to the original message.
  • Surfacing corrections: those that have seen the original tweet in their timelines will also get presented with the correction.
  • Enabling forgiveness: works just like likes, but then to forgive the original poster for the mistake, as a form of positive reinforcement.

I like this line of thinking, although I think it won’t be added to existing silo’d networks. This type of nudging of constructive behaviour as well as adding specific types of friction are however of interest. Maybe it is easier for other platforms and newer players to adopt as a distinguishing feature. E.g. in Mastodon.