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

Another good find by Neil Mather for me to read a few times more. A first reaction I have is that in my mind p2p networks weren’t primarily about evading surveillance, evading copyright, or maintaining anonymity, but one of netwerk-resilience and not having someone with power over the ‘off-switch’ for the entire network. These days surveillance and anonymity are more important, and should gain more attention in the design stage.

I find it slightly odd that the dark web and e.g. TOR aren’t mentioned in any meaningful way in the article.

Another element I find odd is how the author talks about extremists using federated tools “Can or should a federated network accept ideologies that are antithetical to its organic politics? Regardless of the answer, it is alarming that the community and its protocol leadership could both be motivated by a distrust of centralised social media, and be blindsided by a situation that was inevitable given the common ground found between ideologies that had been forced from popular platforms one way or another.”
It ignores that with going the federated route extremists loose two things they enjoyed on centralised platforms: amplification and being linked to the mainstream. In a federated setting I with my personal instance, and any other instance decides themselves whom to federate with or not. There’s nothing for ‘a federated network to accept’, each instance does their own acceptance. There’s no algorithmic rage-engine to amplify the extreme. There’s no standpoint for ‘the federated network’ to take, just nodes doing their own thing. Power at the edges.

Also I think that some of the vulnerabilities and attack surfaces listed (Napster, Pirate Bay) build on the single aspect in that context that still had a centralised nature. That still held some power in a center.

Otherwise good read, with good points made that I want to revisit and think through more.

Bookmarked This is Fine: Optimism & Emergency in the P2P Network

…driven by the desire for platform commons and community self-determination. These are goals that are fundamentally at odds with – and a response to – the incumbent platforms of social media, music and movie distribution and data storage. As we enter the 2020s, centralised power and decentralised communities are on the verge of outright conflict for the control of the digital public space. The resilience of centralised networks and the political organisation of their owners remains significantly underestimated by protocol activists. At the same time, the decentralised networks and the communities they serve have never been more vulnerable. The peer-to-peer community is dangerously unprepared for a crisis-fuelled future that has very suddenly arrived at their door.

Bookmarked for reading (found in Neil Mather’s blog). Actual cases of ‘tethered’ economic transactions where a buyer is bound into an ongoing relationship with the seller with an uneven power balance, are already easy to find: John Deere suing farmers for tinkering with their tractors (with Deere claiming they never sold a tractor but a license to operate the software on one), insurance and credit companies remotely disabling a car upon a late payment, or Amazon removing books you bought from your Kindle (1984, actually, of all possible books!)

Outright ownership, the right to fix, the right to tinker, are all essential things, and key ingredients to keep your (networked) agency. While I understand the business model decision behind software subscriptions, it does make me increasingly uncomfortable because of the forced ‘eternal’ relationship with the seller.

Bookmarked The Tethered Economy

As sellers blend hardware and software—as well as product and service—tethers yoke the consumer to a continuous post-transaction relationship with the seller. The consequences of that dynamic will be felt both at the level of individual consumer harms and on the scale of broader, economy-wide effects These consumer and market-level harms, while distinct, reinforce and amplify one another in troubling ways.

Seller contracts have long sought to shape consumers’ legal rights. But in a tethered environment, these rights may become non-existent as legal processes are replaced with automated technological enforcement.

In the past days I have been both exploring my process for second order note taking, and part of that is evaluating tools. I’ve been trying the note taking process in both WordPress and Evernote. In parallel I have also been looking at other tools for note taking. I’ve looked at a few tools that say to have implemented the Zettelkasten method, but I don’t want tools that assume to shape my process. I want to shape my tools, based on my routines.

In terms of tools that support me, I want tools that increase networked agency. Tools that treat data as fully mine, the tool itself as a view on the data, and its interface(s) as queries on that data.

Between WP and Evernote, the first does that, the second most definitely not. At the same time Evernote makes note taking much easier than WP can ever do. This is not surprising as WP is a blogging tool that I am using as a wiki on my local host while Evernote was designed for note taking. From the other tools I looked at, Joplin and Obsidian stood out, both tools that use markdown. Joplin because it is open source, allows easy import from Evernote, and can save webpages locally, can sync with Nextcloud allowing easy mobile access. It does store notes in a sqllite database which makes accessing my data more difficult.

Obsidian is still in beta but already looks pretty amazing to me (similar to Roam it seems). It operates on text files in a folder, thus allowing direct access through my file system to any data I add. It provides a view on that data that allows easy linking between notes, and you can split off any number of panes in the interface with whatever content or query. This means you can have a variety of notes open, pin them, see what links to what etc. There is also a graphical view, that allows you to explore notes based on the cloud of links they form. That makes it look a bit like the Brain of old. It’s all in markdown, so easy to use on mobile with a different client if I sync it through Nextcloud. I added the same notes I previously added to WP and EN in Obsidian, to experience differences and commonalities. In comparison with the other notes tools I tried a key difference is that I left this app open since I started it up this morning. A key difference with WP and EN is that I want to add notes to this tool. It does mean I need to relearn markdown, which has gone rusty since I last used markdown (in a locally hosted wiki), but of course it was easy to make a note and pin it to use as cheat sheet.

Obsidian screenshot, list and search pane on the left, a graphical overview middle top, a note middle bottom, and my markdown cheat sheet on the right

Having used Obsidian for a day, I am now wondering if I still need my local WP instance. The combination of Obsidian and Zotero which I started using for reading references even looks like something to replace Evernote with. This is the first time I’ve thought that in the past 4 years for longer than an hour.

I’ve been exploring my note taking, trying to shape it as a more deliberate practice. As part of that exploration I’ve been reading Sönke Ahrens ‘How to take smart notes’ on Luhmann‘s Zettelkasten (now digitised). More later on that book. What stands out in all things I find about note taking is the importance of taking time to process. Going through notes iteratively, at least once after you created them first.

My own main issue with a lot of the stuff I collect, is just that, it’s a collection. They’re not notes, so the collection mostly never gets used. Of course I also have a heap of written notes, from conversations, presentations I attended etc. There too a second step is missing, that of going through it to really digest it and lift the things out that are of interest to myself and taking note of that. Putting it into the context of the things I’m interested in. The thing I regularly do is marking elements in notes I took afterwards (e.g. marking them as an idea, an action, or something to blog), but that is not lifting them out of the original notes into a place and form where they might get re-used. Ahrens/Luhmann suggest to daily take time for a first step of processing rough notes (the thinking about the notes and capturing the results). Tiago Forte describes a process of progressive summarisation, every time you happen to go back to something you captured (often other’s content), for up to 4 iterations.

There are different steps to shape in such a process. There is how material gets collected / ends up in my inbox, and there’s the second stage of capturing things from it.
I started with looking at reading non-fiction books. With my new e-ink reader, it is easy to export any notes / markings I make in or alongside a book. Zotero is a good tool to capture bibliographic references, and allows me to add those exported notes easily. This covers the first step of getting material in a place I can process it.

The second step, creating notes based on me digesting my reading, I’m now experimenting which form that should take. There are several note apps that might be useful, but some assume too much about the usage process, which is a form of lock-in itself, or store it in a way that might create a hurdle further down the line. So, to get a feel for how I want to make those notes I am first doing it in tools I already use, to see how that feels in terms of low barrier to entry and low friction while doing it. Those two tools are a) Evernote (yes I know, I want to ditch Evernote, but using it now is a way of seeing what is process friction, what is tool friction), and b) my local WordPress instance, that basically works as a Wiki for me. I’m adding key board shortcuts using TextExpander to help easily adding structure to my notes. I’ll do that for a few days to be able to compare.

I made 7 note cards in the past 2 days, and as the number grows, it will get easier to build links between them, threading them, which is part of what I want to experience.