During our visit to the Neues Museum in Neuremberg last week, this mind map stood out to me. Art collector, dealer and curator René Block (1942) made it as a sort of work autobiography for the period 1964-2014.

It stood out to me because it shows the evolution of his work, the connections between major phases and individual projects.

I have a list of a few ‘big themes’ I’ve been interested in, and have worked on. (in that order, as most often my work came out of a side interest during a previous phase, also when I was employed), and over time I’ve recognised the overall topic that carries them all, a fascination with the affordances of digital technology for our agency and how it impacts how we live, learn, work and organise.

In any given moment I can think that most of my activities are a coincidence, that I happened across them on my generally undirected path, but my blog archive has often shown me that I already mentioned topics and ideas much earlier.
There’s an evolution to them, and since I’ve spotted the ‘carrier theme’ I trust that evolution.

I’m sure I can make a mind map like the one above with the different client projects, activities and key events of the past 26 years. Maybe everyone should make such a map for themselves at times, if only to spot the adjacent paths within one’s reach in the evolutionary plane of possibilities. It seems Block made this at the end of his working life when he was 72. What might it have told him if he had drawn or redrawn it at earlier times?

John Caswell writes about the role of conversation, saying "conversation is an art form we’re mostly pretty rubbish at". New tools that employ LLM’s, such as GPT-3 can only be used by those learning to prompt them effectively. Essentially we’re learning to have a conversation with LLMs so that its outputs are usable for the prompter. (As I’m writing this my feedreader updates to show a follow-up post about prompting by John.)

Last August I wrote about articles by Henrik Olaf Karlsson and Matt Webb that discuss prompting as a skill with newly increasing importance.

Prompting to get a certain type of output instrumentalises a conversation partner, which is fine for using LLM’s, but not for conversations with people. In human conversation the prompting is less to ensure output that is useful to the prompter but to assist the other to express themselves as best as they can (meaning usefulness will be a guaranteed side effect if you are interested in your conversational counterparts). In human conversation the other is another conscious actor in the same social system (the conversation) as you are.

John takes the need for us to learn to better prompt LLM’s and asks whether we’ll also learn how to better prompt conversations with other people. That would be great. Many conversations take the form of the listener listening less to the content of what others say and more listening for the right time to jump in with what they themselves want to say. Broadcast driven versus curiosity driven. Me and you, we all do this. Getting consciously better at avoiding that common pattern is a win for all.

In parallel Donald Clark wrote that the race to innovate services on top of LLM’s is on, spurred by OpenAI’s public release of Chat-GPT in November. The race is indeed on, although I wonder whether those getting in the race all have an actual sense of what they’re racing and are racing towards. The generic use of LLM’s currently in the eye of public discussion I think might be less promising than gearing it towards specific contexts. Back in August I mentioned Elicit that helps you kick-off literature search based on a research question for instance. And other niche applications are sure to be interesting too.

The generic models are definitely capable to hallucinate in ways that reinforce our tendency towards anthropomorphism (which needs little reinforcement already). Very very ELIZA. Even if on occasion it creeps you out when Bing’s implementation of GPT declares its love for you and starts suggesting you don’t really love your life partner.

I associated what Karlsson wrote with the way one can interact with one’s personal knowledge management system the way Luhmann described his note cards as a communication partner. Luhmann talks about the value of being surprised by whatever person or system you’re communicating with. (The anthropomorphism kicks in if we based on that surprisal then ascribe intention to the system we’re communicating with).

Being good at prompting is relevant in my work where change in complex environments is often the focus. Getting better at prompting machines may lift all boats.

I wonder if as part of the race that Donald Clark mentions, we will see LLM’s applied as personal tools. Where I feed a more open LLM like BLOOM my blog archive and my notes, running it as a personal instance (for which the full BLOOM model is too big, I know), and then use it to have conversations with myself. Prompting that system to have exchanges about the things I previously wrote down in my own words. With results that phrase things in my own idiom and style. Now that would be very interesting to experiment with. What valuable results and insight progression would it yield? Can I have a salon with myself and my system and/or with perhaps a few others and their systems? What pathways into the uncanny valley will it open up? For instance, is there a way to radicalise (like social media can) yourself by the feedback loops of association between your various notes, notions and follow-up questions/prompts?



An image generate with Stable Diffusion with the prompt “A group of fashionable people having a conversation over coffee in a salon, in the style of an oil on canvas painting”, public domain

Bookmarked The Two Definitions of Zettelkasten by Chris Aldrich

This is a great essay by Chris Aldrich for several reasons. Because it aims to address the absence in the current hypelet around recent personal knowledge management tools and note systems like Zettelkasten of the realisation that everything in this space has a deep rooted lineage. In response he writes about the history of commonplacing, using card collection for creative, academic or professional output. Because the essay itself is the result of the very practice it describes. In the past months I’ve been reading along with Chris’ annotations (the value of which led me to share more of my own annotations too), and reading his essay I can readily recognise things from that stream of raw material. The notes Chris made from those annotations in turn resulted in this essay. Seven thousands words in a half-day effort.

Note to self: I should create an overview for myself and here about my note taking practice through the years and their inspiration. Just to further illustrate the history Chris writes about.

Hopefully those in the space will look more closely at the well-worn cow paths of analog history in deciding how to pave our (digital) futures. [….] The hiding value proposition of the older methods can be contrasted with the incessant drumbeat of the value and productivity inherently “promised” by those describing [only] Niklas Luhmann’s system.

Chris Aldrich

I’ve now added over 100 annotations using Hypothes.is (h.), almost all within the last month. This includes a few non-public ones. Two weeks ago I wrote down some early impressions, to which I’m now adding some additional observations.

  1. 100 annotations (in a month) don’t seem like a lot to me, if h. is a regular tool in one’s browsing habit. H. says they have 1 million users, that have made 40 million annotations to over 2 million articles (their API returns 2.187.262 results as I write this). H. has been in existence for a decade. These numbers average out to 20 annotations to 2 articles per user. This to me suggests that the mode is 1 annotation to 1 article by a user and then silence. My 100 annotations spread out over 30 articles, accumulated over a handful of weeks is then already well above average, even though I am a new and beginning user. My introduction to h. was through Chris Aldrich, whose stream of annotations I follow daily with interest. He recently passed 10.000 annotations! That’s 100 times as many as mine, and apparently also an outlier to the h. team itself: they sent him a congratulatory package. H.’s marketing director has 1348 public annotations over almost 6 years, its founder 1200 in a decade. Remi Kalir, co-author of the (readworthy!) Annotation book, has 800 in six years. That does not seem that much from what I would expect to be power users. My blogging friend Heinz has some 750 annotations in three years. Fellow IndieWeb netizen Maya some 1800 in a year and a half. Those last two numbers, even if they differ by a factor 5 or so in average annotations/month, feel like what I’d expect as a regular range for routine users.
  2. The book Annotation I mentioned makes a lot of social annotation, where distributed conversations result beyond the core interaction of an annotator with an author through an original text. Such social annotation requires sharing. H. provides that sharing functionality and positions itself explicitly as a social tool ("Annotate the web, with anyone, anywhere" "Engage your students with social annotation"). The numbers above show that such social interaction around an annotated text within h. will be very rare in the public facing part of h., in the closed (safer) surroundings of classroom use interaction might be much more prominent. Users like me, or Heinz, Maya and Chris whom I named/linked above, will then be motivated by something else than the social aspects of h. If and when such interaction does happen (as it tends to do if you mutually follow eachothers annotations) it is a pleasant addition, not h.’s central benefit.
  3. What is odd to me is that when you do indeed engage into social interaction on h., that interaction cannot be found through the web interface of my annotations. Once I comment, it disappears out of sight, unless I remember what I reacted to and go back to that annotation by another user directly, to find my comment underneath. It does show up in the RSS feed of my annotations, and my Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin also captures them through the API. Just not in the web interface.
  4. Despite the social nature of h., discovery is very difficult. Purposefully ‘finding the others’ is mostly impossible. This is both an effect of the web-interface functionality, as well as I suspect because of the relatively sparse network of users (see observation 1). There’s no direct way of connecting or searching for users. The social object is the annotation, and you need to find others only through annotations you encounter. I’ve searched for tags and terms I am interested in, but those do not surface regular users easily. I’ve collated a list of a dozen currently active or somewhat active annotators, and half a dozen who used to be or are sporadically active. I also added annotations of my own blogposts to my blog, and I actively follow (through an RSS feed) any new annotation of my blogposts. If you use h., I’d be interested to hear about it.
  5. Annotations are the first step of getting useful insights into my notes. This makes it a prerequisite to be able to capture annotations in my note making tool Obsidian, otherwise Hypothes.is is just another silo you’re wasting time on. Luckily h. isn’t meant as a silo and has an API. Using the API and the Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin all my annotations are available to me locally. However, what I do locally with those notes does not get reflected back to h., meaning that you can’t really work through annotations locally until you’ve annotated an entire article or paper in the browser, otherwise sync issues may occur. I also find that having the individual annotations (including the annotated text, in one file), not the full text (the stuff I didn’t annotate), feels impractical at times as it cuts away a lot of context. It’s easily retrievable by visiting the url now, but maybe not over time (so I save web archive links too as an annotation). I also grab a local markdown copy of full articles if they are of higher interest to me. Using h. in the browser creates another inbox in this regard (having to return to a thing to finish annotation or for context), and I obviously don’t need more inboxes to keep track of.
  6. In response to not saving entire articles in my notes environment, I have started marking online articles I haven’t annotated yet at least with a note that contains the motivation and first associations I normally save with a full article. This is in the same spot as where I add a web archive link, as page note. I’ve tried that in recent days and that seems to work well. That way I do have a general note in my local system that contains the motivation for looking in more detail at an article.
  7. The API also supports sending annotations and updates to h. from e.g. my local system. Would this be potentially better for my workflow? Firefox and the h. add-on don’t always work flawlessly, not all docs can be opened, or the form stops working until I restart Firefox. This too points in the direction of annotating locally and sending annotations to h. for sharing through the API. Is there anyone already doing this? Built their own client, or using h. ‘headless’? Is there anyone who runs their own h. instance locally? If I could send things through the API, that might also include the Kindle highlights I pull in to my local system.
  8. In the same category of integrating h. into my pkm workflows, falls the interaction between h. and Zotero, especially now that Zotero has its own storage of annotations of PDFs in my library. It might be of interest to be able to share those annotations, for a more complete overview of what I’m annotating. Either directly from Zotero, or by way of my notes in Obsidian (Zotero annotatins end up there in the end)
  9. These first 100 annotations I made in the browser, using an add-on. Annotating in the browser takes some getting used to, as I try to get myself out of my browser more usually. I don’t always fully realise I can return to an article for later annotation. Any time the sense I have to finish annotating an article surfaces, that is friction I can do without. Apart from that, it is a pleasant experience to annotate like this. And that pleasure is key to keep annotating. Being able to better integrate my h. use with Obsidian and Zotero would likely increase the pleasure of doing it.
  10. Another path of integration to think about is sharing annotated links from h. to my blog or the other way around. I blog links with a general annotation at times (example). These bloggable links I could grab from h. where I bookmark things in similar ways (example), usually to annotate further later on. I notice myself thinking I should do both, but unless I could do that simultaneously I won’t do such a thing twice.

A personal knowledge management (pkm) and note making oriented rewrite by Dan Allosso of what was originally a guide for writing in the humanities by his father S.F. Allosso.

Allosso, being a historian, acknowledges the long history of methods that in the last 20 yrs or so were gathered under the pkm label. His advice on the why, what and how of making notes is more focused on their role in creating outputs than other texts about making notes (where output often is ignored or only addressed by hand waving).

At the very least that allows the notes maker to relax and to not obsess about doing ‘the system’ right to the point that it obscures what the system is actually for.

Short read, mostly well known territory but some useful takeaways still. Read as e-book.

In reply to Call for Model Examples of Zettelkasten Output by Chris Aldrich

Even while on hiatus I obviously cannot ignore Chris Aldrich’s call for examples of output creation systems and the actual output created with Zettelkasten style note card systems. For two reasons. One is that I fully agree with him that having such examples publicly visible is important. The other is that I recognise his observations about the singular focus on system design and tweaking often being a timesink precluding outputs (with the loudest voices often being utterly silent on output).

Here’s a first list of outputs from my system, without the receipts though as I’m writing this away from home with limited tools. After the list I’ll make a few general observations as well.

  • I have created 2 or 3 slide decks for client internal and conference presentations from my conceptual notes. First searching for notes on the topic, and the contextual factors of where the slide deck will be used. Then gathering the findings in what I call an ’emergent outline’ (Ahrens calls them speculative outlines). Or perhaps I already have an overview of sorts in the form of an ‘elephant path’ (a map of content, or annotated topical index) which normally help me navigate.
  • I have written blogposts directly from my notes. This is now easier than before, since earlier this year I created a way of publishing to this site from my internal notes. This allows me to write in a note, linking internally or including, all within the notes environment and then push the result out to the website.
  • I created some new personal insights from new connections within my notes. Not sure if that counts towards Chris’ definition of outputs. This results in new notes where the edge, i.e. the newly found link between two notions, gets expressed as a note in its own right. The first such connection (between my notions of Maker Households and Networked Agency) happened when I was about 35 notes ‘in’.
  • For a recent panel at a conference I collated my talking points from my notes
  • I use my notes a lot in work conversations, pulling up concepts as needed. I used to do this to pull up facts and earlier meeting notes with the same participants. Now I also use this to provide richer input into the conversations themselves, including pointing to sources and references. This emerged during the many video calls in the pandemic lockdowns, where it was easy to pull up additional material on one of my screens. Now that I have more meetings in person again, I find I still do this automatically. Whatever material I mention I also link in my own meeting notes. This has been remarked upon by conversation partners as a valuable thing.
  • I have some elephant paths I regard as output in their own right. One currently important to me is the Practices elephant path. It gives an overview of things I want to approach as a practice (which I place somewhere on the spectrum between habit/routine on one end and literacy (in the Rheingoldian sense of skill plus community) on the other end. Practices are the sweet spot to me for (groups of) knowledge workers to implement fields of theory in their own daily work
  • I maintain a client website directly from my notes on EU digital and data legislation. I have conceptual notes for all the regulations involved and maintain summaries alongside them. Those summary notes are automatically synced to GitHub and then published on Github pages as well as the client’s own domain. These same summaries also serve as outline and text for my frequent presentations on this subject, where the slidedeck is kept up to date from the notes that I am certain are always up to date because they are the notes I work with daily.

Some other observations:

What constitutes output? The ‘Luhmann had 90k notes and wrote 70 books’ mantra makes for a rather daunting benchmark to be compared against. I propose we count outputs that have utility to its creator. For me then there are two types of outputs from my notes. A group that is the result of better project tracking, allowing me to pick up where I previously left of, which is a valuable ratcheting effect. Me building my own micropub tools resulted from such ratcheting in 15 minute increments. This group of outputs results from notes, but not the conceptual notes of my ‘Garden of the Forking Paths’ (ie my Zettelkasten style collection). The other group results from re-using and re-arranging the material in my ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ and the example outputs listed above follow from it. In a sense all my work is an output of my notes and my experience, and my tools have always been aiding in my work. Yet there is a qualitative difference.

I have used notes based PKM for over two decades, and in hindsight it was mostly focused on reporting conversations, project stuff, conversations with myself, and many many examples of things I thought relevant. Those I would tag extensively, and I think most of those historic tags would now be their own conceptual notes, expressing the communality of the tagged examples and material, or expressing the link/edge between two or three of the tagged source notes as a notion.

Many of my conceptual notes (now 1000+) and ideas plus non-conceptual atomic notes (another 500 or so) stem from ‘atomising’ my archive of blogposts, and my presentations of the last 10-15 years. Many notes are thus created from earlier outputs themselves.

I recognise what Stephen Downes remarked, that creating the notes is the valuable part towards pattern recognition, and making output needs further gathering of new material. In part this is because adding things to my notes is aiding memory. Once it’s noted it’s no longer novel, and in that sense looses part of the surprisal (informational worth) that led to its creation in the first place. If outputs in my own mind need to be novel, then my notes are limited in value. (This goes back to earlier conversations of the 90% is crap heuristic which I see as feeding impostor syndrom. Outputs imo highly connected to impostor syndrom.

I don’t think I have actual established processes for outputs yet, I’d like to, and I don’t yet feel outputs created suggest as-effective-as-can-be processes yet. Maybe that is because I have not been really tracking such outputs and how I created them. I have become better at starting anything with interrogating my notes first, and putting them together, before starting exploration further afield. Often I find I already have some useful things, which gives a headstart in exploring anything new: there’s something to connect new findings to.

I do not think my current notes could yield something along the lines of a book, other than the nonsense kind of a single idea padded out with anecdotes. I also feel the method of information collection isn’t good enough to base any work on academically. This goes back to the earlier remark as to what qualifies as output of good enough quality.