Back in 2012 E and I gave about half of our many books away as part of a BBQ party. We kept what we hadn’t read yet but still found interesting, as well as reference books and books we had read and felt attached to. In the decade since I’ve bought a lot of new books, based on interests, recommendations, or because they were mentioned in books I did read, and of course based on arbitrary reasons like the title and design jumped out at me while browsing a bookstore. Even though E and I don’t regularly descend anymore on a bookstore like a swarm of locusts on a field, something we did frequently in the past, over the years the collection of unread books I have has grown significantly. Those stacks of unread books carry a certain weight on my mind, a nagging backlog of books to read. I stopped buying for a long while because I ‘should’ read the others first.

Taleb in his book The Black Swan comes up with the concept of the Anti-Library. I don’t remember that specifically from reading The Black Swan, but I came across it again in this posting at Ness Labs. I do remember reading Taleb’s anecdote about Umberto Eco’s enormous book collection though, which concludes with the concept of the Anti-Library.

An Anti-Library is your personal curated collection of books, papers etc. that you haven’t read. Taleb posits that what you haven’t read, but did have reason to collect and adopt into your library constitutes a research tool. Because it has more potential value (in terms of new insights etc) than what you’re already familiar with and have read.

This puts the focus on how I can actively use the stacks of unread books around the house and on my devices, while at the same time letting go of the feeling of guilt attached to it (“I really should read that book I bought soon….”). This switches the perspective from ‘I bought this book to read immediately’ to ‘I bought this book so it’s there when I might need it’. From ‘backlog’ to ‘shelves of opportunity’.

Thinking in terms of an anti-library also allows paying attention to how you deliberately enlarge the collection of unreads, which is a curation task. The unread books aren’t random choices, they are a selected set of personal resources concerning themes you find interesting or that make you curious.

I de facto already have an anti-library, as the result of procuring books faster than reading them. To make it fully visible as such to myself and use it as a research tool, I probably just need to add a few tweaks. Such as:

  • Maintaining an index of unread books. I created a collection ‘Anti-library’ in Zotero, which also contains other collections with the references to things I did read. Zotero works well with both books and (academic) papers. I already had in my notes a list called ‘my reading list’ which is an overview of books I think would be useful to read at this moment in time, which I moved to Zotero. And I could make an additional round through my e-ink devices, and our home to add to the list of unreads.
  • When adding a new unread book, jotting down why I thought to add it. This is helpful context in evaluating it later. I do the same for bookmarks I store for later reading/turning into notes, where I write down why I thought it relevant and to which other things I think it might be connected.
  • Keep doing what I already do, which is checking out recommendations from peers, and what other books the ones I enjoy currently reading are referencing
  • I now post here about books I read sometimes, maybe I should do the same for books I acquired but didn’t yet read, and share the reason I think it might be an interesting book. Have an anti-library stream
  • When exploring a new question, consider which unread books may contain relevant insights (next to exploring what my notes already contain on the question at hand)

Book Case
The other side of a book case, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

I am finally getting to learn AlfredApp Workflows. Previously they looked rather daunting to me.

Since I moved to a new laptop I’m learning to do more with AlfredApp (it is Mac only, and I use the paid PowerPack option). On my old laptop I first only used it for custom search, such as finding a business on Open Street Map. Later I added the automated expansion of text snippets, which saves me a lot of typing during the day.

AlfredApp also allows you to make Workflows, where you string together triggers, inputs, operators, actions and outputs to automate tasks on your machine. I had previously looked at Workflows but they seemed complicated to me, judging by some example workflows I downloaded that weren’t at all clear to me. Early this morning I came across this video of Automating All The Things, where Aron Korenblit talks with Chris Messina about using Workflows (it was early and I did not jot down where I found the vid, in someone’s RSS, mastodon stream or someplace else, so HT to whoever pushed it in my stream)

this is just a screenshot from the video that links to the video on YT, not a video player: I didn’t want to embed YT video.

This morning I reckoned I wasn’t going to watch a 87 minute video, but I was wrong (though I did jump forward a few times). Chris takes Aron through the basics of building your own Workflows, and I now get what they are and how to build my own. First I’ve added some fairly easy things, like having typing ‘read’ open up my fresh articles in my TinyTinyRSS feedreader instance, or typing ‘blog’ followed by a type of post, e.g. ‘blog bookmark’ open up the correct editing window for it. Next, I will be thinking through my local routines and context switches, and how I might be able to assist myself by automating them. The video starts with a few quick tips on how to make AlfredApp easier to access and use for yourself, so it can get embedded in your muscle memory.

In our company we wanted to be able to give more to our team when we do better. When it comes to bonus rewards I’m very hesitant. I know both from literature and from personal experience it doesn’t aid motivation, and can be detrimental to it even.

I’ve worked in a company where there was a bonus system which on paper worked both for collective results and individual results but which ultimately was mostly geared to individual results. The current status of your individual bonus was presented in weekly spreadsheets which I ultimately loathed. To me it felt like it increased and emphasized differences and inequality in the company. Also, the company’s owners, as they worked in their company much as I and my partners do, participated in the system, and being the most active and experienced took home most of what was available for bonuses. That struck me as odd, because whatever the company made in profit would go to them anyway.

At the same time, I do think that if we’re doing well, better than needed, or better than expected, that everyone in the company should share in that additional result.

In late 2019 we discussed how we could approach it and came up with a way of establishing who would get what. For 2020 we then initiated the system.
The key elements we planned for at the start were:

  • We will collectively set yearly goals and quarterly goals derived from them. But those goals will not be financial, and goals are not targets. The goals are mostly qualitative and relevance, quality and development focused. Financial results will follow as a result from choosing and doing our work well.
  • The first type of collective reward is that we’ll celebrate if we achieve our (quarterly) goals as a team. How we celebrate is up for discussion at the same time as we set a goal. If we achieve 70% of our goal, we’ll celebrate modestly, if we achieve more, we’ll celebrate more extensively. All of us participate in this.
  • The second type of collective reward is financial. If our turnover grows beyond what we budget as break even point, 10% of the additional turnover for the first extra 100k, and up to 25% of additional turnover beyond that will be reserved for individual bonus payments, and partly for additonal ‘celebrations’ budget.
  • The individual bonuses are only for employees. Additional profit will flow to partners ultimately anyway, so we don’t participate in this part of the system.
  • I’ve incorporated this into the company budget. As we discuss the financial situation of the company transparantly with the entire team every month, there will be regular feedback on where we stand.
  • We assume that everyone contributes to the company’s results (if not, it will be part of reviews, and it has no bearing on the bonus system), and therefore all employees share on the same basis in the bonus system: the number of months of the year they were employed in the company. E.g. this year two colleagues were there the full year, one colleague 4 months, so the total bonus sum was divided through 28 months, and two received 12/28, and one 4/28. In 2021 there will likely be 3*12 plus 6 or so (if we find someone), equals 42 months as the basis for dividing the available bonus.

Of course the pandemic turned 2020 into a very different year from mid-March onwards. Many of our original goals became less relevant, team mental and physical wellbeing became much more relevant, or rather the prime concern. Due to the pandemic restrictions there wasn’t much opportunity to celebrate as a team either. Though we did grab the moments where we could, having a team lunch (sitting at a distance) al fresco, going for team walks (at a distance) etc. Business however was good in 2020, not in the least because we worked closely together as a team, much more so than we would have under the previous conditions when we would have been much more spread out at client offices. In the end we did much better than 2019. I regard it as validation of our principle of focusing on the relevance, quality and development of our work, and not on the financials. Those financials of course do matter, introduce potential constraints and opportunities, but are foremost a consequence of doing the right things well, not how we decide what doing the right things well is.

With the 2020 result, getting close to what I thought would be a stretch when I drafted the 2020 budget, we were able to grow our financial buffers as originally planned and provide our three employees with a nice additional pay day.

These weeks we’ve been formulating our 2021 goals. In the coming 11 months we’ll find out if the good result of 2020 was a fluke, or whether we think our system and its underlying assumptions hold water.

Unrelated, at the end of 2020 we also had a change of partnership structure. M offered his shares to us, as he has been busy with a different venture, and we invited J to join us as partner. We opted to keep a percentage of shares inside the company as well, with an eye of possibly making them employee owned in a next step.

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.

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?

Can you help me find additional blogs to follow? I am looking to broaden the scope of blogs in my reader. That broadening has two main dimensions: language and geography.

Some specifications for the type of blogs I am looking for:

  • Individual or group authored blogs, not company or organisational blogs. A blog maintained by a research group is an acceptable ‘in-between’ version. The reason is I see blogging as distributed conversations. Companies don’t have conversations. As a result I follow people, not blogs, in my feedreader
  • Some thematic overlap with my interests is needed, something to have those distributed conversations around. Such interests are: making, open data/source/access/everything, agency, civic tech, ethics, digital transformation for all, climate adaptation, knowledge work, complexity, philosophy of science/tech, change, learning

The areas I am looking to extend my blog reading towards are:

  • Indian bloggers, India based blogs in English
  • Chinese bloggers, China based blogs in English
  • EU based bloggers, in Spanish, French, Italian or German languages. Or Spain, France, Italy, or Germany based bloggers in English
  • Middle-, South-American bloggers in Spanish/Portuguese or English
  • Bloggers based in SE-Asia
  • Bloggers based in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South-Africa

Any pointers, or pointers to list- or aggregator sites to explore are appreciated.