Monday, July 27, 2020

the zettelkasten / the zeitgeist

Discussed: The idea of a Zettelkasten, note-taking, index cards, wikis, How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

This post roughly continues a thread that goes something like:


For the unfamiliar: “Zettelkasten” is German for “slip box”. It refers to a note-taking method where ideas and bibliographic references are stored on index cards or slips of paper.

There’s a decent chance my first exposure to the word was on a blog by Manfred Kuehn called Taking note, which started publishing in 2007 with an entry about Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten:

One of the more interesting systems for keeping such index cards was developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998). […] Luhmann claimed that his file was something of a collaborator in his work, a largely independent partner in his research and writing. It might have started out as a mere apprentice when Luhmann was still studying himself (in 1951), but after thirty years of having been fed information by the human collaborator it had acquired the ability of surprising him again an again. Since the ability of genuinely surprising one another is an essential characteristic of genuine communication, he argued that there was actually communication going on between himself and his partner in theory.

By the time I read that, I’d already spent time thinking about index cards as a way to organize knowledge, and experimented with a card box that might have become a full-fledged paper Zettelkasten if I’d kept at it. I think these ideas were on my mind because of C2’s stuff about index cards in software development, the notion of the Hipster PDA, and my friend Brent’s fixation on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Hypertext had been a preoccupation of mine for quite a while by the time I heard of Niklas Luhmann: HyperCard in the early 90s, the web, the wiki (with its roots in a HyperCard stack), Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Apart from introducing me to Ward’s Wiki, Extreme Programming, Agile, and GTD, Brent Newhall wrote a simple filesystem-backed wiki in Perl with some unique features. I wound up maintaining that code for years, and used it to keep a personal wiki on this site for at least a decade. (Any readers I retain from back then might remember that it functioned as a comment / “marginal notes” / linkblogging system here for much of that time.)

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten was a kind of paper hypertext. He numbered individual cards/slips in such a way that related things could be found in physical proximity, and made links between cards by referencing those identifiers.

So now it’s 2020 and the Zettelkasten is having a moment. Sort of a nested moment, inside of a larger one about note-taking and personal knowledge systems. I haven’t really traced out the web of influence here, but there’s been an escalating flurry of pieces like these:

There seems to be a thread of interest in the rationalist / LessWrong scene. Apart from that, I’d guess much of this is due to the work of Christian Tietze and Sascha Fast, who maintain a long-running blog and forum at, sell note-taking software for the Mac, and have recently begun promoting an online video course on the method. (I believe there’s also a book in the mix somewhere, albeit one not yet translated to English.)

Unsurprisingly, the community at is the most direct place to watch an entire ideological complex, complete with in-group vocabulary and evangelical fervor, crystallize around the core idea. That said, it feels like it’s spreading and mutating in the wild by now, and would probably continue to do so independent of any particular guru figure or canonical text.

how to take smart notes

If there were a canonical text in English, at the moment it would probably be How to Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens. That’s the book that gets mentioned over and over again. I bought a copy back in February, after skimming the first chapter and reading a bunch of blog material like the stuff linked above.

I decided to write up my notes here after I recommended reading it to a friend who turned out to thoroughly hate it, and seeing similar reactions elsewhere. Although it fails to make as strong a case for its ideas as it intends, I’ve personally found it helpful for thinking about my habits.

This is a short book - 170 pages with bibliography and a very brief index in this edition. It’s also substantially longer than it needs to be, which isn’t unusual for this sort of self-help nonfiction. To its credit, it’s fairly dense, but it veers into evangelism and salesmanship often enough to be frustrating, and makes claims that some readers will find questionable, if not off-putting. It also comes with a dose of pop-psych material.

Construed strictly, Ahrens' idea that “nothing else counts than writing” is too narrow a conception of work for most people. It’s simply not true for programmers, engineers, designers, customer service reps, or project managers — let alone general contractors, farmers, or electricians. Most people who could benefit from note-taking habits aren’t chiefly concerned with writing documents even when documents are integral to their work. Where the exhortation that writing is the only thing does ring true is when your goal is to produce written artifacts, e.g. to turn your reading into research output.

Smart Notes as a whole tends that way: It’s explicitly aimed at students, professional academics, and nonfiction writers. While I occasionally qualify as that last, none of those roles map to the scope of my note-taking. Accordingly, this is a book I read selectively and with a critical eye, gleaning what I could and generalizing where useful. I’d suggest other readers approach it the same, particularly if, like me:

  • You don’t work in an academic field.
  • You aren’t much concerned with writing papers.
  • You rely on your notes to archive collections of specific facts and remember sequences of events as much as to connect and synthesize ideas.

I do think it’s a useful read if you’re interested in the mechanics of a Zettelkasten and haven’t found what you’re looking for in other writeups, or if you’re just looking to yak-shave a personal knowledge system.

I don’t, strictly speaking, keep a Zettelkasten. I have, however, been borrowing ideas from people who do. After finishing How to Take Smart Notes, here’s some of what I think I’ve taken away from it and related sources:

  • Your notes can be:
    • An extension of your long-term memory.
    • A living system.
    • Capable of surprising you with new connections, forgotten ideas, and emergent patterns.
  • Writing is a means of thinking.
  • Read (or work) with a notebook to hand. Jot stuff down as you go.
    • Using the same notebook for everything will save you thinking about which one to write in.
    • The notebook can function like an inbox. Process things from there into permanent note storage, be that in electronic form or on index cards.
  • Track citations / bookmarks / bibliographical references.
    • Luhmann’s paper Zettelkasten seems to have used a dedicated card file for this. Ahrens recommends tooling like Zotero.
  • Work in small units.
  • Summarize/restate ideas instead of just quoting or excerpting things. Link them to other ideas already in your notes.
    • Just reading a text isn’t the same as understanding it. Restating an author’s ideas and integrating them with your existing knowledge is a kind of self-test, and facilitates learning.
  • Add stuff to your notes if:
    • It connects to something already in the notes.
    • It’s open to future connections.
  • You might understand something if you can effectively teach it.
  • Hierarchy is likely to get in your way. Draw connections within the whole space of ideas, without being limited to the current level/tier/box/rank.
  • “To get a good paper written, you only have to rewrite a good draft;” for a draft, a series of notes, for a series of notes, rearranging what’s already in the slipbox, which you’ve written as you go. “All you really have to do is have a pen in your hand when you read.”

That last one cuts pretty close to the heart of the method the book espouses. It’s focused on writing an academic paper, but if you fuzz it out a little I think it gestures at something more generally useful.

Most of the work of understanding things is incremental and piecemeal: Refining and tending a fragmentary web of memories, perspectives, practices, states, and relationships. Notes are a technology for accumulating that work and extending its durability outside of our skulls. Used well, they’re a foundation for making new things and a solid place to stand when faced with recurring problems.

further research or whatever

Anyhow, while I find the Zettelkasten thing interesting as a cultural happening, I’m not concerned with replicating it.

In the broad outlines, the notes I keep in VimWiki look a lot like an electronic slipbox. There’s a bunch of stuff in the Luhmann / Kuehn / Ahrens / trains of thought that seems useful to borrow, and lines up well with things I’ve already learned working with wikis, version control systems, bookmarks, and a couple decades of paper notebooks. On the other hand, there’s a lot in how I model the world and how I think in writing that doesn’t fit.

I often need to think in terms of when very specific things happened: State changes to complicated systems, what happened when I ran some technical procedure, when I planted a bed of onions. While restating ideas and situations in my own words is a good way to get a handle on various things, I also find it useful to archive verbatim fragments of conversation, specific texts, chunks of code, and long transcripts of program output. Some of my “notes” are really executable scripts, and a lot of my external memory lives in source code repositories, wikis, README files, command-line histories, and issue tracking systems.

All of that’s led me to thinking in terms of logs and journals, and roughing out some tools for a 2-axis time vs. topic approach that I’ll elaborate on one of these days. I’d also like to make more room in my system for integrating drawings, photos, and structured data, though I’m not entirely sure how to go about it.

In the meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about various collections of public notes (some more Zettelkasten-adjacent than others), stuff like:

p1k3 / 2020 / 7 / 27
tags: topics/notebooks, topics/notes, topics/reading, topics/zettelkasten

thursday, june 18, 2020

the sky turns heavy all afternoon
the cheap hardware store thermometer on the front porch
drops 20 degrees in a few hours

in the evening, it rains for a long time
we're out walking when it starts, halfway through
a habitual loop down to the river, past the labyrinth
and the parking lot full of deputies and the post office

it rains while i chop vegetables,
while we sit on the couch eating stir fry,
while we stand in the kitchen washing dishes,
and while i sit again at my desk, scratching notes
in ink and thinking that i ought to be thinking
something that weighs something

p1k3 / 2020 / 6 / 18
tags: topics/poem

Friday, June 5, 2020

fragmentary notes from a bad time getting worse (3)

Back on the 25th of May, four police officers in Minneapolis murdered a black man named George Floyd on camera.

In 2018, on a list of guesses to check after 5 and 10 years, I wrote:

No meaningful reforms of policing in America will have gained any traction. When I go to look at this list again, I will be able to recall one or more killings of an unarmed black civilian by law enforcement within the previous 2-3 months.

It’s only been two years, but the pattern has held and in a basic way I expect that it will continue to hold for years and decades to come: Because American law enforcement is a violently racist system. A system that both reflects the racism of the society it operates within and actively works to entrench that racism.

George Floyd isn’t the first black person I’m aware of being murdered by on-duty cops or cop-affiliated parties this year. He wasn’t even the first one that I learned about in May.1

I’m a work-from-home white desk-job professional living in one of the whiter places on the planet, surrounded by entrenched wealth. In my small-town neighborhood, the cops speed-trap tourists on their way to a national park and are otherwise largely ignorable. How many cop murders would I have known about this year if I lived in that enormous swath of America where the police function day-to-day as a hostile occupying force?

What if the pattern didn’t hold?

This time feels different than the last n iterations of this grim cycle. There’s been, as best I can tell, an explosion of police violence in response to a wave of protest that seems vast and not yet remotely contained. As I write this, people in my family are are marching. Cities like Lincoln, NE have seen actual unrest.

It’s long seemed to me that, for the most part, America knows how to neutralize street protest as a political force. The machinery contains, suppresses, deflects, and misinforms. Structures within government, law enforcement, news media, and activism itself all function to render it a kind of theater that mostly plays out for its own participants.

Whenever it feels like that machinery is breaking down, something is up.

Maybe it feels that way in part because the vicious, bullying, riot-inciting brutality of the cops is on such unguarded display right now. A display that might satisfy the longing to inflict pain and fear that fuels so much of our politics, but also throws the hypocrisy and complicity of authority into sharp relief and must put an incredible strain on the quiet consensus that usually keeps these things so manageable.

Don’t mistake this for hope. I’m not hopeful. All the same, it’s possible to imagine this as the moment it becomes thinkable to cut police department budgets, restrict police unions, end qualified immunity, scrap a bunch of surplus military gear, fund alternative forms of emergency response, and fire a lot of overt white supremacists.

And then meanwhile: The pandemic.

It’s been well over a month now since I first felt like social distancing efforts had pretty well ended where I live. There’s been almost a kind of weird sense of stasis since then. Things are more open than they were. The bar across the street is having bands in again. The road’s full of cars. But I think I underestimated the degree to which people were still laying low in late April, and even now it’s clear that things are far from normal.

  • WHO: 6,535,354 confirmed cases and 387,155 deaths globally
    • Late April: 2,804,796 and 193,710 deaths
  • NY Times: 1,883,033 cases and 108,194 deaths in the US
    • Late April: 938,590 cases and 48,310 deaths
  • 27,615 cases and either 1,524 or 1,274 deaths

It doesn’t seem, here, like there’s been the wild spike in cases I feared as things loosened in April. Nor does it seem like it’s anywhere near over. Talking to friends scattered around the country about this recently, a rough consensus: America ran out of attention span, now we wait and see how much of a tragedy that is. Of course that’s flippant and doesn’t really acknowledge the crushing economic and social pressures to reopen, but it’s not exactly wrong.

How does the state of the pandemic interact with mass street protest? I guess we’re going to find out.

How does the pandemic’s function as an ideological pivot point interact with mass protest? We’re going to find out, but I already know I don’t like the answer.

1 wp: Shooting of Ahmaud Arbery

p1k3 / 2020 / 6 / 5
tags: topics/colorado, topics/covid19, topics/george-floyd, topics/policing, topics/politics

Monday, May 25, 2020

feeds: linkblogs

Background: I’m writing some posts linking to feeds that I like.

Today’s theme: Blogs that curate interesting links.

Linkblogs were once a really common form, and if done lazily can be a formulaic waste of time, but there are a few people with a real knack for sifting out the good stuff who I find worth tracking. Three examples:

I do some linkblogging of my own. You can see stuff I’ve shared lately in the “linkdump” sidebar on the front page of this site, or subscribe to:

The Pinboard one in particular is strictly “stuff I want to remember”, not “stuff I think anyone else cares about”. It informs a lot of things I write here or work on elsewhere, and stands a fair chance of being deathly boring for readers who aren’t me.

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 25
tags: topics/feeds

Friday, May 22, 2020

feeds: stuff that makes me think

Background: I’m doing some short posts linking to feeds that I like.

Today’s theme: Some stuff that complicates how I think about the world in a useful way.

BIG by Matt Stoller is technically an e-mail newsletter, I guess, but Substack provides RSS feeds so that's how I subscribe. The tagline is "[t]he history and pollitics of monopoly power". Stoller is a thinktank type at something called the American Economic Liberties Project. I'm not actually sure I have much of a bead on his politics as such, and I'm frankly not smart enough to evaluate a large chunk of the claims made here, but I've found its take on monopolies pretty striking.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe is a blog on medieval history that talks about stuff like coinage, charters, architecture, and administrative matters. A special kind of drily fascinating, and a window into the kinds of deep research that you don't seem to get from a lot of popularizing works.

Feed URL:

Kiwi Hellenist offers detailed breakdowns of all sorts of stuff in classical antiquity and its footprint in modern culture.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

Snakes and Ladders - A while back, I made an effort to follow more conservative (religious or otherwise) outlets and writers, consciously trying to get outside of my filter bubble. A lot of it didn't stick, but I kept reading Alan Jacobs in various formats. He's a writer, an academic, and the sort of person who publishes in places like The American Conservative.

You should read that last as a disclaimer of many of his probable views, because he keeps intellectual & cultural company with some people I find it pretty hard to stomach. Once in a while I come pretty close to unsubscribing. All the same, I often read his work with some interest and find that it makes me more aware of a conservative Christian intellectual culture that, while super messed up about all kinds of things, is more complicated than the American talk radio / Focus on the Family / Fox News / beat-your-children side of things would suggest.

Feed URL:

Granola Shotgun has some rich-guy-prepper-landlord vibes, which might be offputting here and there, but also a ton of interesting thoughts and background on housing, urban planning, regulation, etc. I take this one with a substantial grain of salt, but it's filtered into my thinking about the dynamics of the American built landscape and how much dry goods I'd like to have on hand. Also uses just piles of photos, which while often individually mundane do an effective job of conveying a story or idea when taken in the aggregate.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 22


Benny Ambrose : life in the Boundary Waters / Ralph Wright-Peterson. - v54i03p124-137.pdf

Steerswoman Series

Ballotpedia: Colorado Proposition 113, National Popular Vote Interstate Compact Referendum (2020)

atomic-chronoscaph: “Dune” artwork by John Schoenherr

Rewriting the Technical Interview

Builders capacity, job types priority (#1873) · Issues · / gitlab-runner · GitLab


The Delacorte Review » The Black Dahlia

How Climate Migration Will Reshape America - The New York Times — «Once you accept that climate change is fast making large parts of the United States nearly uninhabitable, the future looks like this: With time, the bottom half of the country grows inhospitable, dangerous and hot. Something like a tenth of the people who live in the South and the Southwest — from South Carolina to Alabama to Texas to Southern California — decide to move north in search of a better economy and a more temperate environment. Those who stay behind are disproportionately poor and elderly.»

PHP: rfc:isset_ternary — Origins of null-coalescing operator.

Phoebe Bridgers Live at Red Rocks Unpaused (9/1/2020) #visibleXredrocks - YouTube

Scientific American Endorses Joe Biden - Scientific American

nkanaev/yarr: yet another rss reader

Rewriting the Technical Interview — These are basically perfect.

Pi-KVM - Open and cheap DIY IP-KVM on Raspberry Pi

TinyPilot: Build a KVM Over IP for Under $100 ·

– Wren — Mostly bookmarked because I really like their logo.

Letter to 20 years ago

Hire me!

Manual:Coding conventions/PHP - MediaWiki

Taking PHP Seriously - Slack Engineering