Snake oil serendipity?

James Stuber reminded us that

“A good carpenter doesn’t use a swiss army knife; they have a toolbox. Each tool has a job to do, and each tool does that job well.”

and I replied:

“Exactly. In particular, Swiss Army Knife tools suck when they try to cover filing, meaning making, and collaboration. My promises only the second.”

Since then, I have been reminded of how different the jobs are that are done even with note management tools.

While the workflow I described in my new video is about just a few important notes, other usage scenarios involve a huge mass of pages:

A graph of 435 densely connected dots, colored by clusters.
This map depicts a roam user’s database (whose export file was freely downloadable), or more precisely, the 435 well-connected pages out of 1759 total pages. Obviously, no layout can visualize any reasonable gestalt here, in particular in the blue cluster in the lower right.

The motivation of such hoarding of links for later is obviously the hope for generating “future serendipitous connections”.

Is this hope justified? I feel a bit guilty that I may have suggested something similar myself: In a previous blogpost “Magic of Zettelkasten” I tried to explain the uniqueness and the surprising success of Niklas Luhmann’s approach with this very serendipity, as he found it in his huge collection of notes.

(And I almost regret having used the term ‘magic’ which attracts plenty of clicks but may sound like snake-oil promises which are currently spreading. Furthermore, what is currently being discussed as ‘zettlekasting’ does not have much in common with Luhmann’s original method, except the ‘atomicity’ of the individual ideas noted on separate index cards. For a more original version, see Daniel Luedecke’s tool rather than

The difference, however, is that Luhmann did the organisation of his cross-references manually, and I think this is what helped him to find serendipitous insights later. I doubt that the raw mass of machine-generated full-text matches can have a similar effect. When I played with the above-shown data, I was overwhelmed with tons of “Unlinked References”, and checking them one after another, will probably be more numbing than inspiring. I know how much work it is to sift through the keyword concordances of a corpus linguistics tool like Antconc, but at least these keywords are sorted by relevance and they are promising. Maybe the next step will be to employ some AI to fulfill the sprawling desire of getting one’s outstanding ideas as effortlessly as possible — Devonthink comes to mind.

An alternative approach for getting connected ideas would be, IMHO, to be open for them directly while reading a text. However, the goals for note-taking about one’s reading are very different, and some goals seem incompatible with this openness.

When notes are taken for a literature review (as in the above-shown example), an understandable strategy is to do this mass effort as economically as possible. Maybe to the extent that the “goal is to never have to return to the full text” (source). This, IMHO, enforces a style that is very much convergent, and focussed on the text at hand rather than open for one’s own divergent associations, and it forces into wrapping and fixing and into ultimate and definitive wording rather than gradually evolving understanding.

(In fact, I am rather proud that my own tool enables just the radical opposite of this style, in that you can use provisional summarizing labels just because you can always go back quickly to the details. And as I understand McGilchrist, the wrapping and fixing and focussing is just the opposite of a broad vigilant open attention that would enable new associations to pop up.)

Similarly, when the goal is to learn, in turbo style, things to remember, one’s efforts are being directed to passively absorbing the text at hand rather than associating new ideas. A telling indicator is for me, when I see students in the train with multiple marker pens but no pencil to write margin notes or questions or disagreements. I doubt that all the ideas come later when re-reading the marked stuff. For me, reading works best when I am permanently at the ready for deciding to write (voluntarily) about what I have just learned, e.g. to blog about it.

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Automagical links?

(I realise this has become a series, with part 2 here and part 1 here, about which kind of tools do help (me) thinking and which do not.)

Recently, there has been much buzz, even a “#cult”, about a new think tool that did not impress me at all.

A pedestal with a golden engraving saying "Cult".

What does it offer that seems so fascinating to some enthusiasts? It offers hyperlinks, backlinks, and autolinks (“unlinked references”). OK, hyperlinks are not very uncommon in online texts; backlinks are not very exciting if the links are also strokes on a map. And automatically generated links — I have more hesitation than fascination for them.

In my experience, automatic links tend to clutter up my display, both in text views and map views. Often they link things together that only incidentally share a term, and as in most search results, the ‘hits’ are often a miss. Often they are redundant and just add the transitive composition of two existent links.

So with this tool, my workflow would need another step, where I sift through the matches, deciding if these links are valuable serendipity, or clutter.

But I don’t like to sift through. With the information tsunami of the online world, this sifting habit has become a big ugly part of our lives. Yes, we are getting better at that and faster (to the extent that our reading habits are altered). But it is straining and makes tired. My guess is, this is because the workflow sequence is externally prescribed by the list from the machine, rather than by our own self-determination and discretion.

(I don’t like linear lists, generally. Probably for the above reason, that my mind feels somehow patronized and channeled with ‘leading-strings’. The long indented bullet lists of the hyped tool, are another feature that puts me off.)

At first sight, of course, the serendipitous matches catch one’s eye, and they probably cause a fascination for the results that are automatically (automagically) generated. And “networked thought” is a great idea (I use that term myself on my experimental quotation maps and pages). But once a tool is so autonomous that my own thinking process is interfered with, I react old-fashioned and become a Luddite.

So maybe I can generalize this sentiment: I don’t want the tool to present me with many artificial creations, or to dominate our joint efforts, but to augment my own way of doing it. I want a multi-purpose tool like a ‘hammer’ that fits closely in my hand, rather than an autonomous machine that spits out the ‘deus ex machina’, or generates hundreds of artificial thoughts that I need to sift through. If the tool’s strength is coping with the multitude of ideas, it can serve me well if it just sorts that multitude — such that browsing the list feels more intuitive and less straining.

Think tools should not consume my attention with their autonomous creations, but help me sorting things out for myself.

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Inspiring or distracting?

Gradually I can tell better which kind of tools do help (me) thinking and which do not.

In a previous post I contrasted the ‘sovereign-posture’ app with the ‘clerk’ that Engelbart envisioned, i.e., the tool that helped augmenting the human intellect. Apps that push themselves into the foreground, seem more patronizing than helpful to me.

Now there are also applications that come with plenty of endowment (provisions/ equipment/ ‘furnishings’?), and some fittings suggest themselves as proposals/ prototypes (templates/ ‘sand moulds’?) for our thought contents.

Eight colorful sand noulds lying in the sand

Image background adapted from Sand patterns in the dunes CC-BY-NC by Flickr user jennymackness

One vendor describes this in their video as follows:

“[The app] looks over your shoulder and offers to help” (here at 10:01)

Maybe for some users, such offers may function as an idea generator or a creative muse. For others (like me) they do not work; for users who know distraction-free software, such offers will even appear as obstruction and patronization.

Typically, software won’t accommodate both sorts of users. So, instead of just going ahead, I am often required to find or create a type (sand mould?) for my stuff. This classification, however, is exactly the paralyzing problem of premature pigeon-holing that prevents to see the gradually emerging connections — which is the main goal of our Condensr.

Posted in Personal Productivity | 2 Comments


Stephen Downes’s talk “about a way to redefine ethics” contains a lot that sounds plausible to me. In particular, I liked this:

“we learn ethics, but we learn them in such a way that we feel or experience a moral sense, rather than fully formed general principles” (slide 70 76)

I know almost nothing about philosophical ethics, so this is just my learning aloud. The simple 100-year-old distinction between “the ethic of attitude and the ethic of responsibility (‘Gesinnungsethik vs. Verantwortungsethik’)” by Max Weber, 1919, won’t suffice when the latter relates to Consequentialism/ utilitarianism/ hedonism/ liberalism, and the former to Deontology, rules and rights and perhaps virtues.

Map clipping of Max Weber's house

Image: Max Weber’s house in Heidelberg, on map by © OpenStreetMap contributors

Anyway, I have often been surprised by how many people today expect that some fixed scientific ethics should give them certainty about what rules to follow, and that it could perhaps somehow exonerate them from the accountability of choosing their own principles. As if ethics was mandatory like the law and not a voluntary contribution beyond the law.

This week, the talk pointed me to the ethics of care and its awareness for vulnerability and dependence. While vulnerability and dependence in education are no doubt a familar aspect for teachers or parents of smaller children, I must confess that I had not spent much thought about them. After all, in higher education, gaining intellectual independence seemed to me a crucial goal because, simply, someone must be able to decide even if there is nobody available who can be asked!

Now the “care perspective”, in the immediate situation, seems to take on the responsibility without trying to ‘delegate’ it. But the decisions and criteria need not always be independently derived. They may be learned from others who were in a similar situation and whom we may ask about how they would decide here. We may also ask others about what ethics they follow, but the ultimate accountability of adopting their ethics for ourselves, cannot be offloaded on to these others, or on to some higher authority.

Learning this ethics takes different ‘contagion’ paths, so to speak, which vary with the decreasing dependence. For infants, the cognitive ‘navel string’ is from mother and parents, later from family and friends, colleagues and communities of practice — the path is the same as for the primordial trust to be seeded and then grown. This percolation path may not yield perfect results and may be slow to change. But it is robust against nonsense from a central, influential source — just as Downes’s “successful networks” promise.

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I tried to understand Stephen Downes’s “Philosophical Foundations of Connectivism“. Here is what I excerpted and remixed: below, or better on an interactive map, or in the  transient wiki.

Screenshot of an interactive map that mirrors the wiki mentioned in the text

Sensations from anywhere

“We don’t just sense what we see, feel, touch, etc.; our sensations might arise out of interactions among neurons anywhere in the brain.” … (source section ‘Mind’)

“we experience our thoughts about objects and the like in the same way we experience sensations” (source section ‘Intentionality’)

“Why would the brain feed us sensory images that are ‘not real’ (that is, not caused directly by external sensations)?” (source section ‘Mind’)

Reflections also feed such images.

We experience

“here’s the story: the human brain is composed of layers of connected neurons. The top layer (or outermost layer) is the sensory layer. These neurons are densely interconnected with the next layer of neurons, and the next, and so on. Conscious experience is the firing of these inner layers of neurons.” (source section ‘Mind’)


“two major types of knowledge: qualitative and quantitative. Distributed knowledge adds a third major category to this domain, knowledge that could be described as connective.” …

“Connective knowledge is emergent.” (source section ‘Knowledge’)


Emergence is a hard concept, but at this point I can gloss it with a simple characterization: emergence is interpretation applied to connections.” (source section ‘Knowledge’)


“What we ‘know’ about the world is irreducibly interpretive. That is to say, we do not through our senses and cognition obtain any sort of direct knowledge about the world” (source section ‘Knowledge’)


“we do not through our senses and cognition obtain any sort of direct knowledge about the world” (source section ‘Knowledge’)


“Our thoughts about objects are not representations of the external world, they are not inferred from experience, they are sensations of the external world (which J.J. Gibson would call direct perception), and are experienced directly.” (source section ‘Knowledge’)

(My takeaway: Once we acknowledge the interpretation, there is no more need for puzzling about how the external universals etc. get into the mind.)

Emergence and recognition

slide 36 and video, 52:48

showing the relationship between emergent and recognition


“Knowledge is recognition” (source section ‘Knowledge’)

See also: Practice

See also: Emergence and recognition


Over time, if we see something that is similar, like we see a cat every day, a characteristic set of connections between neurons will form. Makes sense? See a cat, get a certain pattern of connections. Over time. Doesn’t happen after the first cat. It takes maybe, I don’t know, a hundred cats, to meet the same cat, meet different cats. You have this pattern of connectivity in the mind.”

“Such that, the next time you see a cat, that same pattern of neurons is activated.”

“Even better, the next time you see part of a cat, the patterns of neurons for the whole cat are fired.” (See Recognition)

(audio, 33:50)

“There is no ‘magic’ to obtaining knowledge, no secret short-cut, save for practice and reflection – Hebbian and Boltzmann connectivism.” (source section ‘Learning’)


Association mechanisms: Hebbian, back propagation, Boltzman, contiguity” (source section ‘Learning’)

See also Practice


“The concept of ‘redness’ is an example of distributed meaning. There is no particular place we could point to where the ‘meaning’ of ‘redness’ is located. (We could say ‘meaning’ = ‘connective similarity’?)”

“When the meanings of words are distributed, the basis of their meanings – the smaller subsymbolic entities that make up the meanings – are intermingled.”

(source section ‘Meaning’)


“meaning, both socially and neurally, have the same origin: meaning is an emergent phenomenon, arising from the connections between underlying entities. Socially, the underlying entities are speakers of the language, while mentally, the underlying entities are neurons and subsymbolic neural structures.” (source section ‘Meaning’)

Underlying entities

“if a human mind can come to ‘know’, and if a human mind is, essentially, a network, then any network can come to ‘know’, and for that matter, so can a society.” (source section ‘Personal and Social Knowledge’)

“meaning is an emergent phenomenon, arising from the connections between underlying entities. Socially, the underlying entities are speakers of the language, while mentally, the underlying entities are neurons and subsymbolic neural structures.” (source section ‘Meaning’)


“What makes some knowledge part of ‘social knowldge’ and other knowledge (merely?) personal knowledge? Why would a community accept (reliability) some things as ‘known’ and not others?” (source section ‘Personal and Social Knowledge’)


“the mechanism for attaining the reliability of connective knowledge is fundamentally the same as that of attaining reliability in other areas; the promotion of diversity, through the empowering of individual entities, and the reduction in the influence of well-connected entities”

“Just as a network with no connections has no capacity to generate knowledge, a fully connected network has no defense against jumping to conclusions. What is needed is to attain a middle point, where full connectivity is achieved, but where impulses in the network ebb and flow, where impulses generated by phenomena are checked against not one but a multitude of competing and even contradictory impulses”

(source section ‘Truth’)

Ebb and flow

“What is needed is to attain a middle point, where full connectivity is achieved, but where impulses in the network ebb and flow, where impulses generated by phenomena are checked against not one but a multitude of competing and even contradictory impulses.” (source section ‘Truth’)

See also Reflection

See also Reliability


“Knowledge in the mind is not a matter of mere numbers of neurons being activated by a certain phenomenon; it is an ocean of competing and conflicting possible organizations, each ebbing and subsiding (ebb and flow) with any new input (or even upon reflection).” (source section ‘Truth’)

“There is no ‘magic’ to obtaining knowledge, no secret short-cut, save for practice and reflection – Hebbian and Boltzmann connectivism.” (source section ‘Learning’)


Association mechanisms: Hebbian, back propagation, Boltzman, contiguity” (source section ‘Learning’)

See also reflection


“The creation of scepticism creates the requirement that we infer from the mental to the physical” (source section ‘Scepticism’)

“The problem of qualia (ie., subjective experience) arises only when I am making inferences about the external world.” (source section ‘Intentionality’)

“a presumption that our thoughts and beliefs about objects and principles and the world at large are the result of a logical inference from sensations to beliefs. We now know that there is no such inference.” …

“There is no principle of logic or reason that will allow an inference from concrete experience to abstract universal. ” (source section ‘Mind’)


And there is not, in human nature, a separate mental realm that reasons abstractly about the physical realm. (source section ‘Scepticism’)


“The Cartesian view – the nature of, and the behaviour of things (language, logic, mathematics, physics) was explained by universals. This fails (cf Hume).” (source section ‘Mind’)


“Consider a hockey game. We have memories of hockey, thoughts of hockey, but we don’t actually have a hockey game in our head. A cognitivist would say we create a semantic representation of hockey in our mind,” (source section ‘Meaning’)


“Connectivism attempts to describe what is *actually* happening in thought and consciousness (because it’s not a semantically based language of thought).” (source section ‘Meaning’)


“The central idea of association is this: two things that are relevantly similar become connected in the mind.” (source section ‘Learning’)

See also: practice


“The central idea of associationism is this: two things that are relevantly similar become connected in the mind.”

“Association mechanisms: Hebbian, back propagation, Boltzmann, contiguity”

(source section ‘Learning’)


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Traversing a network

This video shows a short journey through a word network from Roget’s thesaurus, in two different versions.

Thumbnail of a screencast showing navigation in a word map

In the first version, you will see a normal text pane on the right side, with normal hyperlinks that cause the page content to change. You can ignore the chaos in the left pane which depicts the entire database of all relationships, because it is normally uninteresting where they are stored in the system.

In the second version, you see the same items and lines in a disentangled view such that the spatial proximity of the words corresponds to their semantic proximity.

For me, this makes a big difference, and I wonder why this simple ‘small tech’ edutech method is not more widely deployed. (Perhaps this has something to do with a scientific relic from the paper era.)

For a description of how this demo can be tried out or created, see this post or this video.

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Depth, once again

An interesting question has been asked in the context of disadvantages of interdisciplinary work:

“how could an increase in breadth not be accompanied by a loss of depth? #HereticTweet” @patrick_sahle

I wonder if this is possible if a distinction is made between a kind of ‘active’ breadth (‘possessing’ the foreign domain knowledge oneself), or a ‘passive’ breadth where one is able to listen to the other side. While the active breadth would certainly cause a loss of depth, perhaps the passive variety would not?

The old question of breadth vs. depth has bothered me for long, e.g. in the contexts of zooming or picking. I don’t see interdisciplinarity as dangling somewhere in between, but rather as being closer to the other side, and the associated picture in my mind is a narrow lane with protruding upper storeys.

Italian narrow lane with protruding upper storeys where a clothesline spans from one side to the other.

Interdisciplinary work IMHO, would not mean living on the clothesline in between.

Of course this issue is particularly interesting in the digital humanities (DH) where both the IT side and the humanities side might mutually suspect the others as being merely shallow humanists or shallow IT people.

Recently I came across a white paper from the DH research software engineers whose roles are either embedded (within the humanities institutes) or more service oriented (in central facilities). I have worked in a central facility, at a time when some colleagues indeed did not ‘listen’ to the needs of humanities scholars. But some of us did, and the cooperation was fruitful.

It was, however, not on the basis of project contracts and specification sheets traveling from one side to the other, but in terms of gratis infrastructure, which fostered mutual listening, and flexible design decisions that might today be called more ‘agile’ than ‘waterfall’. Furthermore, the central role made it possible to identify similar needs in different disciplines, rather than believing that all tools need to be bought specifically tailored to the single topic.

Such work was, however, not suited to gain academic merits. So today, the infrastructure idea seems no more popular.

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Top ten tools

In the last few years I could not recommend all my important tools because the RSS reader was out of service and had big problems. Finally I found a new one, so my list for @C4LPT is now, like 2007 and 2014, complete again:

(All my tools are Jane Hart’s category 1 (own personal and professional learning). As previously, I tagged them with LTM (Extension of Long-Term Memory), STM (Extension of Short-Term Memory and I/O (Input/ Output)).

  1. Notepad (LTM)
  2. QuiteRSS (I/O)
  3. Twitter (I/O)
  4. (STM)
  5. WordPress (LTM & I/O)
  6. Evernote (LTM)
  7. gRSShopper (I/O)
  8. FedWiki (I/O)
  9. Diigo (LTM)
  10. Slack (I/O)

1. Notepad: for quick notes to self, for drafts of longer emails, and for texts that will become HTML. With its quickness, immediacy, and lightweight, it is closest to paper.

2. QuiteRSS: as RSS reader. Since I think RSS is a great blend between email and web I don’t like it to be too much integrated into either of them, but rather love a specialized, standalone desktop reader.

3. Twitter: as RSS replacement for those who don’t use RSS.

4. (my own tool): for quickly capturing associations and rearranging items to shorten the distance between related ones, such that new connections can more easily be seen.

5. WordPress: both as blog (the public version, I/O), and for notes management (my private local one on the XAMPP stack, LTM).

6. Evernote: for capturing small text notes when I am away from my normal machine (LTM).

7. and 8. gRSShopper and FedWiki: See idiosyncratic tools below.

9. Diigo: as replacement for Delicious for bookmarks that don’t warrant a whole blog post but are too valuable for being flushed down the twitter stream (LTM):

10. Slack: reluctantly when collaborators insist on it (I/O).

Last year I did not spend as much time as before with Cmap and PBworks (previously 7. and 9. — despite I still like them). Rather, I invested more time in exploring and using a special kind of tools.

Idiosyncratic Tools

There are some less popular tools that might be called ‘idiosyncratic’, such as my own tool, or gRSShopper, or FedWiki, or Luhmann’s Zettelkasten.

All of these differ from the mainstream tools in a certain same way: You notice that they were crafted for the developers’ own use, and tailored to their recurring real needs, not as a fixed offering that exploits low-hanging fruit. While the latter often exhibit the ‘sovereign posture’, push themselves in the foreground and are specialized to a narrow context, the idiosyncratic tools resemble the clerk that Doug Engelbart described in his visionary text about the augmented intellect:

Engelbart did not describe such a fixedly defined way of interaction with, and separation from, the clerk as the modern ‘interface’ that we are used to. Rather, the user seemed to continually readjust this division of labor. The user “would find it very natural to develop further techniques on their own“ (see this post for the context and source).

The idiosyncratic tools are often quite simple and universally applicable (more like Notepad or a sheet of paper). Their strength is not the shiny designed features, but more general affordances and opportunities for adaptation. But their benefit may not always be immediately obvious; they may require a short steep learning curve, and as readjusting they may be ‘perpetual beta’. They require (and also offer) some understanding of their simple mechanisms, and thus avoid the notorious patronization by intransparent black boxes. Their developers invite others to try them out, much like cooking recipes are exchanged for mutual appreciation.

Like WordPress, the Federated Wiki (8.) can also be used locally (thanks to @holden’s post), not only on a public server (where this description is useful). After a short learning phase, I started to notice the charm that comes with the short, modular, and hence well connectable, pages.

The gRSShopper (7.) fascinated me so much that I created several posts and some pictures.

Four sample graphics showing models that are detailed in the linked texts. Two featuring an assembly line, two featuring post-it notes.

Mental and concept models of gRSShopper and Condensr

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Fear of clicking

Fifteen years ago today, I started this blog. Much has changed since.

Not only do I get less clicks, comments or links. According to my wordpress statistics, the resources I link to are also hardly clicked any more.

So why are people so hesitant to interact with smaller sites — to interact with each other? I suppose social media is an intimidating business that generates lots of mistrust.

Initially we subscribed to feeds that we trusted to be not only honest but also relevant and worth our clicks. Today, people subscribe to major news outlets and hundreds of ‘must read’ celebs — and are then surprised to receive tons of rubbish and intrusive popups. Hence it is understandable that they are very skeptical about any new or unknown source. Is it trying to ‘sell’ me something?

As my older readers will remember, before telephone spam became widespread, there were peddlers who went from door to door trying to sell their stuff, and they were most often turned away.

A figure behind a door making the gesture of turning away someone like a door-to-door peddler

Artwork by HiHo

If the sole reason behind blogging was getting readers, small blogers would probably feel sometimes like such peddlers. Fortunately though, writing a blog also helps clarifying and wrapping up one’s thoughts, much like keeping a diary — or a log-book, as the original meaning suggests: the ship log about the findings on one’s cruise across the web.

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Categories for Sorting

I need categories. Not for neatly dissecting the world, but simply for sorting. Because unsorted lists require fast context-switching. That’s why I prefer Downes’s articles in a categorized list: (downesarticles) — and why the social media streams exasperate me.

With a sorted list, my brain can leverage the ‘priming’ effect of the similar previous readings, and immerse into their context such that a deep understanding is more likely. By contrast, switching contexts too quickly, is straining and unnecessarily overwhelming and confusing. I suspect, of course, that the confusing and dumbing effect of the stream is very welcome for the big platforms: so they can offer their patronizing guidance and recommendations. The more glaring, screaming and intrusive, the better.

Two colums of color stripes: On the right colirs are sorted by rainbow order, on the left (stream) they are chaotic and screaming.

I must not deny that, sometimes, I fall prey to scrolling the stream. When I am tired and have no energy left for sustained engagement, I look for quick bits of stimulation. (Thanks to Jack Vinson for his multitasking post and pointers.) These bits seem like quickly energizing sugar, while long-digesting fatty acids are then unattractive for the moment. The candy bits promise superficial engagement and novelty. (See here what Iain McGilchrist said about novelty vs. newness if you want a deep dive into his context.) So, the stultification works, and leads people ever more to dependence and from pull to push.

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