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  • Home and alone

    Though I am far from my homeland
    I have never felt so intimately at home
    In a country that is not my own
    I am surrounded by those who are like me
    Who understand my struggles
    And yet I feel so lonely
    Lost in a sea of faces
    Each one belonging to a different world
    I am the immigrant
    Who feels both lonely and intimately at home


    Home is a state of mind.

  • Why AI-generated art can lead to greater appreciation of traditional art.

    In recent months, there has been a growing trend of people using AI to create art. While some may see this as a threat to traditional art forms, others believe that it can actually lead to a greater appreciation of them.

    One of the main reasons why AI-generated art can lead to greater appreciation of traditional art is because it can help people to understand the process of art creation. By seeing how AI creates and interprets art, people can start to understand the thought process behind it and the decisions that need to be made. This can then lead to a greater appreciation of traditional art, which is often created with a similar process in mind.

    Another reason why AI-generated art can lead to greater appreciation of traditional art is because it can help to broaden people’s understanding of what art can be. For many people, traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture are the only types of art that they are familiar with. However, by seeing how AI can create art, they can start to understand that there are other ways to create art that are just as valid. This can then lead to a greater appreciation of all types of art, not just traditional forms.

    So, while some may see AI-generated art as a threat to traditional art forms, in reality, it can actually lead to a greater appreciation of them. By helping people to understand the process of art creation and the different types of art that exist, AI-generated art can help to make the world of art more accessible and enjoyable for everyone.

    Written by an AI.

  • Knowledge Management for the Distracted Mind

    I have an attention deficit disorder, and I struggle with forming and sustaining elaborate thoughts and ideas. This is especially the case in the realm of intellectual productivity. My ADHD doesn’t allow me to properly externalize my thoughts, and I frequently find myself in shallow cyclical thinking whose only purpose, it seems to me, is to further exaggerate my symptoms, overwhelm my executive functions, and fatigue my mind. Flimsy thoughts, distractions, and hyperactivity have been my nemeses ever since I started to consciously address my symptoms. An area of recurring pain and disorientation has been knowledge management. I consider myself a generalist (perhaps a side-effect of my wandering mind), yet I have never been able to sustain a robust system for managing my writing, research, and notes. Everything that I have tried has fallen apart at some point in the process.

    Three years ago, however, I adopted a knowledge management system that productively utilizes my ADHD tendencies in pursuit of knowledge and clarity, and it hasn’t failed me yet. The system respects the generalist attitude that I have adopted and has transformed the way I form ideas and consume information. Its name is Zettelkasten and its creator is the famous German sociologist Niklas Luhmann.

    A Zettelkasten consists of individual notes where each one represents an idea, categorized in a hierarchical, alphanumeric manner, which allows the author to infinitely branch out notes, hyperlink them, and accumulate them in “hub” notes to generate lines of thought, topics and research areas.

    In this article, I will briefly describe how the method works, how it has helped me in my intellectual endeavors, and point you to helpful resources for getting started. Having said that, this article, although quite long, is not a comprehensive representation of the Zettelkasten method. Its goal is only that of a superficial introduction as a potential tool for non-fiction writers, researchers, life-long learners, and, of course, ADHD “generalists.” The discourse on the method is much more involved, and I have linked several sources below that better articulate it.

    With a little bit of patience and a few (perhaps a lot of) false starts, you too can forgo the conventional folder structures and tagging systems that plague the knowledge management world for a serendipitous, hyperlinked conversation partner, your own Zettelkasten.

    All you need to get started is pen and paper (for an analog system) or plain text files on your computer.

    Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten

    Luhmann, 1927-1998, was a professor of sociology at Bielefeld university in Germany, and was one of the last advocates of a “grand theory.” To pursue this endeavor he followed developments in disciplines outside of sociology such as law, theology, biology, public administration, political science, etc. By the time he died, he had published more than 500 works and had left many more unfinished, which were subsequently published after his death.

    As an avid reader and note-taker, he considered his notes as assets to his intellectual future, and so he never discarded any of them, in expectation that they would aid him to the development of new ideas later on. He found conventional knowledge management to be flawed and a hindrance to serendipity. With trial and error, he devised his own system that was topic-agnostic and had the ability to surprise him with long-forgotten ideas and new insights. Its power was such that he referred to it as “a second memory.” The system consisted of slips of paper or index cards (his zettels) arranged in a wooden box drawer (a kasten)—thus the name Zettelkasten—one after the other, wherein each note bore a unique number on the upper left corner so that he could individually address and locate his ideas as they dispersed themselves across the file.

    Niklas Luhmann and a portion of his Zettelkasten

    In addition to identification and atomic reference, the numbered sequence of cards allowed him to infinitely expand and interconnect his line of thoughts, thus enabling him to merge otherwise distinct concepts and patterns of thinking that, under conventional knowledge management systems, would require separate filing locations and more rigid structures.

    In absolute terms, Luhmann’s file consisted of 90,000 notes, divided in two collections. The first collection (1951-1962) included topics in law, public administration, political science, philosophy, sociology, and other areas. The topics were spread in 23,000 cards divided over 108 sections, in addition to a keyword index and two bibliographies. The second collection (1963-1997) included just 11 top-level sections and hundreds of subsections, totaling 67,000 notes. The fact that the second collection only employed 11 top-level sections, or topics of inquiry, demonstrates a problem-solving approach whose focus was to make cross-topic connections and not rigid categorization (Schmidt, 2016). It is the second collection’s functionality and promise as a system that enables serendipity that has thrust Luhmann into the spotlight in the recent years.

    To the outsider, Luhmann’s system resembled a chaotic accumulation of notes irrespective of topic and subject, though in reality the system was depended on a complex interconnected structure, which promoted a systematic concentration of topics and their evolution, and which did not strictly adhere to a traditional filing method. Notes relating to each other were placed in physical proximity in accordance to his numbering system, but before that could happen they had to be assigned a top-level order. Top-level ordering (as indicated by the first number in a card; e.g., “[1].0 = Ancient civilizations”) was important in the beginning but later became largely a matter of ambiguity because over time, notes accumulated in large clusters and branched away from the top-level relationship, transforming into their own topics and lines of thought that bore minimal resemblance to the original category. Therefore, top-level order was quickly rendered redundant and the placement of notes was solely determined by their relationship to existing ideas in the file. 

    Referencing & the keyword index

    According to Schmidt, J. (2016), Luhmann believed that the usefulness of a new note in the file was determined based on the ability to relate it to existing ideas. This method of filing created a problem because it was entirely conceivable to have more than one suitable place for a note. This is where internal referencing and a keyword index were utilized to solve the problem.

    When similar notes were found in other parts of the file, a referencing system was deployed to bring everything together, thereby further obscuring the initial categorization from the reality that existed in the center of the file. Luhmann used three types of references to connect his ideas:

    1. An outline structure of ideas that needed to be addressed in a section, placed at the the very beginning of a cluster of notes.
    2. Collective references (or hub notes): At the beginning of sections, he included notes from other parts of the card index that might relate to the topic being developed.
    3. Single references, which resembled hyperlinks, directly referencing individual notes in the file.

    Finally, the chaos of references and endless lines of thought was tamed by utilizing a central keyword index. The keyword did not aim to capture the entirety of the file, for it was not conceived of as a table of contents. Its main goal was to provide entry points to notes in the file so that ideas and topics could be located more efficiently. The index also aimed to accomplish thematic completeness (Schmidt, 2016). Keywords where chosen wisely and sparingly. Luhmann determined that they should be purposefully broad and contextual so that a search for a specific line of thought would uncover other potential referenced paths and clusters of ideas that he could take advantage of, and which could provide fresh insights and inquiries.

    My implementation & the anatomy of a note

    Now that I have explained a little about how Luhmann’s method works, I want to show you my digital implementation of the method which utilizes markdown files (plain text) and two folders: one bibliographical and another for the zettels. The bibliographical section, unlike my zettels, is alphabetized and contains literature notes from my readings. It acts as a simple reference archive.

    The following list of notes has been copied from a larger section of my zettels folder. The number six, before the dot, denotes “psychology” in my index, which is a top-level section, but entries relating to this category can be found all across my file. For example, I maintain a section that tackles stories, fiction, and narratives wherein psychological concepts and ideas tend to develop. When that happens, I either hyperlink notes so that I can establish a bidirectional relationship between them or input them in the reference hub note in my psychology section (usually that would be the very first note; e.g., 6.0 – Psychology Reference).

    As you can see, the list is represented alphanumerically. Let’s focus on 6.2h. When I created the note 6.2h, I kept reading and researching and eventually wrote another note which I marked as 6.2i. Further reading uncovered additional ideas that were more related to 6.2h than to 6.2i or any other note, and so I alternated from letters to numbers to be able to input my new notes directly below 6.2h. This is how clusters are created. These ideas do not need to be hyperlinked to each other because they are placed in close proximity and so a search for one note will uncover its surrounding notes as well.

    Now let’s examine the anatomy of a single note:

    Every note that I create is marked with an alphanumerical ID, followed by a short description of the contents of the note, which comprises the title of the file, helping me identify it when I perform searches. Below the title I place the hyperlinks. This note is found in a cluster in the psychology section, but I have referenced 21.2f (an idea that resides in a different part of the file) as a note that directly relates to it. If I click on the hyperlink, I will be transported to the notes within 21.0 which contains new branches of ideas and topics for exploration.

    Below the direct references I enter the contents of the note. I aspire to make my notes as short as possible so that one note holds a single idea.

    The last and most important tool in my system is a manual index that provides me with entry points to my ideas and research. As I mentioned before, the goal of the index is not to capture every note in the file but to display thematic completeness, to act as an entry point only. Luhmann’s index was alphabetized, but I have chosen to group my entry points in relation to each other since I do not yet have a large enough number of zettels to necessitate an alphabetized order for clarity’s sake.

    Why it is a great system for the ADHD mind—and everyone else

    Friends often ask me why this knowledge management method is a good fit for my ADHD mind. I have come up with a few reasons through observations and reflection.

    First of all, you don’t have to worry about rigid organization: you can link your clusters to other locations or hyperlink individual notes. You can pull together disparate ideas in “hub” notes to create new topics. You maintain an index that is not permanent and can change at anytime to reflect the thematic evolution of your ideas. You can work on a number of interlinked projects simultaneously. The system is designed to allow you to work on what you are interested the most: If you lose interest on a project or line of thought, let it be and you might stumble upon it as you explore and link different ideas later in the process. Zettels or notes are designed to be atomized, individual thoughts or ideas, not paragraphs, thus making it easier for you to construct and visualize logical sequences and arguments. It encourages you to think in writing, thus externalizing your ideas into words, revealing their true meaning: that way, scattered thinking can be clarified and adjusted in the broader context of your interests. You do not lose your notes, for they have a permanent location. The index is your treasure, providing you with entry points to your thinking and sources. No space limitations: you can infinitely expand your writing in any direction and link ideas as densely or sparingly as you want.

    Personal benefits from using the method

    Sönke Ahrens, the author of How to Take Smart Notes, one of the best introductions to the Zettelkasten method, states that every intellectual endeavor begins with a note. Conventional wisdom follows that one should first identify a topic and then begin researching it. The Zettelkasten approach, however, encourages you to look inside your notes and identify clusters that you can expand upon to form a manuscript. And this is exactly what I did in my senior year of college: I utilized the bottom up approach of analysis and idea generation that my Zettelkasten afforded me, and I produced papers that earned me the marks representative of my note-taking effort. That was in contrast to my fellow classmates, who would take days or even weeks working on their papers, hunting for evidence to satisfy their topics, in a trickle down approach. By the end of my senior year, my Zettelkasten had reached a critical mass of notes where new ideas simply joined existing ones like Legos.

    My capstone project (the culminating project of a class in college) was a broad, policy-orientated essay where every student could pick their own topic. I knew where my interests laid, because I was clustering them and linking them across my Zettelkasten for months and so unlike my peers, I did not have to brainstorm a research question and then go hunting for the evidence: I possessed the evidence and critical opinions, and the only thing I had to do was piece them together. Of course, this process did not help me with all my projects, for I only take notes on the things that I find intellectually rewarding and interesting. At times, I was forced to use the traditional trickle down approach to write papers, but over the course of months that approach had become less essential to my workflow.

    Outside of academics, I use my Zettelkasten to develop ideas, arguments, and views that I can later use in essays, books, and articles. (This article was written by compiling existing ideas in my Zettelkasten.)

    Alphanumerical IDs, timestamps, and links

    In the modern Zettelkasten world, new software tools bring emphasis on timestamps as unique IDs—e.g., 210622163204 (Year/Month/Day/Time), which can be automatically generated and used to identify a specific note—but it is my belief that if you really want to bring about the full scope of the method, as constructed and realized by Luhmann, you have no choice but to use a hierarchical numbering system that alternates letters and numbers (or something thereof). I understand that there are variations of the method (for example, using it as a relational database, embracing computer search, tags, and hyperlinking), but despite the number of different adaptations that exist, Luhmann’s alphanumerical order triumphs as the most logical and sustainable. It should be conceded, however, that, compared to newly refined digital approaches, Luhmann’s technique provides a little bit more friction, in terms of placing zettels in their respective positions, but it overall better facilitates the identification of notes and visualization of clusters because hierarchy physically concentrates ideas, allowing for less, yet equally effective linking by applying links only to distanced areas of the file. Many new approaches on the internet lack that natural concentration of notes thus forcing excessive linking, which tends to become unsustainable as one’s file grows.

    Furthermore, the alphanumerical structure itself can assist one’s thinking. Even though its impossible to remember everything written within the notes themselves, the fact that they are placed in a sequential order and are branching out allows you to have a mental outline of the topics and ideas within your file, thus giving you an extra degree of independence by being able to communicate your ideas without the presence of the notes.

    A feasible alternative to the alphanumerical method that I have thought of is branching zettels in a outline form so that I can have a permanent location, link across them, and indent to denote lines of thought, yet this also proves insufficient if I want to expand too deeply, for too much indentation visually impends the structure that I seek to establish. Indentation becomes much more subtle in a numbered sequence.

    Friction in your Zettelkasten

    To expand a little bit more on the idea of friction, a frequent justification for using software implementations is to have the ability to remove it or minimize it. Friction, however, is an important part of a successful Zettelkasten, that’s why I attempted to replicate Luhmann’s system using plain text files and a single folder as my tools to keep my system more intentional. The same methodology but on a screen. Obviously, all processes become faster than using paper, yet slow enough to cause the author to carefully consider aspects such as branching, hierarchy, keyword index maintenance, and cross-file referencing (achieved either through direct links or hub notes). For instance, if I need to create a new note, I have to consider its position based on its relationship with existing ideas and then assign it a unique ID (e.g., 3.6a – Niklas Luhmann) which must then be linked to other related notes and topics (though this is not always the case because some ideas are specifically contained in clusters) as well as be reachable from the index. It might seem tedious and slow, but then again, Luhmann did all of that using nothing but a pen and paper.


    Lastly, one of the main characteristics of a successful Zettelkasten implementation is the system’s attractive force towards the author. The system should motivate you to tinker with it, explore it, endlessly write in it—as a means of thinking—and pursue a journey of interconnected thought patterns and ideas. In other words, it needs to be addictive, to actively be calling for your attention, to be a externalized, polished reflection of your mind and intellectual endeavors. Then, and only then, you will get the most out of it.

    There is nothing worse than an idle system, for that would not be a Zettelkasten but an archive.

    I have transitioned away from my digital implementation. I now use pen and paper. Learn more here: From a notecard to your inbox

    Sources and reading

    There is a lot of discussion about the Zettelkasten method on the internet. Below you will find a list of sources for further reading, as well as a few software tools that I recommend.

    Reading:

    • How to Take Smart Notes – This was my first introduction to the Zettelkasten method. It is a practical guide as well as a thesaurus of research on learning, mastery, and note-taking.
    • zettelkasten.de – Articles and forums dedicated to the Zettelkasten method.
    • Johannes F.K. Schmidt (article 1) & (article 2) – Schmidt provides the most detailed account of the innerworkings of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten. Some paragraphs tend to be a little dense, so you might have to re-read some sections.
    • Luhmann’s digitized Zettelkasten – Follow this link to get lost in the oasis of Luhmann’s zettels.
    • The website of Scott Scheper – I consider Scott to be the foremost authority on the analog Zettelkasten. Watch his videos, read his writing, and get your hands on his upcoming book, if you are serious about embracing the analog world of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten.

    Software:

    • Zettlr – Free and open-source
    • The Archive
    • Simple plain text files
    • Pen and paper!

    The cool kids on the block are Roam Research and Obsidian.

    References

    Ahrens, S. (2017). How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking: for students, academics and nonfiction book writers. CreateSpace.

    Schmidt, J. (2016). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine. In A. Cevolini (Ed.), Library of the written word: Vol. 53. Forgetting machines. Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe (1st edition, pp. 289-311). Leiden: Brill.

  • A wandering mind

    We were sitting inside a coffee shop at the corner of a block in downtown Manhattan. I can’t remember what time it was, but it was past noon, for the high-rise buildings had eclipsed the sun, casting a refreshing shadow. Two of my friends had invited me to talk about an extra-curricular opportunity, a social impact challenge in collaboration with IBM and my college. I had accepted to meet because I needed experience and the undertaking sounded intriguing. Our goal was to nail down the requirements of the challenge and find a social problem we could address, using IBM’s Watson.

    The conversation started off productively; although, because our table was facing the street, I couldn’t help but occasionally drift off to glimpse at the pedestrians and the sea of yellow taxis rushing both on sides of Park Avenue. I wasn’t the odd one—the bulk of our time was spent on casual conversation. I was in one of those reveries when my friend turned to me and inquired about my interests. I was surprised because nobody had ever asked me about my aspirations. Confidently, I replied, “Well, I am more of a generalist, really.” This statement was true considering my ambiguous college direction—a high school student with a love for biology and science that enrolled in college as a business administration major that later turned to public affairs, whose interests included being a part of the college’s literature club, and who later decided to pursue law school.

    A pause ensued. Then both of my friends looked at each other and proceeded to laugh at me. I was surprised and shocked, and at that moment, I felt the weight of the Empire State crushing my chest. I gasped and tried to explain what I meant by that term but to no avail. The more I tried, the more I realized that I had no sense of direction. Perhaps it was a blow back to reality, and words are great at facilitating that.

    For the rest of the conversation I was left feeling ostracized and unable to concentrate on their plans, aimlessly and fitfully agreeing to their decisions for the project.

    Back then, I despised the idea of specificity and specialization, but I was envious of the breadth of my friends’ knowledge within their respective realms. They had painfully pointed out my lack of focus, whereas both of them seemed driven by a concrete image, therefore allowing them to operate within narrow and specific contexts. The problem that was not unique to me but only came to realize that day was that trying to be everything makes you nothing at the same time. My position was no longer sustainable, at least in the context of that analysis.

    The solution to my problem was to pick something rather than nothing and master that. A simple idea, indeed, but to my inherently wandering mind it was no more than an illusion, an easy fix, perhaps a dopamine rush of the moment, powered by the adrenaline of the impending doom that I felt. Discipline—I needed to be harsh with myself, I thought. I strove to tame my proclivities, tried to find comfort in the idea of mastery along the way and the ability to leverage skills and knowledge in case something doesn’t work out, but I never found myself in a concrete path. Everything kept falling apart—jobs, friendships, academic interests, career choices, artistic proclivities.

    The only thing constant in the sea of distractions was my confusion, innate and perennial.

    ***

    To this day, I have to admit, that I haven’t managed to tame my wandering mind to a significant degree. I have increasingly become harsh with myself, judging my existence and degrading my self-esteem as I go. I have reduced my dreams and have surrendered my future—yet when I become aware of this unofficial defeat, my heart races and my blood boils: I still have time to tame my mind, I proclaim. I stand up and declare that I will not, I do not, admit defeat.

    —and then the cycle continues.

  • Getting Fit With Two Novelists

    In April of 2020, I was in my last semester of college when I suddenly fell sick, upending my studies and finding myself in a downhill spiral. For weeks, my body resorted to a dormant state, plagued by fatigue and inaction, rendering me incapable of performing even the most mundane of tasks. I had lost every semblance of motivation, and I barely kept up with my coursework. Numerous doctor visits did not materialize to something abnormal in my body, and eventually, I just accepted my weakness. I decided to rest and be patient. But days gave way to weeks, weeks to months, and I was growing desperate.

    As I slowly began to regain my strength, I turned into reading. I read broadly and ferociously, from fiction to fantasy to autobiographies. Especially autobiographies, for I found them the most intimate and inspiring. I read to hang out with others. And then, one day, in Discontent and its Civilizations Mohsin Hamid introduced me to The Paris Review Interviews, four volumes of in-depth conversations with renowned novelists, poets, and playwrights that rekindled my relationship with the written word and inspired me to take charge of my life. I would get lost in the pages, trying to put myself in the shoes of the writers, to experience their routines and mimic their lifestyles. But, leafing through the volumes, I quickly came to realize that a solitary life doesn’t necessarily equate to an inactive one. Sure, there are many writers that are far from fit — but then there is the running novelist, Haruki Murakami, and his incredible routine.

    ***

    When Murakami is working on a novel, he wakes up at four in the morning and writes for five to six hours. He then runs 10km or swims for 1500m. Sometimes he does both. In the evening he winds down by reading and listening to some music. As long as he is in writing mode, he never deviates from his routine. “It’s a form of mesmerism,” he says. “I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that case, writing a novel is like survival training. Physical training is as necessary as artistic sensitivity” (The Paris Review Interviews, IV).

    I read his interview, and I read it again. Routine. Mesmerism. Physical strength. Artistic sensitivity. The words kept reverberating in my mind. I put my book down and reflected a little. There is something about routines that motivates an innate part of my mind, and Murakami’s routine was a challenge that I accepted. I wasn’t the only one: Hamid writes that he was also inspired by the tenacity of Murakami. He would wake up every morning and walk for miles. As walking became Hamid’s new routine, his energy levels soared, his endurance increased, and ideas for the novel he was working on kept flowing. Walking unlocked him.

    I wanted to unlock my mind and body, to break the chains of my sedentary lifestyle — and before I knew it, I was one of them: getting fit with Mohsin Hamid and Haruki Murakami.

    The first few days I walked, exhaustively and slowly. Then I attempted to run a few hundred meters — which did not work. So I kept walking, mornings and evenings, and, gradually, my stamina began to return. Then I run again. Then I run a kilometer, then 10 kilometers.

    I was on fire, literally and metaphorically. Something had begun to change, and I felt it acutely. My strength began to return and my mind became sharper and more focused.

    Motivated by the results, I kept running, and I also changed it up. I learned the ins and outs of the park near my house, then I drove to different parks, next to the ocean, and even climbed mountains. Running became a means of discovering the world and a part of my daily routine, an excuse to get out there, in pursuit of novelty and adrenaline. There is something about engaging in nature that wakes a deeper part of one’s mind. It is an attractive, addictive force that propels you forward. My days of exhaustion and inactivity slipped into a blur in the background as I moved forward.

    I decided to write of my runs. Of my runs in the midst of COVID. Of my walks when I was of weak health. Of the trails that I discovered. The scenery that reminded me of intimately familiar places that I have never been to. Of the observations that I made. Of that clarity of mind that I gained.

    Sometimes, I would put my earphones on, immersing myself in music or podcasts as I zoomed by neighborhoods and parks. Most of the time, however, I preferred to run without audio, simply focusing on my surroundings — observing, thinking.

    ***

    Step after step, leap after leap, on the pavement, the grass, or the muddy trails of Kissena park, I was becoming one with the act, choreographing my breaths and heartbeat, pushing myself to higher and higher limits, overtaken by adrenaline and novelty. At times, my lungs and heart would decide that I had enough, after which I would stop, bend my knees, put my hands on them, and inhale deeply and decisively, feeling tingly yet so energized. Running felt like a drug I could easily get hooked on. A solution to misery, I called it. I would then snap out of my trance, look up and around me, reclaiming my stamina and position, straightening my back, inhaling, and continue running.

    Running helped Murakami, who writes long novels; walking helped Hamid, who writes shorter ones, and a combination of the two helped me, who pens essays and short stories. In the latter half of 2020, I felt the healthiest I had ever been, and I thank the two novelists that inspired me to get out, breathe fresh air, find intimacy in familiar and new settings — and simply wander.

    ***

    In 2022, I am writing this essay as a reminder because the human mind is capable of deceit. Its proclivity is that towards inaction, and thus it is important to occasionally relive the events that have brought out the best in us. I had hoped that this would be enough to get me to my feet, but comfort is too strong a force. Over time, amounting responsibilities and other events effectively shuttered my routine, and I am in need of another inciting incident, as we say in stories, something the can pull me back to that familiar state of mind and body.

    ***

    Behind me, my worn journal from last year lies flat on my bookshelf, where I documented my runs and the ideas that I came across as I buzzed by the city. I will leaf through its pages for some inspiration. Or, perhaps, the only thing that I need is a forced start, and everything else might fall in place. Regardless, I am determined to reclaim my habit and the accompanied mental clarity it bestows upon me.

    I will see you on the streets.

  • The Anxious Immigrant

    Outside the window, the gears of civilization keep grinding, focused on the big themes that move the currents of humanity, maintaining the hegemony. But inside groups, families, and, deeper yet, inside the individual, chaos reigns. Unimaginable pain, anxieties, depression, and distress. It is unnerving to observe our collective inhumanity, oblivious to each other’s anguish, ignorant of the individual in a sea of individuals. You are ultimately alone to carry your burden. Alone to fight your demons and deepest regrets. Alone to survive the intrusive reminiscences of the past and crushing uncertainties of the future. Alone. That is, until you find the strength to rise up and open up your heart to those who care about you, to engage in the narrative and attach goals to your existence—but this is wishful thinking.

  • A Dark Place

    In love. And as you kiss the girl of your dreams, time freezes. Everything stops. Your heart pounds, the world narrows, colors change to gloom, the brilliance of the summer becomes winter. You feel cold. The kiss ends, you look at her, and you smile, reality returning back, slowly. She smiles back at you. Her eyes reflecting hope and dreams. Dreams that you cannot sustain. Hopes that crush you. And she doesn’t know that. Or, maybe she does, but refuses to acknowledge such a possibility. And you cannot fathom breaking her heart, for she is your world. But you insist on letting darkness win, on letting your life go to waste. For you have no control of the forces that guide you to the dark. The cold, unbreakable dark. But maybe you do. Maybe you need some pills to wave off the depression. Some extra pills for the crushing anxiety. You don’t know what you want. You need a clear mind. You need love; you have love; you need to sustain your love, before you lose it, forever. She sits there, looking at you, her eyes beautiful, angelic eyes returning nothing but pure bliss. Eyes that resemble the most beautiful flower you can imagine; a soft flower; a graceful one. She asks you how she can help you, and you do not know how to respond. For you do not know yourself what plagues you. She gives you a kiss, a soft, sweet kiss on your lips. You savor it. It makes you happy. But it makes you cry. For you feel that you have already lost it. Lost her. Time has passed. The moment now in the past. And fear overtakes you; terror. Worry. Worry that you will not see her again. That your life is over without her. And you weep, and you mourn. But nothing has been taken away from you. Nothing except your spirit. You will live another day to see another kiss. To feel her breath on your face. But you do not know it. You are depressed. You are anxious. You are lost. But she is there to guide you. You just have to listen to her. To allow her worldview to sip into yours; to change your mind into a mind reborn, anew. 

    Let her be your guide. Live. Fight.

  • From a notecard to your inbox

    Hello Friend,

    Let me start by saying this: I am not a fundamentalist. Nor am I against the wonders of the digital world. I do not live in a cave, and I don’t—usually—read under the candlelight. 

    But I do write in 4×6 index cards as a means of acquiring knowledge, conducting research, and producing essays. 

    My entire productivity and note-taking world revolves around two cheap, black storage boxes from Amazon that house thousands of slips of paper.

    If you have been following me, you know what I am talking about. I am talking about my analog Zettelkasten.

    No written definition can adequately capture the essence of what a Zettelkasten is, but if you are itching for one, here is how I tentatively define it:

    A Zettelkasten consists of individual notes where each note represents an idea (or a continuation of one), and is structured in a hierarchical, alphanumeric manner, which allows the author to infinitely branch out ideas, hyperlink them, and accumulate them in collectives that map one’s lines of thought, topics and research areas.

    The Zettelkasten has come to be a very popular yet incredibly misunderstood method for knowledge management that, if used correctly, can transform you into a publication machine and a true life-long learner (and, as of today, hopefully, a fellow conversation partner).

    The fact that you are reading this post means that you are, at least vaguely, familiar with Niklas Luhmann. And that also means that you might have learnt that Luhmann didn’t treat his notebox as an archive. Far from it. He regarded it as person, a “communication partner” that he could engage with and who would constantly surprise him with long-lost insights, new, promising connections, and much more. In his words:

    As a result of extensive work with this technique a kind of secondary memory will arise, an alter ego with whom we can constantly communicate. It is similar to our own memory in that it does not have a thoroughly constructed order of its entirety, no hierarchy, and most certainly no linear structure like a book. Because of this, it gets its own life, independent of its author.

    A Zettelkasten gets its own life. Independent of its author. An alter ego.

    That’s where I come in.

    I want to bring forth, to you, the surprises that I find inside my own Zettelkasten. Develop them into complete thoughts, connect them to my own experience and stories, and send them straight to your inbox. The good and the bad. The ground-breaking, and the controversial.

    What’s the purpose of doing that? That’s where you come in: to combine conversation partners. Me, you, and our Zettelkastens. I want to spark conversations around a variety of topics (though, for now, mainly focusing on productivity, privacy, psychology, creativity, and knowledge management). I want you to engage with me, send me your note-cards (or type them up), your comments, and unique insights. I want to challenge you and for you to challenge me. To grow our minds in a shared environment of ideas.

    This is all an experiment. But I will give it a try, because I want to push myself, my conversation partner, and, of course you.

    If you are committed to life-long learning and have a generalist attitude in life, this experiment might be perfect for you.

    Oh, and there is another great reason for utilizing our notes in such a way. The most potent benefits of the Zettelkasten unfold in the context of projects. Luhmann managed to become a publication machine, not just because he was intellectually curious and a gifted academic writer, but also because he set multiple publication goals that he would simultaneously advance towards. This email series that I am about to kickoff, and your responses to it, can serve as prompts that can push our note-boxes, our alter egos, to their intellectual limits and accumulate a body of knowledge worthy of publication.

    Let’s use our analog tools to spark conversation and change.

    That’s all for now.

    If you find any of that interesting, join my private mailing list by clicking here.

    Regards,
    Nikos

    P.S. And always remember: there is nothing worse than an idle system, for that would not be a Zettelkasten but an archive.

  • The end of obscurity and the cover of crowds

    Most of our public utterances and interactions quickly fade into obscurity. Chances are that you don’t remember the faces of the people at the grocery store or the license plate number of the last car that passed by you. Thanks to moral codes, human evolutionary limitations, and our imperfect memory, chances are that others don’t remember these details either. This is the concept of obscurity.

    Obscurity means that information is relatively safe when it is hard to understand or obtain. In daily life, it denotes “publicly private” details about things, people, and conversations that assume an inconspicuous nature to others. In other words, information is out there, not hidden, yet not readily understood or acquired—it is intertwined in contexts and buried in people’s social circles and public peregrinations.

    When you stand in line at the coffee shop and overhear a person in front of you speaking, moral codes tell you that it is wrong to attempt to find out more about what is being said, and most likely you don’t have the motives to do so. It requires an almost intrusive amount of effort to identify the content, context, and identities of those who do not belong in your social environment.

    In addition to motives and effort humans’ two inherent evolutionary limitations, memory and perception, further secure information into obscurity: first, the passage of time ensures that human memory will fade and many details will cease to exist in people’s minds, and, second, space and distance physically conceal much of what is happening and being said around us.

    Although it affords a sense of security and privacy over our information in public (think of the times you have relayed deeply personal and sensitive information to your companion at a restaurant), obscurity always involves risks, for it is not the same as privacy. It merely increases the levels of protection by function of probabilities; i.e., the cost of identifying and making sense of information becomes much higher.

    However, all it takes is a trigger event for those protections to become undone—e.g., a revengeful former lover that decides to aggregate and piece information together and place it in public view or a political opponent that decides to search for and unearth one’s past actions and behaviors. Those are legitimate fears with plausible detrimental effects, but more dangerous to obscurity is the use of technology.

    Obscurity in big data and surveillance

    In the age of big data, where society overwhelmingly interacts online, publicly and privately, how safe are our conversations and actions from being grappled by advanced algorithms and sewed into an ever-expanding web of inter-relationships that seek to predict behaviors, personalities, and all sorts of attributes about people? How safe are the secrets that we once uttered in public, expecting that they will never turn back to bite us? When it comes to the debate around privacy, all sides of the argument tend to neglect the publicly private existence of personal information and the dangers of confining it to the two extremes, leaving nothing in between.

    Once considered the job of the quintessential detective, to compile and display deeply personal information about individuals to interested parties (which conveys one’s expertise in unearthing and connecting personal information that is scattered in public and private domains), today’s detectives are not humans but algorithms, and their expertise is only the upfront effort to make them operational.

    Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger write that in a 1989 Supreme Court case, Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the court recognized a privacy interest in the “practical obscurity” of data, or information, that is distributed in the public sphere but could only be found by employing an unrealistic amount of effort and time.

    Since then, the concept has not been considered in courts and legislatures to defend intrusions of privacy, and technology companies have slowly permeated obscurity’s territory. One notable example is Clearview AI.

    Clearview AI

    Clearview is a facial recognition application that scouts the web for existing public information of individuals, but unlike other facial recognition solutions that rely on mass surveillance and limited datasets, Clearview’s strength lies on its code. In essence, the user of the application—be it a random person on the street or a police officer—takes or uploads a photo of a person and within seconds the algorithm returns its findings: the possible identity of the individual, their connections, locations, interests, personal characteristics, sexual orientation, etc. The New York Times reported that the company has mined over 3 billion pictures as of January, 2020—from Facebook to Google’s products to millions of other websites—allowing it to triangulate information and create strong connections around it, a feat that without its algorithms would require immense human power.

    Its main goal is to help law enforcement solve crimes, but as is the case with other surveillance tools, its chilling effects do not stop there. The tool navigates the public sphere and extracts its information from it.

    There is no law against what the company does, and Clearview brags about this on its website—yet, government officials, news organizations, and the public find Clearview’s capabilities intrusive and disturbing. Senator Edward J. Markey noted on Clearview’s behavior in a letter to the CEO of the company: “the product appears to pose particularly chilling privacy risks, and I am deeply concerned that it is capable of fundamentally dismantling Americans’ expectation that they can move, assemble, or simply appear in public without being identified.” Kashmir Hill, a New York Times reporter who tested the application, stated that uploading her picture into the app “returned numerous results, dating back a decade, including photos of myself that I had never seen before.”

    It is becoming increasingly easy for governments and corporations (and soon the public) to access peoples’ personal information. It wasn’t long ago when we could venture in public in expectation of reasonable privacy. Today’s legal doctrine has evolved to the point that nobody can expect privacy in public, and companies like Clearview prove that. Clearview takes what we once considered semi-private and puts it in the forefront of our lives, creating an impeccable public memory repository. In that domain, obscurity remains undefended and our information is no longer relatively safe for it is easier than ever before to understand and obtain it. If Clearview or other copycats become widely available our lives will become open books, inviting the eyes of the curious, compelling us to suppress our words, thoughts, behaviors, and public wanderings, forcing us to live with the fear that our movements and identities will be open to scrutiny at anytime and anywhere.

    The possibility of being watched and identified in all domains of our lives results to the ultimate prison of mind. We all know what it feels like to experience this. Perhaps you wanted to search for a sensitive topic on the internet, go to a questionable setting by yourself, or discuss a controversial idea with a friend. Even though you know that there is nothing physically holding you back, pursuing some things feels like nudging an ambiguous threshold, a boundary that advises, even screams, at you to turn back. Sometimes you decide to cross it, other times you heed its warnings and succumb to the uncertainty. There is no middle point where privacy and public exposure intersect anymore.

    In defense of obscurity

    Now more than ever, we need to embrace obscurity to prevent that. Obscurity operates as a shield that that allows temporary, non-representative of an individual, ill-advised, and temperamental thoughts and actions to be forgotten. This is especially important for when growing up, because kids and adolescents can only adequately grasp the world by experimentation and failures, even at the risk of future regrets. When thoughts and actions turn into permanent records, society and all its individuals become conformists. Without obscurity, it would be impossible to take risks, unapologetically fail, and temporarily embarrass ourselves. Eccentricity, challenging ideas, and productive confrontations, would take a deadly hit. The very notions that make us better people will turn against us.

    We need to preserve the collective fading memory as we steadily become inseparable from technology. We need to remove obscurity from its ambiguous position and communicate it to the public, and we certainly need to add friction between technology and public life by devising solutions that render our publicly private existence inscrutable to algorithms. There is much to be done but not enough time, for technology always moves orders of magnitude faster than enacted law.