Some thoughts on instant communications.

I have been thinking about the effects of being able to send instant communications to anyone at any time.

Perhaps the dotard in the White House ought to consider this whilst sitting down to his morning cup of covfefe.

In this post I will talk about e-mail but the same applies to all forms of instant communications; tweets, SMS, facebook posts, usenet, even blogs.  Over the past few decades I have received many messages from many people, I have also sent many messages including some that on reflection I would rather not have sent.

ASCII may seem clear and unambiguous but it is like a black and white image, you have to assume the colours from the image, just as with ASCII you have to assume the intentions, motivations and emotions from the message, it is easy to assume a deep significance to a remark which may have been a joke or just a meaningless space filler, the person at the other end can’t see the expression on your face when you typed it.  Misunderstandings abound on the internet on both public and private channels.

Emojis have eased this situation somewhat but this is still a pale imitation of the real colours.  Pastel shades.  There is no international consensus on the meanings emojis are meant to convey.

Whenever a message arrives for me I get a message telling me “You have new mail waiting” or my phone vibrates when an SMS arrives, this gives the message a tremendous sense of urgency, after all the message may only be a few seconds old.

The same importance is given to all messages, the same announcement is made for a letter from a good friend as for a message from someone I don’t know in Taiwan wishing to introduce me to the latest unmissable business opportunity.

The Internet gives everything a sense of urgency.  My friends used to wait weeks for me to answer their paper letters, now if I don’t reply within a couple of hours they send another message asking if I got their e-mail.

It is very easy to type out an answer straight away and send it off in the heat of the moment, but when I click on that send button it’s gone, I don’t get another chance.  I’m sending out my first draft. Unpolished, unedited.

E-mail, unlike typed or handwritten letters, discourages reflection.  While logged on, it’s difficult to compose a message and then put it to one side, to re-read and edit … it’s too easy to push the send button.  We have no time to waste, modern living is all about the now.  As a result too many messages are sent without thinking about their consequences.

Do we not find more mistakes in typed and handwritten letters?  Of course we do!  After all only a few typewriters have editing facilities and if you correct a handwritten letter the mistake is still obvious, but almost all editors/wordprocessors have spell checkers.

Spell checking reassures us that everything is OK.  But there is more than spelling and grammar to a message.  What about the content of the message.

I am wondering if wordprocessing and e-mail themselves degrade the art of writing.  Our ability to effortlessly correct errors allows us to write first and think later ( if at all ). When I write with a pen in my hand I must get the sentence correct in my head before my pen touches the paper.  All over the Internet, in e-mail, on facebook, on twitter and in Usenet groups there is a lack of concern for effective writing.  There are many Web pages which are perfectly spelled and grammatically correct but are utterly meaningless!

I’m starting to think that e-mail destroys reflection at both ends of the communication channel.  With the pressure on to compose a letter on the fly, many times I don’t re-read my words or refine my arguements.  I don’t give my messages as much attention as they deserve.  In writing as well as reading slow is better than fast.

I’ve sent off plenty of messages that I’ve later regretted, I’m sure we have all done this. You know this is true because you must have received messages like this yourself !

Next time you receive a message which seems crass or ill considered take some time to think about whether the sender of the message really meant what they said or was it a message that was composed in the heat of the moment ans sent of before it was considered in a rational light.

If I write a letter on paper then I have time to pause re-read it, address the envelope, think about what I have written, get a stamp, and reconsider.  The angry letter I write tonight can be reviewed in tomorrow’s sunlight.

But not with instant messages.

The reader is at fault too.  They read the message scrolling the screen up and presses a button, in an instant the message is either filed or deleted. No reflection or contemplation, there are a queue of messages waiting for judgement.  Instead of pondering and trying to fill in the colours of the black and white image, it’s on to the next message.

Instantaneous response without reflection. Our words carry less weight, so we value them less. We don’t pack meaning into our messages.

In this modern age we are always in a hurry, time is money, we can’t waste the minutes, Schedules are tight. Deadlines press. No time to reflect.

No time.  😦

 

How Covid-19 will change the world

The hustle and bustle of daily life has ground to a halt, large parts of Europe have become like ghost-towns with massive restrictions put on our lives, from lockdowns and school closures to travel restrictions and bans on mass gatherings.  Pubs and restaurants are closed for the duration.

But what will the duration be ?  When will we be able to get on with our lives ?

In his daily press briefing yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he believes the UK can “turn the tide” against the outbreak within the next twelve weeks and the country can “send coronavirus packing”.

But even if the number of cases starts to fall in the next twelve weeks that won’t be an end to the crisis.  The current strategy of shutting down large parts of society is not sustainable in the long-term.  The social and economic damage would be catastrophic.

But the coronavirus will not have disappeared in twelve weeks time.  If you lift the restrictions that are holding the virus back, then cases will inevitably soar.  That is the problem.

The UK’s short-term strategy is to reduce the number of cases as much as possible to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed, when you run out of intensive care beds then the number of deaths rise.  If we have reduced the number of cases then it may allow some measures to be lifted for a while, but then the number of cases will probably rise and another round of restrictions will be needed.

Taking this strategy will eventually lead to herd immunity as more and more people have survived the infection and developed immunity.  But herd immunity could take years to build up.

Developing drugs that can successfully treat a Covid-19 infection could make the disease less deadly and reduce pressures on intensive care beds and ventilators. This would allow countries to cope with more cases before needing to reintroduce lockdowns.  Increasing the number of intensive care beds would have a similar effect by increasing the capacity to cope with larger outbreaks.

Really the only long term practical solution is the development of a vaccine.  A lot of research is currently being done to develop such a vaccine but it could be a year or more away.

There has been an unparalleled global response to the disease.  But after it is over the world can’t ever be the same place again.  We cannot allow ourselves to be this vulnerable again.  We have to learn some hard lessons.

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

I’m not expecting the Government to announce a Universal Basic Income anytime soon.  They couldn’t afford it and it would be a bad idea to do anything so bold and far-reaching without a lot of thought and a lot of public debate.

The benefits system we have at the moment is not fit for purpose, Universal Credit was a good idea in theory, replace many different and complex benefits with one universal benefit which takes everything into account.  But the way it has been implemented is bad, unfair and ineffective.  It was implemented as more of a cost saving exercise than an attempt at a fair and equitable benefit system.

I think even before the virus crisis the government was starting to get the message that Universal Credit was broken and needed fixing.

I hope that the government have become aware of the economic insecurity caused by the pandemic fallout, and this might lead the Government to start at least thinking about UBI, or perhaps the less radical-sounding but similar idea of a ‘negative income tax’ (note that historically these ideas have had supporters on the right as well as the left).

During the financial crisis of 2008 the government injected huge sums of money into the banks in the form of ‘Quantitative Easing‘ which was meant to stimulate the economy but in actuality all it did was make the banks and big businesses richer.  It did not have much of an effect outside the rich elites.

UBI would put money into the pockets of ordinary people, they would not keep that money in their pockets, they would use it to buy things or put it into a bank.  The money would circulate in the wider economy.  In my opinion this would be a much more effective stimulus to the economy than ‘Quantitative Easing’.

Workers Rights

The virus crisis has exposed the precarious position of many workers who are on zero hours contracts and those who are self employed.  Many of these workers have no security of employment.  A lot of organisations are tempted to misclassify workers as self-employed because they cost less to employ and there is little or no provision for sickness benefits.

I read of an Amazon delivery driver who is classified as being a self employed contractor.  What if he gets the virus, he cannot afford to self isolate, if he doesn’t make deliveries he doesn’t get paid, simple as that.  It isn’t just Amazon there are many companies who use these practises to cut their costs.

The Government has made some response to this in the form of easier and faster entitlement to sickness benefits but it is not enough.

What is needed is to give all workers full employment rights and get rid of zero hours contracts.  The negative consequence for the self-employed is that their labour is undertaxed so many of them would end up paying more but they would get the advantage of sick pay and other rights.

If all labour was taxed at the same rate it would be much simpler and hugely reduce non-compliance and the costs of enforcement.  The revenue raised could be used to extend sickness cover to the self-employed and to encourage them to save for their retirement.

Business Travel

One thing which is obvious to me is that we will learn that we don’t need to travel as much.  I think this change has been coming for some time but the virus crisis will accelerate the change.  The biggest uses of air travel are business travel and tourism.

Long distance business travel was already challenged by high costs, the improving quality of video conferencing and the desire of organisations to appear to be taking action on climate emissions.

Psychologists tell us it takes just over eight weeks to form a habit.  After an extended period of being forced to use video conferencing, video phone calls and e-mail businesses might learn that face to face meetings are not as necessary as they once thought and this could lead to long term decline in business travel.  After the crisis is over this will have big consequences for those airlines which have not gone bankrupt.

Economics

The virus crisis and the reduction in travel which has ensued have caused a reduction in the price of oil.  The reduction in oil prices makes it more competitive against renewable energy which is a bad thing but the falling price is bad for fossil fuels as well.

However there is rising public concern about climate change.  The falling cost of renewable energy is a long term trend and will most likely continue after the virus crisis is over.

It is probable that the coming months will see a recession much more devastating than the financial crash of 2008.  The economic downturn is being exacerbated by the oil-price war which is going on at the moment.  Saudi Arabia is wanting to keep the price of oil low in order to sell as much of their reserves as possible before the world moves on to renewable energy.

After the virus crisis is over is likely that the fossil fuel sector will have much less influence and this could accelerate the shift towards more sustainable energy systems.

Government

The central ideological battle of our time is whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.

The magic of the market is an illusion, free market capitalism optimises for maximum profit, all else is secondary.  It is utter madness to leave such important issues as the welfare of the environment or public health to the ‘magic of the market’ or ‘shareholder value’.  Of course we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values.

The virus crisis seems to have brought about a change of heart in the Conservative party (at least temporarily) as they become enthusiasts for extra spending and quietly drop their commitment to shrinking the national debt and the public sector.  I hope it won’t be too little too late.  The NHS has suffered more than a decade of tory austerity, underfunding and mismanagement.  It is now in a parlous state barely able to cope with the surge of cases from seasonal flu.  The effects of this sort of chronic underfunding cannot be reversed in a short time just by throwing a lot of money at it.

What we need is a health service which is maintained in a good condition by a government which actually cares about it and with enough spare capacity to cope with occasional shocks to the system.  Unfortunately this will cost a lot of money … but it would be worth it.

Donald Trump, the view across the pond

I find it perplexing that Americans are even considering re-electing Donald Trump.

Leaving aside his policies which have been good for big fossil fuel companies but disastrous for the environment. One of his main priorities in his presidency seems to have been to undo all the good things that his predecessor Mr. Obama did for America.

Many British people either don’t know or don’t care about his policies but an awful lot of British people find the man himself to be distasteful.

Donald Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Donald Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well I don’t, and I think many British people see him in the same way. I see it as having no inner world, no soul.

Also in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are mainly plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.

He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.

He’s more of a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among other bullies, then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling wimp instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think “Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy” is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to me and I think to many other British people, given that most of the Americans I have met are genuinely nice people.

You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays a lot of British people, Donald Trump’s faults seem pretty hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

There have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Richard Nixon look trustworthy and George W Bush look smart.

In fact, if Dr. Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:

“My God … what … have … I … created ?”

 

OK in the short term ?

“… and that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore Conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit climate change is real, they will loose the central ideological battle of our time – whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”

Naomi Klein

When I was young I used to think of 2020 as being the future, that was when everything would be different, we would have lots of cool technologies, we would have colonies on the moon, I used to think of all sorts of possibilities.

Now 2020 is just a year away and most of the things I dreamt of have not come to pass, except that we have the Internet and powerful computers.  Things are different but not in ways I envisaged, and most things are the same.

My children don’t see 2020 as being the future in that sense they see the future as being more like 2100.

But I wonder what will 2100 be like, will our children see us as having looked after the planet and handed it on in a better state than we received it in ?

I doubt it.

How often can we truly say we are thinking about the well-being of future generations ?

How often do we consider the impact of our decisions as they ripple down the decades and centuries ahead ?

I think the problem is that ‘Now‘ demands attention much more forcefully than the future, we are living in comfort at the moment and most of the demands of the future would require us to give up some of that immediate comfort to do something about a problem which we see as still being a long way away.

The timeframe over which we think of things is getting smaller and smaller so the perceived urgency of future problems is diminished by comparison.

It is easy to concentrate on the ‘now’, because it commands so much more attention than the future.  It is getting more and more difficult to look beyond our immediate problems.  Today’s news, the latest fashions, the newest technologies.  Politicians are only concerned with what happens up to the next election, anything beyond that is irrelevant to them as it might not be their problem anyway.  Businesses concentrate on ‘maximising shareholder value’ to maximise their share price in the short term, for them the timeframe they worry about is the next quarter.  On the Internet the timeframe of interest is minutes, and on the financial markets it’s about sixty milliseconds.

No wonder that in the Twitter fuelled politics of 2019 most people in society are not concentrating on the big problems which threaten the continued existence of the human race, like Climate Change.  They are not seen as immediate threats, that’s something for the future.

Some politicians even choose to deny the evidence on climate change and continue with business as usual and there are many reasons why they would do this.

In my opinion this ‘short termism’ is probably the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.  But what if we could be altruistic enough to care about people we will probably never live to see ?

The ability to have complex abstract thoughts about non existent scenarios is what sets us apart from most animals.  To imagine scenarios which do not exist and may never exist and to be able to plan how to bring these scenarios about or to avoid bringing them about is a vital adaptation which has led to the phenomenal success of humans as a species.

We can imagine what we want to do tomorrow or next week or next year, where we would like go on holiday, what job we would like, and we can imagine alternative versions of these scenarios, and we can evaluate each of them in terms of their likelihood and desirability.

We have the innate ability to imagine the consequences of our actions in the long term, but sadly not always the will or the motivation to escape our immediate desires.

Despite our mental faculty to look and plan ahead, we have a weakness in our thinking called ‘present bias’, which favours short-term payoffs over long-term rewards.

For example, people are more likely to accept an offer of £100 today, rather than a guarantee of £120 in a week or to smoke cigarettes despite a shortened life or to spend on pleasures and not save for a rainy day.

If we are so likely to neglect the our own future wellbeing, it’s even harder to muster empathy for future generations.

There is nowhere this is more apparent than in the world of politics and economics.

Politics and economics are inextricably linked especially in the politics of free market capitalism.

There is a fallacy at the heart of economics and that is that there must always be growth.  Free market capitalism has tied us to having economies which must grow in order to survive.

I think it was David Attenborough who once said that “to believe in never ending growth you must either be insane or be an economist“.

So why are capitalist economies so obsessed with growth ?

GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, it is a figure which represents the total cost of goods and services traded in an economy in a year.  It was invented in the 1930s, but it very soon became the overriding goal of policymaking, so much so that even today, in the richest of countries, governments think that the solution to all their economic problems lies in more growth.

In 1960 this thinking was codified in a book by W.W. Rostow called “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto.”

In his book Rostow tells us that all economies need to pass through five stages of growth: first, traditional society, where a nation’s output is limited by its technology, its institutions and mindset; but then the preconditions for take-off, where we get the beginnings of a banking industry, the mechanisation of work and the belief that growth is necessary for something beyond itself; then we get take-off, where compound interest is built into the economy’s institutions and growth becomes the normal condition; fourth is the drive to maturity where you can have any industry you want, no matter your natural resource base; and the fifth and final stage, the age of high-mass consumption where people can buy all the consumer goods they want.

Well, you can hear the implicit airplane metaphor in his story, but this plane is like no other, because it can never be allowed to land.  Rostow left us flying into the sunset of mass consumerism, and he knew it.  As he wrote, “And then the question beyond, where history offers us only fragments.  What to do when the increase in real income itself loses its charm?”  He asked that question, but he never answered it.

So here we are, flying into the sunset of mass consumerism over half a century on, with economies that have come to demand infinite unending growth, because we’re financially, socially and politically dependent upon it.

We’re financially dependent on growth, because today’s financial system is designed to pursue the highest rate of monetary return, putting publicly traded companies under constant pressure to deliver growing sales, growing market share and growing profits, and because banks create money as debt bearing interest, which must be repaid with more money.  Therefore those companies which incur extra cost because they take care of the environment will be out competed by those who don’t.

We are socially addicted to growth, because thanks to a century of consumer propaganda we have become convinced that we transform ourselves every time we buy something new.  The real purpose of advertising is to make you dissatisfied with the things you presently have in order to persuade you to go out and buy something new to replace it.

And we are politically dependent on growth because politicians want to raise tax revenue without raising taxes and a growing GDP seems a sure way to do that.  They don’t want to inflict any tax rises to pay for long term threats because they are always looking towards the next election.

This is why politics is so shackled to the short term view, they are always looking towards the next election.  It goes something like this; “If it is a threat which is beyond the next election then it might be someone else’s problem if we don’t get re-elected so why worry about it, paying for it now just lessens the chances of our re-election and if the other lot get elected then this problem becomes something we can use against them“.

Future political threats are evaluated with something called ‘Discounting’.

Discounting is standard practice in politics all over the world.

Imagine a politician who is facing a difficult decision, there is a future problem which is known and well documented and they are trying to decide whether or not to spend large sums of money to mitigate the problem.  In the future this will have looked like money well spent perhaps saving many lives and billions of pounds.  It will certainly be of benefit to the grandchildren of the politician.  On the other hand spending all that money now will cause immediate problems for the taxpayers who will see little or no immediate benefit to themselves.

So the politician turns to an economist for a cost benefit analysis and they feed the numbers into the economists spreadsheet.  The economist points out that something called a ‘discount rate’ can be applied to these far future benefits.

A social discount rate is a technique that economists and politicians use in their cost-benefit analyses to decide whether to make investments with a long-term impact.  It weighs the benefits for future people against costs borne in the present-day, and proposes that the calculated value of benefit to society in the future is worth less to society in the present depending on how far into the future these benefits occur.  For example, if you’re deciding whether to spend a lot of money to boost the economy in the future, it’ll tell you that a 10% boost in economic growth in 2 years is worth a lot more in the present than a 10% boost 20 years from now.

The underlying assumption (fallacy) of economics is that economies must continuously grow and therefore it is assumed that future generations will be richer and more able to bear the costs of future problems.  But there is another reason why discount rates are used, on average individuals are not very willing to give up comfort and/or income today for a putative benefit at some time in the future for people who don’t even exist yet.  The society as a whole reflects the views of it’s individual members so politicians, and the societies they govern, have a limit to how much cost they are collectively willing to bear for the benefit of future generations.

So the politician turns to the economist and the economist runs the numbers in their spreadsheet and they realise that dealing with the problems now might not show enough payback for decades or possibly even centuries, so the proposals fail their cost-benefit analysis. The politician will leave it to their successors to deal with the problem.

Most people would accept that there is a need to bear some costs to avoid future climate catastrophe, but how much?  If we continue to postpone action the cost of dealing with the problem continues to rise and this makes it even more likely to be postponed next time the decision comes up.  If we leave it until urgent action is required then it will be too late and we will not be able to deal with the problem.

Ask yourself what portion of your own income today would you be willing to give up for the benefit of future generations?  When economists and politicians are debating this question, they are essentially arguing over how big a discount rate to apply.

If you apply discount rates over long time periods then the importance of the benefits felt by future generations in these calculations eventually dwindles towards zero.

But there is another way of looking at the problem of discounting future harms.  If we turn to philosophy we can see that discounting the needs of our descendants is akin to burying a shard of broken glass in a forest.  If a child steps on the glass and cuts themselves today or tomorrow, then a discount rate suggests this injury is much worse than a child hurting themselves on the glass a century from now.  But ethically, there is no difference between the two.  The child stepping on the glass in one hundred years time feels just as much pain and suffers just as much harm.

So we must ask ourselves is it ethically defensible to do nothing about climate change ?

So, ask yourself what portion of your own income today would you be willing to give up for the benefit of future generations ?  Make yourself heard, write to the politician who represents you and make them aware that something needs to be done now.

Our world is dying of consumption.  Consume less and recycle more.  Fix things that are broken rather than replacing them.

Have less children.

Join a green movement.

Ignore adverts!

If one person does this it won’t make much difference.  If everyone does this it will make a difference.

The time to act is now!

Mapping and Outlining, finding a path.

If you have a large collection of notes then there will be times when you cannot find the note which you want to find even though you know that it exists somewhere within the collection of documents.  This is a problem which has existed for as long as there have been collections of documents.  Over the years librarians have come up with many tools for dealing with this problem and many of these tools have been adapted for the digital era.  Things like references (links), indexes (tags) and categories have been used in computer programs to ease the location of information.

The art of a good note taking program is providing facilities for the user to be able to locate an item within their notes even though they have forgotten almost everything about it.

So how can you locate an item of information?  It is all in the metadata, the information about information.  If you have a large corpus of notes without any metadata then they might as well be written in a foreign language for all the good they will be to you.  It is worth the time and effort to add a relevant metadata to a note as you create it whilst it is still fresh in your mind.  These are the clues which will lead you back to this note in the future.  Think of it as having a conversation with your future self.  Think of how you would locate this note if you didn’t know where it was, what tags would you search for?  What would you expect it to be linked to?  What might you search for?  Make sure that the terms you might search for appear in the text, if not then include them as a list at the end of the note.

Metadata comes in many forms, not just the obvious ones.

One form of metadata which is often overlooked but always relied upon is location, people navigate to where they last saw the item they are looking for.  This is especially useful as it requires less verbal attention and more visual attention, people do it without thinking about it and whilst concentrating on something else which is why it is so often overlooked.

Search is often portrayed as the most useful way of finding things but in my experience it is not used as often as the other methods.  Search is less well used than it would be because it involves a break in concentration.  If you are in the middle of composing a document or trying to find understanding of some difficult problem then you have to stop concentrating on the problem at hand and think about search terms.  In my experience this break in concentration is obtrusive.

Search can be made easier by the use of tags, particularly if the tagging system is hierarchical and has inheritance.  Selecting from a list is easier, quicker and less prone to errors than typing search terms.  In my opinion InfoQube has the best hierarchical tagging system of any program available at the time of writing, closely followed by ConnectedText.  Try to choose tags which distinguish items rather than tags which just describe it’s characteristics.

Links from one note to another are very important.  The act of linking from one note to another is arguably the most important aspect of note taking and it should be as quick and easy as possible.  ConnectedText is unrivalled in this area.  One can insert a link by just putting the [[Page Name]] in square brackets which is much less of a break in concentration whilst you are composing a document.  ConnectedText can also automatically convert the names of other pages which occur in a note into links and it can also show which pages link to the current page (backlinks).

Another form of metadata used to locate things is the favourites list.

One form of metadata which has been touted as being new with the digital age is mapping, mind maps and concept maps.  However I think that these are not as useful as they are made out to be by many people.  The examples which are given to illustrate the usefulness of mapping are usually small and fit on one screen, real uses of mapping would probably be much bigger and consequently less useful.

In the following discussion I will focus on Mind Maps but the points raised are equally as valid for concept maps.  A concept map is just a hierarchy where an item may have more than one parent and so may appear in the outline in more than one place.

There is a lot of hype about Mind Maps and their use in navigating data.  There are a number of companies who present Mind Maps as being a really wonderful solution to visualising interconnections between data, and for small data sets this is undoubtedly true but it becomes less so for large data sets.

A Mind Map is topologically equivalent to a simple hierarchy which could be expressed as an outline.  In my opinion the fact that the outline can be scrolled in one dimension makes the outline more useful in the navigation of data.

In many programs using a mind map you have to arrange the branches in an aesthetically pleasing manner which detracts from the time you can spend on other things.  People waste time on the layout of the map rather than thinking about the content of the map.  Whereas with an outline there are simple rules which the program follows to automatically arrange the tree.

Once a mind map or concept map has grown as big as the screen on which it is being displayed there arises a problem of how it can grow any further.  You could make the branches of the map ever smaller but you eventually have to use a magnifying glass to read the text.  A better solution is to only display part of the map.

It seems to me that the conventional way of displaying a mind map has no advantages over the simple outline and has some disadvantages.

One could accept these limitations of mapping and work around them as the outline accepts the limitations of a one dimensional list and works around them.  In such a map the layout would be automatic and only the relevant part of the map would be displayed.  This would make the map more useful in my opinion.

A good example of what is possible is a program called The Brain (a.k.a Personal Brain).  This program only displays a small part of the map at any one time.  One item has the focus and the program only displays those items which are linked to it.  In practice this is a very good solution.

The developer of this program Harlan Hugh took out software patents on this layout and has aggressively defended them in the past.  One can find a list of these patents at https://patents.google.com/?assignee=Thebrain+Tech+Corp .

It seems wrong to me that a company can take out a patent on such a basic idea, a layout which has been used by genealogists for many centuries, one node has the focus, it’s parents are above, children below and siblings to the side.  The sole purpose of these patents is to stifle competition from it’s rivals.

The main patent in this list relevant to the automatic layout of maps is US6918096B2Method and apparatus for displaying a network of thoughts from a thought’s perspective however this patent has expired “due to failure to pay maintenance fee” on 12th July 2017.

It seems to me that a map laid out in this way is much more useful than a mind map which tries to display the whole map on one screen.  Each item is shown in context and only the items connected to it are displayed.  If you move the focus then the map is re-drawn with the focussed node at the centre.  The displayed map is always the same size no matter how big the whole map grows, this is mentally more manageable.

This way of displaying a mind map is fundamentally different from an outline and deserves it’s place in note taking programs.

Zinkydoink means Zinkydoink !

So, what does Zinkydoink mean ?

Well like any fictitious invented word it can mean whatever I want it to mean, it can mean different things to different people and it can mean different things at different times.

Just like another fictitious invented word which has been used a lot recently, I mean ‘Brexit’, and like any other fictitious invented word it means different things to different people and its undefined meaning changes over time.  So when Theresa May utters the meaningless tautology ‘Brexit means Brexit’ it is up to whoever hears the phrase to assign a meaning to it and that is the whole point, to trick people into thinking they are going to get the ‘Brexit’ they want when in reality almost everyone will be disappointed with the eventual outcome.

In my opinion Dominic Cummings the political advisor who served as the campaign director of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign committed a great evil when he designed the campaign to portray ‘Brexit’ as all things to all people.  He was very clever in the way he conducted the campaign, but he allegedly used some underhanded tactics and in winning the campaign to get people to vote to leave the EU he has condemned this country to be much worse off in the future.

The slogan ‘take back control’ was chosen to imply that we were taking back something which had been lost and which can be reclaimed.  It represents the desire for things to return to the way they used to be back in the ‘Good Old days‘, peoples imagined idea of the way things used to be.

But the world has changed and it is impractical to try to take things back to an earlier state, however this desire offers a way to manipulate people.  The Leave campaigns tried to imply that by voting leave and ‘taking back control’ that we could take Britain back to that earlier time of peoples imagination.  To ‘Make Britain Great Again‘.

Another factor was a successful attempt to tap into the discontent which has developed in this country over many years because of the centralisation of power in London.  Parliament is so London centric and so disconnected from the rest of the country.  They have become out of touch with anything which happens outside the Home Counties.

I believe that for a significant percentage of the Leave voters the concern was disillusionment with the political establishment.  This was a protest vote for many, a sense that nobody represented them, that they couldn’t find a political party which they thought was on their side, and so they rejected the whole political establishment.

However the poorer communities in the north of England and in the Midlands who mainly voted to Leave will be the ones who are the hardest hit by the recession which will be the inevitable consequence of leaving the EU.

The Leave campaigns also tapped into nationalistic and xenophobic concerns which people have by implying that we could cut immigration if we weren’t in the EU.  Many of these concerns centre on immigration from outside the EU which will not be affected by being in the EU or not.

The Leave campaigns were also helped by the incompetence of previous governments both Labour and Conservative who have claimed all the benefits of EU membership as being the result of their own government policies, and blamed all the negative effects on the EU, variously labelled as “Brussels” or “the (European) Commission”.  In the referendum, the consequences of that political cowardice really helped the Brexit campaigns.

Now that we are in this awful mess what can we do to get out of it ?

Not a lot !

I would be in favour of a second referendum but I fear that it will not help.  There is a political divide in this country and it is not the usual Left/Right divide.  This divide does not split along party lines it divides both Labour and Conservative parties.

I think that in the time since the referendum a lot of the lies and deceit of the Leave campaigns have been exposed and a lot of people have changed their minds but a second referendum would not calm things.  The people who voted Leave however misguided their reasons would be very disappointed if a second referendum were to overturn the result of the first.

Theresa May’s deal will probably be voted down however many times she presents it to parliament.  It is a bad compromise which satisfies neither of the extremes.

A No Deal Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster for this country.

Revoking Article 50 and staying in the EU is probably the best option but I don’t think it will be persued despite the petition which at the time of writing has four and a half million signatures.  Mrs. May has ruled it out as an option.

There aren’t a lot of other options.

British politics has become the laughing stock of the world.

How did we get here ?

Margaret Thatcher pursued a policy of ever increasing centralisation of power.  When ‘New Labour’ and Tony Blair came to power they should have reversed this trend but they did not, they failed to address the fracture which was developing in society despite being competent politicians.  They slipped into the system as they inherited it because it gives them more power and because it is difficult to change a system once it is in place.

MP-Farce

A very popular condiment in the House of Commons.

During the Thatcher years the British system of government became extremely centralised with everything being decided in and run from Downing Street, the rest of the country, and that includes Parliament, is under command rather than being in partnership with government.

During the Thatcher years the British constitution was drastically re-shaped and when ‘New Labour’ came to power they should have taken the opportunity to reform the constitution to make the system of governance less centralised but they did not.  This centralisation of power condemns whichever government is elected into a cycle of ever more effort for ever less results.

Successive governments since then have slipped into this same cycle of trying to fix the problems by imposing even more centralisation of power and control but this just makes the problems worse.

 

What can be done ?

The political system in Britain is broken.  These are my opinions on how it might be fixed.

We need to restore the House of Commons as the central political authority in British democracy, at the moment it is more like a creche where children shout abuse at each other.

There needs to be a devolution of power to Local Government.  This needs to be real power not just a token gesture, and it needs to be properly financed.  The financing could come from central government or local taxation but if it is financed through local taxation there needs to be a commensurate lowering of central taxation.

It would also need local government to be re-thought.  At the current time Britain doesn’t have local government which is fit to take this power.  But there does need to be less central control.

The Lobby system needs to be scrapped, or at the very least revised, it should not be possible for big business to buy government policy.  This is a highly corrupt system and what the people who do the Lobbying want is seldom in the public interest.

But the biggest thing which needs to be done to fix our broken political system is to sort out the funding of political parties.  The system we have at present is well and truly broken.

The Trade Unions fund the Labour Party and this allows them to control the Labour party.  The political levy for trade union members needs to be scrapped.

Big business controls the Conservative Party and it gets funded from donations by private individuals and businesses.

The trouble is that too many vested interests with hidden agendas control British politics.  It should be completely transparent and public.  All donations from private individuals, businesses and from Trade unions should be banned.

Instead a fixed amount of public money, a ‘Political Fund’, decided by parliament should be set aside to fund political parties.  Vouchers could be issued to taxpayers which can be given to a political party of their choice or thrown away if they choose to do so.  The proportion of the Political Fund given to each party would be decided by the proportion of these vouchers given to that party by it’s supporters.

I’m sure this system as I have outlined it is not perfect and would need some refinement in order to be fair and equitable but even as I have outlined it here it would be an improvement on the broken system we have in place.

I am also sure that this system will never be implemented because of all the vested interests who would like to keep the current corrupt system as it is.

And so we have come to Brexit, a result of a Conservative leader who started a referendum because he couldn’t control his back benchers.  The campaign was then hijacked by various interest groups and by a Campaign Manager who used dubious tactics to pedal a mendacious manipulative message.  And because of the general disenchantment of the public with the broken political system we have it was voted through by a very narrow margin.  The political leader who started this whole mess then walked away whistling a happy tune and left it for others to sort out.  And so after two years of negotiation the person who inherited the whole mess came back with a deal which satisfied very few people.

So the choices are, a bad deal, an even worse no deal or no Brexit.  But having no Brexit would cause huge political turmoil and probably cause the rise of some pretty unsavoury far Right extremist parties even more idiotic than UKIP.

What can I do now ?

I suppose I could apply for citizenship of another country, preferably an EU country, if there are any which would have me.  But I don’t really want to do that.

Brexit is a disaster and when it is finally over I think most people will be left saying “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for !” but unfortunately by then it will be too late.

Remember Zinkydoink means Zinkydoink !

Take Note!

Why do I use a note taking program?

“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible … no matter how internal processes are implemented […you…] need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.”

Levy, Neil. 2011. “Neuroethics and the Extended Mind.” In Judy Illes and B. J. Sahakian (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, 285-94, Oxford University Press.

Why would I keep a set of notes on everyday insights and ideas over many decades, things which only I would be interested in.

Well, I write!

Imagine if you had to write a piece of text on a particular subject.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone came up with a list of suggestions and ideas for you on what you should write about.

You could then arrange these ideas and develop them into a coherent whole, fill in any gaps in the arguments, expatiate on any parts which need expanding and proof read it and edit your rough draft until the text flows correctly.  Then read it with a critical eye to pick up any background material which you have left out, things which you may already know but the reader might not.

Writing a piece of text like this is much easier than starting off with a blank page.

You might be thinking at this point that I am cheating here, only doing half the job, the easy half.  Surely coming up with the initial list of ideas is a major task in itself.

Well yes and no.

What if you already had a large body of notes on many different subjects, things which have sparked your interest over the years.  Things which may not have been immediately useful but which you thought were noteworthy at the time.

This could be thought of as a bank for ideas.  Obviously you can’t start making withdrawals until you make some deposits.  So you have to put a few ideas in there before it becomes even slightly useful.  But unlike a bank when you make withdrawals the ideas are still there and can be used as many times as appropriate.

Such a database of notes (a notebase) would be quite useful for ideas for writing.  The more notes it contained the more useful it would become and also the more interconnected the notes are the more useful the notes database is.  If it is small with only a few hundred notes then it is not that useful but there is a ‘critical mass’ of information beyond which it starts becoming much more useful and the more information which is added after that makes it exponentially more useful.

So, what is the source of these ideas and insights ?

Everyone comes across noteworthy ideas and insights every day it’s just that they don’t take note of them, they don’t write them down.  They don’t take note of them, and by the time they would be useful they have been forgotten.

I take notes.  I never go anywhere without the capability of writing something down.  I have a small paper notebook in my back pocket and I always carry a pen.  If I am going to work or somewhere where I will be carrying my backpack then I take my tablet computer.  The aim is to capture all the little ideas and insights which come to you during the course of a day.

Writing something down is more memorable than typing the same thing.

My tablet computer takes handwritten notes just as well as a pen and a piece of paper, except that my handwritten notes then instantly become available on my phone and computers.

Then when I get chance I read the notes I have made that day and write them out properly using full sentences.  Of course some of them get discarded for various reasons but often they find their way into the notebase (my database of notes).

Think of each note as you having a conversation with your future self and write in a way that you will understand, it doesn’t matter if it is incomprehensible to anyone else as long as you understand it.  It is best to write just one idea per screen.  If the note extends to more than a screen then it might be useful to think about splitting it into two notes.  So I write many small notes rather than a few larger notes.

There is another aspect of note taking which is equally as important and that is reading notes.  When reading a book it is essential to capture ones thoughts on the book.  Many people write notes in the margins of the book itself.  I don’t do this, for one thing it would deface the book, the other reason is that I would rather have all the notes in the same place and accessible rather than having to look through the book to retrieve my notes on that book.  Each reading note is accompanied by the page number and paragraph number which it refers to so that I can easily find the source of the idea again.

Notes can be linked together and used in different contexts.

I often go wandering through my notebase just to familiarise myself with the contents and this often sparks new ideas and new connections between ideas.

This idea is not new, my method is modelled on that of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, it is called the Zettelkasten Method.  A literal translation of Zettelkasten is ‘slip box’ i.e. a box containing many slips of paper.  His notebase consisted of many A6 sheets written on one side only, in wooden drawers.  Each card had a unique number and links between cards consisted of writing the number of the card targeted by the link on the card which was the source of the link.

Once many years ago I had a paper card index but it wasn’t as well thought out or as useful as Professor Luhmann’s slip box.

Then there was a Z80 computer running an operating system called CP/M running a program I cobbled together myself written in DeSmet C, and then there was an 8086 computer running DOS with a hypetext editor program called ‘Black Magic’.  I can’t find a reference to it but in some ways it was an early forerunner of ConnectedText except that it had much more limited capabilities and facilities in monochrome on a 24 x 80 text screen.

Nowadays I use a Windows PC running a note taking program.  I have been through many different note taking programs some good, some bad, some with just one good trick up their sleeve and the rest mediocre.  Finally I have found what I think are some pretty good programs.

There are advantages to using a computer program for note taking, links between notes are much more useful than on a paper system as are the other features of a computer program which cannot be replicated by a paper system.

There exists a program which was specifically written to replicate the Zettelkasten Method, unsurprisingly it is called Zettelkasten3.  It is free but the user interface is extremely awkward and clunky.  It is also not very good at revealing the emergent structure of data.  It is a very uninspiring and unimaginative program which has been overhyped.  I tried it a couple of times but I do not use it, I think it is an awful program.

There is another program called ConnectedText which is extremely good at being a receptacle for a notebase, it is not free but it is not hideously expensive either.  ConnectedText is probably the best at revealing the emergent structure of data and is probably the best of the three programs at being the receptacle of a notebase although it is not as pretty as InfoQube.  The editing is not as interactive as InfoQube but that is an artefact of the way it was written.

One of the really neat things about ConnectedText is the way you can place a link to a page which does not exist into a page whilst editing it.  The link comes out in red indicating that it doesn’t point to anything but if you click on that link ConnectedText will create a new blank page with the name used in the link and open it for editing.

Development was stalled for quite a while but recently the developer announced on the forum that he was back on the case.  However apart from the initial announcement there has been little apparent activity and the forum still appears dead.  I will wait and see, it would be nice if development was resumed as ConnectedText is an awesome program.

There is another commercial program called InfoQube which is also very good at being the receptacle of an notebase.  It is not as good as ConnectedText at revealing the emergent structure within the data but is has all sorts of other features which make it good at many different things.

The aesthetics of the interface and of the documents produced are better than ConnectedText but the functionality as a notebase is not as good.  The functionality as an appointment book is better, the functionality for project management is better, the outlining is better, many aspects of this program are better than ConnectedText but as a repository for a notebase it is not as good.

Linking things together in InfoQube is not as quick & easy as in ConnectedText and this is for several reasons.

There is a constraint in ConnectedText that no two documents can have the same name, all names must be unique.  So in ConnectedText you can just start a link and type the name of the target page, a list will drop down as you type and it will get smaller as you type because it only contains the names which match what you have already typed, eventually the list gets down to one or you click on one of the options in the list (and as stated earlier you can type a name which doesn’t exist yet).

In InfoQube there is no such constraint, several items can have the same name, they are distinguished by the ID numbers in the database.  This may seem more flexible but it is a huge mistake as it means that items cannot be unambiguously identified by their name.  In InfoQube you must select the target for a link from within a dialog box in which you search for the item you want (or a Tag or an external file or a URL or anything which can be the target of a link), this is more flexible but makes the whole process slower and more cumbersome.  To me this is a major detriment of InfoQube.

So why am I now using InfoQube for my day to day note taking activities ?

Well it has so many other good things all available in the same program.  The word processing features and the ability to re-structure documents mean that I am now using InfoQube instead of Scrivener as a word processor for structured documents and it helps to have your notebase to hand when typing such a document.  Of course InfoQube doesn’t contain such refinements as ‘Typewriter Scrolling’ which Scrivener has but … Oh well !

My notebase is present in a grid called ‘Zettel’ which contains an alphabetically sorted list of notes, deliberately not in any sort of hierarchy.  This is kept separate from anything else in the notebase, effectively this is the slip box.  Notes may contain links to other notes in the body text of the note and may contain a list of links to other notes at the end of the note as references (‘see also’).  I can pull out a bunch of notes and arrange them in a separate grid (created on the fly) as a cluster of notes.

InfoQube does transclusion properly so these are the original notes but you can arrange then into whatever hierarchy you wish.  You can do outlines in InfoQube, I do two different types of outline (my definition not InfoQube’s).  One is the normal outline and the other is the brainstorming outline where I move things about a lot to see what is the best representation of the information I have to hand.  For a normal outline everything is the same colour but for a brainstorming outline different levels have different colours.  In InfoQube you can define the formatting of outlines so that different levels have different colours, different formats (Bold, Italic), different fonts and different sizes.  This is a really good way to visualise things when you are throwing ideas about.

You can do outlines in ConnectedText too but it’s hard work (each item in the outline has to be linked to a document manually) and they are nowhere near as flexible as the ‘coloured by level’ outlines in InfoQube.

So the reason I’m using InfoQube is that it incorporates good word processing, brainstorming and adequate zettelkasten features in one program whereas ConnectedText combines good zettelkasten facilities with adequate brainstorming facilities.

Sooner or later I am going to have to ditch one or other of the programs (either ConnectedText or InfoQube) as my main notes repository because there is a lot of strain involved in maintaining two very different note repositories in parallel.