Linking and the thing about zettelkasten

Last year I went on a tear around personal knowledge management (PKM). It started with discovering Obsidian and really appreciating its out-of-the-box capabilities. I do think, if Emacs is just more than you can bear the thought of, that Obsidian is an excellent choice for the sort of text-as-organizing-data approach org-mode is simply best at.

That said, its fatal flaw is basically Markdown, which is not meant to bear the load of text as organizing data. You can use it that way, but after … two decades? … of Markdown, we are not conditioned to think of it that way, and any superset of the core emph/strong/link/image markup comes at the expense of its overall feel. I’m not saying it can’t bear more, I’m saying that the more you add, especially when you start getting into multiple characters to do things like wedge in HTML or what’s essentially XML, the more burdensome it becomes and the more unreadable your source text becomes.

Realistically, org-mode has a similar problem: To get the really good stuff out of it you are adding metadata at at least the heading level. The difference is that for the balance of its lifespan it has been like that, and its development is both enhanced and constrained by the fact that it is a creature of Emacs. There are affordances that can hide the worst of the clutter, and the inline formatting syntax is not much more verbose than Markdown when it is at all. Deciding to use org-mode is not a “buy the ticket, take the ride” proposition. You bought the ticket when you edited your init.el the first time, and org-mode is just part of the ride.

Anyhow, You can’t really get into Obsidian without being exposed to the whole Zettelkasten thing. It led me to Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes, a small book about how to build a Zettelkasten system and what to do with it, and I found that book very compelling.

When I contextualize my reaction to it, I’m going to own a few things up front:

  • Like a lot of people, I was in the process of climbing out of a few years of lockdown, isolation, and anxiety. I had a certain kind of mental energy that was very inward-focused.
  • I had a strong sense that my job was not going to be long for this world, but was just beginning to get some traction on things that mattered to me, so that energy was searching for an outlet.
  • I had a few ideas for projects that I’d shelved for a period, but I was beginning to think that I needed to get going on them as part of my preparation for either being displaced or hitting the job market.

So I was primed for the Zettelkasten pitch.

But I’ve also been a sort of tech/nerd-adjacent type for decades, and was around during the heyday of GTD, 43 Folders, “lifehacks” before “lifehack” meant “refrigerate bologna and you won’t get sick eating it!” or “don’t run up the balance on your credit cards!”, and all the other productivity manias that blew through. This is me in 2005:

Sometimes I read a comment from someone who insists that his routine involves some insanely arcane and convoluted use of yarn and a special shell script he whipped up that reads crap down from his Backpack account and then squirts it into his Palm, makes a redundant backup on the server he maintains in Malaysia and produces printed 3x5 copies in triplicate, one of which he pins to his infant son’s sleeve before leaving for the morning (“If I died, I couldn’t live with him thinking his father went out the door without an action list and a plan!”).

… and me again in 2007:

While looking around for some info on “Getting Things Done” so I could share a summary, I came across:

“Allen says his martial arts background helped him appreciate the value of eliminating distractions.

“‘If four people jump out at you in a dark alley, you don’t want to be thinking about two e-mails you haven’t answered,’ he said.

Fending Off Four People - A Plan

@street, by alley

  • run down street flapping arms and yelling for help (?) (save breath by not yelling?)
  • run into nearby store? (make “nearby store” context?)
  • make Bruce Lee noises to see if that works then run? (split into two actions? or is that too much?)
  • prioritize possible ambush choices … by absolute order or relative priority? (make note: plan this ahead of time for future – someday)
  • make folder and list for “@street” context … hasn’t come up before
  • muggers in @mugger agenda list or defer due to one-time nature of encounter?
  • followup – could I have run faster or yelled louder?

Basically, I guess, there is a part of me that reads these things as largely aspirational (which is fine), but also very hung up on the idea that we are one special system or weird trick away from realizing our greatness (perhaps naive, but also fine), and that once we’ve mastered it we will finally become productive (which is fine(ish?) to the extent it means “does enough work to keep job” but is terrible when such a mushy word becomes a proxy for human worth).

How to Take Smart Notes hits all those aspirational notes, recounting the remarkable tale of Niklas Luhmann and his astounding lifetime run of 60+ books and hundreds of articles. It’s an inspiring story, and I’m going to grant one point for sure: If one choice is to be inspired by a prolific academic who expanded the sum of human knowledge with his little slipbox, and the other choice is to be inspired by someone whose productivity system is self-evidently great because he has used it to organize a small empire of retail productivity enhancement books and accessories, I’m goin’ with the perfesser over there.

So I tossed myself into Zettelkasten-via-Obsidian. I had a few things I wanted to work on, I had years of material in different formats that needed to be atomized, and I was reading two or three books a week, plus dozens of articles. Like I said, I had a ton of nervous energy to displace because a ten-year run was about to end, and the last time I’d felt thrown out of the nest my comfort zone was “crabby, introverted autodidact.”

In the end, it just wasn’t for me. I tried it, and Obsidian is an excellent tool for organizing your work that way, but I think the problem I had with it was that the ratio of “volume of stuff that’s just there in my head” to “volume of stuff I need to keep in a second brain” didn’t justify the existence of the second brain, or at least not one organized in classic Zettelkasten fashion. That’s not to say I can hold every consideration of a writing project in my head. I benefit greatly, for instance, from the whole project notes thing that integrates magit and Projectile: I have an org-capture template that adds a note to a todo file in the top level of a given project (read: “repo”) linked to the parent heading. If I’m out and about and think about something material to my writing project, I put it in my inbox. It’s a vestige of GTD and the idea of a trusted system. I just don’t think it will help me in a mugging, and the way I write, share experience, and organize my thinking isn’t amenable to the atomicity of Zettelkasten.

Maybe I could have gotten there! I believe other people who say it helps them! I understand the gentle pull of tending a little digital garden! I just don’t think organizing knowledge is my particular life struggle, and I do not think getting better at it will be a huge life enhancer.

So, all that said, I really appreciated this post (somewhat) about org-super-links, which describes how you can get automatic back-linking into your org-mode headings. Even though Zettelkasten isn’t for me, I did come to appreciate automatic back-linking in Obsidian (and my brief excursion into org-roam).

Spring is here, so time to take Lou out

A Yamaha TW200 parked in front of a suspension bridge on a sunny day.
Lou at Sauvie Island

“Lou” is my Yamaha TW200, a little farm bike I bought as a compromise between the tiny and “bounce it between your thighs at stop lights” Honda Grom and the bulkier, vaguely miserable Royal Enfield Himalayan 400. “Vaguely miserable” because mine was a victim of a bunch of factory QA problems that left me feeling like I could never really trust it during break-in.

It is meaningful to me that when the tender cable for my Grom came undone and I didn’t notice it for six months the Grom had so little in the way of parasitic drain that the battery still had life when I got back to it. The Himalayan? It needs to be on a tender 24/7, and never off one and parked for more than maaaaaybe two weeks at a time. It’s just like that, and who knows, and the dealer I bought it from shook the whole issue off with “that’s how this price point is,” which helped me clarify why a Harley dealer was selling Indian-made motorcycles to begin with: You walk in, run over to that Harley, surreptitiously glance at the price tag, realize you’re in over your head but cannot abide the thought of not riding your new bike off the lot on that particular sunny Saturday afternoon, so maybe that Royal Enfield that looks sort of classic will do the trick, for about as much as the down-payment on your Harley was gonna be.

I mean, I went in wanting to buy mine up front. I’d read good reviews, liked the looks, and wanted something of about that displacement and size. The QA stuff, though, is miserable. It took two goes just to figure out that the bleed lines from the fuel tank were tied too tightly to the frame, creating a vacuum that constantly caused stalls. The dealership was plainly sick of my face before I could even get 500 miles on it, and it lives in this weird space where it is too big and not powerful enough. If anyone asked me today, and if they were not interested in the “adventure” pedigree, I’d tell them anything but an RE Himalayan. A Rebel 300 would probably out-perform it, and my TW200, at half the displacement, comes pretty close without having to wrestle the bulk.

Anyhow, Lou is my Yamaha TW200 and I love it. Fat tires, low-slung, pleasant, low rumble. It is simple and sturdy and it is the perfect bike for SE Portland’s pothole alleys and torn-up 82nd Ave. It goes just enough to hold its own for a ride up to Sauvie Island or maybe the back way out to Estacada. It’s a great in-city commuter.

This week it was finally warm enough and dry enough to start Lou up for the first time this spring.

TW200’s (t-dubs) are notoriously cold-blooded, so it didn’t want to go. I dumped some fuel treatment in and shot some starter spray in its intake and it turned over. I let it sit on high choke for a while, then turned it off, rinsed, repeated an hour later and then took it up the side of Mt. Scott. It was still sounding a tiny bit uneven while it ran the old fuel through, but the two runs since it has sounded smooth and healthy, and it turns over right away.

I love it.

Al’s still up in the air about finishing up her motorcycle endorsement, so we have the TW200 and the Grom sitting here. If she decides nothing doing on motorcycling, I’ll find the Grom a home and consider something that can handle two-up a little more gracefully. We enjoy summer date nights on a motorcycle, and the TW200 isn’t quite up to that.