Weekly Head Voices #193: COVID-19 part 3.

Another Stilbaai beach scene, this time in panaroma format, taken a day before the SA lockdown.

Another Stilbaai beach scene, this time in panaroma format, taken a day before the SA lockdown.

The Weekly Head Voices #193 looks back at the three weeks from Monday April 12 to Sunday May 2.

This post has a strong nerd flavour. If that is not your inclination, please use the table of contents (to your right) to navigate to the bits that you do find interesting.

If you’re in a rush, and can only select one section, I would recommend the one on Niklas Luhmann.

Have fun!

COVID-19 status update

On Friday, May 1, the South African lockdown was slightly lifted from level 5 to level 4.

This means that a part of the workforce will start returning to work, and that citizens are allowed slightly more freedom of movement.

If safety had been the only requirement, we should probably have had to continue with level 5 for a while longer, but that darned economy unfortunately also has to be kept afloat.

In spite of this, I was super pleased to read the following:

Masks are obligatory. Everyone has to wear cloth face masks outside their homes. If you don’t yet have a cloth mask, you can wear a scarf or a t-shirt wrapped around your mouth and nose, says Dlamini-Zuma.

This might end up being the thing that gets us through this in something that resembles one piece.

The second announcement I was super happy with, was that we would be allowed outside for exercise between 6 and 9 in the mornings.

So on Saturday morning I went out for my first post-level-5 run, ON THE OUTSIDE. (It does feel strange going out on the street for the first time in five weeks.)

The majority of people I saw actually had some form of face mask going on.

I had expected otherwise, because doing cardiorespiratory exercise with a mask on is not easy, and people can be stubborn.

Buffs are these fantastically useful “seamless tubular garments made from high-performance microfibre” that many runners swear by.

Well, it turns out you can also use them as as-running-proof-as-possible face masks:

Pro-tip: If there’s a runner in your life, and you’re on the lookout for a gift, just get them a buff. You can never have too many buffs.

GOU #2 is 10

My most favourite middle child in the whole world recently hit the double digits, and she was suitably chuffed with this.

It must be strange experiencing your 10th birthday under these truly surreal conditions.

On the other hand, when you’re 10, you probably don’t dwell on thoughts like that for too long.

Miscellaneous catch-up

In the past weeks, I wrote a number of other blog posts, started a new blog, and discovered an obscure but fantastic new blogging tool.

Oh, and my expensive ergonomic keyboard broke.

Fantastic blogging tools and where to find them

It all started when I finally got around to exploring ox-hugo, the Emacs package for writing Hugo posts using Org mode.

You might not recall this, but the mere existence of ox-hugo was the reason I chose Hugo when it was time to leave Wordpress behind.

Well, it turns out that, if you’re an Emacs Org mode user, ox-hugo is pretty close to blogging nirvana.

In the past few days, I’ve used it to turn arbitrary Org mode entries from my month journal into blog posts, to send the exact same Org mode file to two different blogs with different sets of title and metadata, and to assert Neo-in-the-matrix-style control over what goes where and how.

If I have to put my finger on the core of ox-hugo’s extreme utility, I would say that Kaushal Modi, the brains behind ox-hugo, has managed to create a perfect coupling between Org mode on the one hand and Hugo on the other, a coupling that maximally leverages the strengths of each.

(I will probably be writing more about this, but … elsewhere. [queue suspenseful music here])

Other mostly very nerdy blog posts

As part of the ox-hugo investigation, I had to figure out how to cite consistently between straight Org mode and ox-hugo for automatic bibtex-backed bibliographies.

Inspired by friend Stéfan’s post on voice capturing and automatically transcribing notes to Org mode, I figured out how to do the same on iOS and wrote it all up.

If you clicked on that second link, you will have discovered my brand new blog, the hopefully catchily titled Org Mode Exocortex. I will be posting ultra-nerdy Emacs Org mode content over there.

(Friend Stéfan is the very first guest blogger, with a re-post of his Android speech recognition post linked above. BTW, that was my first guest blogging experience ever. Life for the Z-list blogger does not move fast.)

Finally, also thanks to ox-hugo’s motivation, I figured (haha, now I see what I did there) out how to make and publish a new figure shortcode for Hugo that automatically resizes images and gets your browser to download only the best one!

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop at 4 years: RIP

After all of that good news, I do have to report the following not-so-great news:

After just under four years of approximately one half of my typing, the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard I welcomed into my home at the start of May of 2016, has developed a key failure.

More specifically, the physical “G”, which is my “I” (thanks Dvorak), fails about 30% of the time, with that duty cycle slowly growing.

(You may bring your jokes about why specifically the “I” is failing first to the comment section below!)

I opened up the keyboard following the instructions and photos of Emmanuel Contreras.

(What I can add to Contreras’s information, is that the palm rest is held fast by no less than 12 little screws, some odd-sized. Pro-tip: When you remove all of these, put them down in the same pattern as the holes, so that you can get them back in later.)

However, one unfortunately ends up at the metal backing which is attached to the top-plate with about 30 or more plastic pop-rivet like mechanisms.

Information online also seems to indicate that once a single key goes, you have to replace the whole board.

Some more searching brought me to this obscure but helpful YouTube review where Kevin explains that although everyone at his company loved the keyboard, they had simply accepted it as part of their business expense to replace them every 6 months to a year.

If you search through the Amazon reviews for “durability”, it really starts to look like a case of a fantastic keyboard marred by issues with its durability.

However, if you need a relatively affordable “ergonomic” keyboard, where with “ergonomic” I mean shaped in such a way that your wrists get to stay more or less straight while typing, with really great feel and low-impact typing, the Sculpt comes out on top.

Although it goes against my grain, I should probably be happy with the above average 4 years that this one managed, and start finding a local source for its inevitable replacement.

Nerds in the audience: I am very curious to hear about your keyboard preferences in the comments. Let’s go!

Two lessons learnt from How to Take Smart Notes

On March 31 I quickly read through Sönke Ahrens’s book, How to Take Smart Notes.

(The full title is actually “How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers”)

The most portable cross-platform ebook format with self-contained annotations is…

I bought the Kindle book on Amazon, because that’s how I’ve been doing it for years.

However, although I prefer reading novels on my Kindle e-Ink device, for reference works it’s a deal breaker that my highlights and notes are not in a standards compliant format that integrates nicely with my existing personal knowledge management system.

My goal was to find an alternative format for these books with the following features:

  • Before you answer PDF, which I use extensively for academic papers, typeset books, and many other things: The alternative format should be fully reflowable, like the source Kindle book.
  • Readable and annotations editable on all my non-Kindle devices (Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS).
  • Most importantly: Flexible annotations, including at least highlighting and positional notes, that are stored within the file itself, so they can never be lost.

I didn’t expect this to be too much of a challenge.

I was wrong.

After a number of hours spent spelunking down a number of different rabbit-holes, with epub3 being the greatest disappointment (the spec has all the features, but the implementations largely lack good annotation support), I ended up in a place where you probably would not expect to find me…

Dear readers, the best format that satisfies all requirements above is… <FRITS_DRUMROLL />Microsoft DOCX!

Since then, I’ve been DeDRM’ing (google it) the Kindle reference books I purchase in order to be able to read and annotate them across all my platforms.

For this, the iPad is pretty great.

Once read, the DOCX files, including all of the annotations I made, are stored in the correct place in my synchronised file hierarchy, and are fully searchable and accessible with standard tools.

The amazing Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten

The book itself, How to Take Smart Notes, spends well-deserved time on the phenomenon that was the prodigiously productive German sociologist Professor Niklas Luhmann.

Over his career, Prof. Luhmann wrote more than 70 books and published almost 400 research articles.

He made a massive impact on the world of sociology and systems theory.

When asked in a 1997 interview how he managed to this productive, he answered:

“Ich denke ja nicht alles allein, sondern das geschieht weitgehend im Zettelkasten. […] Meine Produktivität ist im wesentlichen aus dem Zettelkasten-System zu erklären. […] Der Zettelkasten kostet mich mehr Zeit als das Bücherschreiben

Translated this is probably something like (German readers, help me out here please):

I don’t think everything by myself, but that largely happens in the slip box. […] My productivity is essentially due to that slipbox system. [..] The slipbox costs me more time than that writing books

The zettelkasten he referred to were quite simply a set of wooden slipboxes, in which he could store pieces of paper (the “slips”), each of which had a single idea written on it.

It looked more or less exactly like this:

Photo of Luhmann&rsquo;s Zettelkasten. Click to go to the fully online Niklas Luhmann-Archiv.

Photo of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten. Click to go to the fully online Niklas Luhmann-Archiv.

Over the course of his career, he managed to write about 90000 (yes, ninety thousand) of these notes, all of which you can now browse online at the Niklas Luhmann-Archiv.

Importantly, he had come up with an ingenious numbering system for linking each new note to its chain of predecessors, and also to other related chains anywhere in the zettelkasten.

When it was time to write a book or a paper, he would dive into his this collection, and then take a stroll through his amazing web of interlinked thoughts, some of them having matured for years.

Putting together the publication became an exercise in harvesting index cards from his slipboxes, instead of a positively intimidating mountain of writing, thinking and rewriting.

This is such a boss-level example of the principle of compounding, and one which is definitely worth trying to follow.

Since reading Ahrens’s book, I have started extending my existing note-taking universe to be more Zettelkasten-like, when appropriate.

Org mode is a great basis for this, and packages like org-roam help us to get closer to our 90-thousand-notes-dreams.

On a higher level, I have been thinking and writing a great deal about how to merge effectively the Zettelkasten one-idea-per-note approach into the full spectrum of writing complexity that Org mode supports.

It is important to be mindful of the mode of documentation that you need to apply at any give point.

If you want to read more about the Luhmann’s Zettelkasten, this Writing Cooperative article in English and this Heise article in German are a great start.

This might not be the last time that you’ll hear me talking about Luhmann and his Zettelkasten.


Thank you friends for reading this and connecting with me here!

I look forward to our next meeting.