A New Guild System – The Hedgehog Review

A New Guild System | THR Blog | Blogs | The Hedgehog Review:

At a time when, as Levin points out, people tend to see participation even in such august institutions as the United States Congress as a platform for building their own personal brand, the solo-proprietor world can all-too-easily become branding all the way down and the personal website a device for constant ego-feeding.

“Branding all the way down” indeed.

I think I see the light (meter): how to buy one – The Machine Planet

Dante Stella, The Machine Planet:

Spot meters help you sort out the various tones in a scene so that you can spend 1000x the effort to get a picture that is 10% better than an averaging reflective meter used correctly. Spot meters, like communism, seem like a great idea until you try to use them on an everyday basis.

I once said that spot meters are for posers. Dante seems to agree :). Other than some fine snark, the rest of the article contains a lot of good information about light meters.

My Holy Grail Pen and Paper – CJ Chilvers

CJ Chilvers:

Writers spend way too much time and money seeking out their “grail” pen and paper combo — the tools that will make their work so much “smoother.” It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated in all creative pursuits.

Why does he quote “smoother” here? Is that from something? It’s an odd word for describing creative work.

I’m happy that Chilvers has a setup that works for him and that he doesn’t feel a need to try anything else. A little envious, even. On the other hand, I don’t love the insinuation that people who try different tools are somehow on a futile and unnecessary quest that can never lead to anything other than frustration and reduced creative output. OK, that might be me reading too much into it, but, isn’t it possible that some people simply enjoy trying new things? Can the search for better or more enjoyable tools never be more than just blind consumerism or creative procrastination?

A few from Roll-004

I haven’t been using film much this year, but once in a while it’s fun to get out and shoot a roll. I took the M6 out yesterday and finally finished the roll of HP5+ that I’d loaded into it a month ago. Here are a few from the roll. Most of these were shot while out walking around the neighborhood.

My blog’s overwrought theme

Everything in my life has become overwrought, overthought, overdone, and needs to be unwound.

Today, I’m dealing with this blog at copingmechanism.com. A few weeks ago I decided to go back to using WordPress (again), and dammit I’m going to try sticking with it this time. But, I don’t like any WordPress themes. There are thousands of them, and I can never find one that works for me. Oh, I find a lot of them that make me say, “Ooh, cool!” and install immediately and say, “There, that’s nice!”

The theme I was using up until this morning is “Hive” and it’s a fancy, nice-looking theme.

Magazine layouts like Hive’s are more suitable for occasional full-on articles and that’s not really what I’m doing here. I just want to share some stories, post some quoted links, and show off a few photos. I want things to look nice and be easy to read and navigate. You know, like blogs used to be before WordPress and SEO and relentless self-promotion decided we all needed giant hero images and featured posts and animation and just more of everything.

Hive is nice, and does some nifty things, but this makes it all feel like too much for me right now. Too much JavaScript, too many clever typographical tricks, and way too much animation. I could spend time figuring out how to dial it all back, but what I really want is a reverse-chronological list of full blog posts that readers can easily scroll through without a lot of hoo-ha. It shouldn’t be so difficult to find something to help me do all this without building something from scratch myself.

For now, I’m going fall back to my old stand-by theme, Independent Publisher. It’s not perfect, but it’ll get the job done while I work on something better.

Update April 17, 2021: I may have found one I don’t hate: Graphy. Trying it now.

My new note-taking system: Don’t take notes.

It feels like the entire world (or at least my corner of) is consumed by the “how” of note-taking. Tools, workflows, processes, backlinks, and on and on. Obsidian? Roam? Paper? I read it all. It’s fun and interesting and there’s no end of things to distract myself with. A distraction is all it is.

None if it really matters, though, and yet we endlessly split hairs and wring our hands and gaze at our navels over irrelevant minutiae. It’s exhausting. I’m not one of those people who wear “I never change my system” as a badge of honor. I can’t seem to stop. I’m too curious for that. FOMO and all.

As an attempt to extract myself from this loop, I’ve decided to stop taking notes for a while. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing. Writing isn’t note-taking. Nor is journaling. I’ll still do that. That’s what all of this is supposed to be for, isn’t it? But I won’t be jotting down my recent thoughts about minimalism or digital record-keeping or the details of a conversation I had with a colleague or how much I paid for the wrench I just ordered.

No more Roam vs Obsidian vs Tinderbox vs Org mode vs The Archive or what-have-you until I stop obsessing over which is better or more private or more open source or if it uses the right kind of Markdown. No more worrying about whether I’m taking “smart” enough notes or if this one should be “evergreen” or not. How long should a zettel be, anyway?

I’m willing to bet there are lots of smart, productive, happy people around that take very few notes and aren’t missing anything. I would love to be one of those people.

Vapid vainglorious video – The Machine Planet

Dante Stella pokes accurate fun at videos about still photography.

Or check out their stylish walking around, contemplating… stuff while wearing messenger bags. Sir, we all know that’s a camera bag and that it will crush the life out of even the most carefully basted sportcoat shoulders. A gentleman would never carry anything larger and cruder than a Contax T, which slips handily into the pocket of any pocket of any piece of clothing.

Many of these videos look like unpaid promotions for purveyors of peripheral photographic gear. On some videos, you can ascertain that every manufactured good in the scene has a name and a manufacturer. Please, do tell where I can buy another $70 nylon strap that looks like something cut out of the restraint system of a passenger car.

Video and/or audio instead of, rather than in addition to, written text wastes a lot of opportunities.

The lack of information density is not just a feature of photography videos; it is also feature of almost any technical video about anything. If the solution for cleaning something is vinegar or ammonia or something else, there is no need to package a very simple idea in a very elaborate video. If the key thing in touching up car paint is selective 3000-grit sanding and progressive application of thin layers of paint with more wet sanding, well, that’s easy to say. Omegas are almost as good as Rolexes. An Acura is not as fly as a Bentley. Follow me for more recipes.

I’m convinced that the “pivot to video” continues to be a colossal waste of everyone other than Google’s time.

Are automatic backlinks useful?

When I started using Roam, I found the way it handled backlinks to be a revelation. Other software does backlinks, but Roam’s implementation made it feel new. Suddenly, backlinks felt necessary.

I started writing everything in Roam’s Daily Notes, and I’d link things by putting brackets around each word or phrase that I thought I might want to review later. I made lots of links. After a while, I noticed that many (most?) of these linked words and phrases would end up as empty Roam pages containing nothing but backlink references.

In effect, what I was doing was creating saved searches.

I noticed something similar in my TiddlyWiki at rudimentarylathe.wiki. The automatic backlink references at the bottom of each note were in most cases links from one of the daily notes, and this ended up as a collection of backlinks like “2021.04.10 – Daily Note”. Not very helpful. Would I be better off just searching for the topic in question? I think so, so I recently changed the note footer on the wiki to do just that. It now shows a list of “tiddlers” with the most mentions of the current tiddler and also those with titles containing the same word. You know, like saved searches.

I’m starting to question the value of automatic backlinks in my notes. I still want them, but I’m not sure I need them the way I thought I did. They no longer feel necessary, but are they useful?

I started thinking about this again after re-reading Sascha Fast’s post, Backlinking Is Not Very Useful — Often Even Harmful. I had an adverse reaction to the article when I first read it. I thought it was mostly sour grapes because Roam was eating The Archive‘s lunch. I read it as, “The Archive doesn’t have automatic backlinks, so they must be bad and you don’t need them!” There was this right in the first paragraph:

Automatic backlinks are not only automatic when there is software that is showing them for you. If you create a backlink apparatus by habit it is still automatic. The automatization software would then be in your head

That felt like some rationalization gymnastics right there. I looked up “automatic” and it said, “done or occurring spontaneously, without conscious thought or intention”. A habit of manually creating links still involves conscious thought and intention.

And then the article went on to try and cast automatic backlinks as “linking notes” vs manual linking as “connecting knowledge”. I thought that was a bit of a semantic crutch.

Here’s another stretch…

Just think a moment about how difficult it really is to use the internet and its web in a productive way. The single most productivity-destroying problem with using the internet is the temptations link provide. The same is true for your Zettelkasten if your link structure is not well-groomed.

To compare the distraction of links on the internet at large to those within my own writing in a curated Zettelkasten doesn’t seem at all relevant.

I was looking for problems with the article going in, and I felt that I found them straight away, so I skimmed the rest with a jaded eye and a bad attitude.

I may have overreacted.

Now that I’ve spent a year building my notes using tools that make backlinks easy and automatic, I’m coming around to Sascha’s point of view. I have hundreds of empty “pages” containing nothing but backlinks. There’s no context, no color. No knowledge. It’s just “linking notes”. Here’s Sascha’s closing comment:

Backlinks are a perfect example on how features of software not only can be useless but actively harming you work by redirecting your attention towards to the superficial belief that you need to place links, instead of trying to connect knowledge.

I still feel that “harmful” is an exaggeration, but I better understand his point now that I’ve had some time with it.

The answer to the title of this post is, of course, “It depends”.

Many people use the term “zettelkasten” for any old pile of notes. But for a true zettelkasten, one containing notes specifically intended to help garner and build one’s knowledge over time, automatic backlinks aren’t as useful. Explicitly linking between ideas and notes and providing context for the links is much better.

For other collections of notes, though, automatic backlinks can be very helpful, even though they aren’t functionally much different from saved searches. For example, I keep notes about people I know. Having backlinks created automatically whenever I link to “Mom”, for example, is a nice way to see all of the times I’ve mentioned her, right there next to my notes about her. This, for me, is very useful. Hi mom!

Back to Fastmail?

My first annual subscription to Basecamp’s HEY email service is about to expire, meaning it’s time to decide whether I will be renewing.

I don’t think I will.

This makes me sad, because I really like using HEY for email. They’ve done a great job re-thinking how we interact with email and most of their decisions have been spot on.

I forward baty.net email from Fastmail to my HEY account and, now that they support SMTP forwarding, I can reply from there as well. Soon, they are likely to fully support custom domains, meaning I could move jack@baty.net directly into HEY and be done with it.

And that’s where I have a problem. Email is the most important account I have. It’s the key to everything. HEY is not “normal” email. There’s no access to it via the standard IMAP interface or even POP3.

One of the reasons I like HEY is that I can’t change email clients. This is nice, because it means I’m not wasting time looking for the perfect tool. I just use HEY’s apps and that’s settled then. I trust Basecamp, but with HEY they control my email and it’s in a sort of black box, with no access to it outside of HEY’s own clients. This gives me hives and I’m not sure I can learn to be comfortable with it, despite appreciating the constraints.

Another factor is that I’m planning to move my wife’s email away from its current host and going to HEY might be too big a leap for her, workflow-wise. I can add her to my Fastmail account for $30/year where a new HEY account would be another $99.

I’ve got a couple weeks to decide, but right now I’m leaning toward sticking with a known, safe, stable quantity: Fastmail.