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The Whippet #149: Getting rhizomatic with the lads

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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Good morning!

So a reader recently asked me if I had a PKM (personal knowledge management) system for organising all the articles and stuff that go into The Whippet. A PKM is a system for collecting, organising, retrieving and using all the information in your life (including your own thoughts and ideas). It can include anything from a notebook to a private wiki to a google doc to a collection of voice memos.

People who take in and put out a LOT of info (writers, researchers, etc.) tend to need more intentional, thought-out PKMs, hence the reader's question.

At the moment the zeitgeisty thing is Obsidian, Roam Research and zettelkasten – systems with bidirectional links (meaning my note on Egyptian death rituals links to my note on Tibetan death rituals, and vice versa). It's like having hundreds of interconnected (potentially digital) index cards.

screenshot of obsidian node
here's a screenshot of a small section of someone's Obsidian PKM. You could click into each of those nodes and find the text.

The idea is that, after you have enough pieces, the system starts to become more than the sum of its parts. People refer to them as a 'second brain'. Once people have collected enough in their PKM, they can make all kinds of surprising connections. They say it feels much more natural than clicking in and out of folders all the time.

These bidirectional, decentralised systems are completely overwhelming to me, and I have never been able to get anything useful out of them. I use a very traditional tree structure for all my info – folders and subfolders, hierarchical bullet lists.

I've always thought that I'm just... a bit conservative that way. Kind of rigid, I like my little rules and list and folders and everything squared off. I also use spreadsheets a lot – again, straight lines, and pretty much only one relationship is depictable (the list in the left-hand column's relationship to the things in the top row).

Anyway, I explained my system to the reader with some screenshots of my One Note, and he wrote "what I picked up on is that your brain does seem to work like its own [Obsidian/etc.], making connections without needing a “second brain.”

And that was an absolute shock. He's completely right – in conversations, I am constantly jumping from topic to topic in ways that people are surprised by but that feel very obvious and logical to me. Whenever I think of one thing to put in The Whippet, I always think of a dozen others that tangent off or resonate with the first one.

I need the orderly, hierarchical lists because I need to create structure for a brain that does a lot of wild lateral steps. It's shoring up the weaknesses in my skillset.

This is a description of ADHD, but I imagine it applies to anyone with a similar thinking style:

Their highly associative way of thinking (non-linear) can be a liability in that they can see how all things are connected and interrelated but don’t see one clear path forward.

[...] This cause and effect conundrum (If I change A it impacts B, C, D and Y) can ripple out in ways to the point of overwhelm and shut-down. A move down one path of thinking or action inexorably creates a compounding effect of impacting an almost infinite number of other paths of thought and action.

A wicked cycle of circular thinking can occur, burning precious bandwidth, leaving the individual in an exhausted state of doubt with little to show for the emotional expenditure. [Cameron Gott]

You can see how someone with a brain like that would not be helped by being shown a dozen more options spiralling out from each node.* How they would instead want help seeing the one clear path forward.

So I think people who hate linear tree-style PKMs already have well-structured brains – imposing more order on them is unnecessary and unhelpful. They need a PKM that supports them to take wild lateral steps, make new associations and connect seemingly disparate ideas. THAT'S what people are getting out of Obsidian-style PKMs, and why they don't work for me.

That's my theory anyway! The right PKM doesn't replicate your brain structure, it complements it – supports you to do the aspects that don't come as naturally to you.

Here's the place where you go to disagree with me:

* speaking of nodes, this tweet:

Lists vs. mind maps: a highly unscientific poll

(I would assume twitter users skew more linear than visual, because of the platform, and my followers probably skew towards having a similar thinking style to me, so it's not even a random sample of twitter users.)

Poll! What way of structuring information fits your brain best? What is more easily processed by you? Linear lists 59.3% Mind maps 24.3% Other (leave comment) 6.4% Show me results 10%. 140 votes cast.
(As you may have guessed, I am not a mind map person.)
icon: articles

‘Fluffy’ crab that wears a sponge as a hat discovered in Western Australia

Lamarckdromia beagle - crab with fluffy legs and hat
Lamarckdromia beagle + hat

Sponge crabs find sea sponges (and co.), trim the creatures using their claws, and wear them like hats. (Trimming them doesn't kill them – the creatures keep growing, but now they grow in a shape that fits the crab better.)

The hats protect them and camouflage them from anything looking down on them from above. They have "hind legs that are specially adapted for holding their protective hats."

The sponges can be bigger than the crab itself, and also provide a chemical deterrent. “Some of the compounds that these sponges are producing are very noxious,” said Dr. Andrew Hosie, who named the new crab. “There’s not a lot of active predators that would be interested in munching through a sponge just to get to a crab.”

The new species, Lamarckdromia beagle, is named after the HMS Beagle, the ship Charles Darwin went around in. “Also because it’s tanned, it’s kind of like a beagle colouration,” Dr. Hosie adds.

Hosie said it wasn’t clear why Lamarckdromia beagle was so fluffy. “The sponge [...] that these things carry should offer it all the camouflage it needs,” he said. “I expect that having the extra fluffy legs means that the outline is even more obscured.”

Full article at The Guardian. I've used a lot of direct quotes because Dr. Hosie's phrasing is adorable.

The history they won't teach in school

tweet: History repeats itself—first as tragedy, second as otters.


Catastrophic failure at an aluminium extrusion line

It just keeps getting worse, amazing to watch. (No one was injured, I'm not a ghoul.)

news article about the explosion, but it's not very interesting

My friend Lang: "Really shows the value of running before you confirm how bad it is."

Can't stave off death forever, but we can at least vow not to die while thinking "it's probably nothing, I don't want to overreact..."


Umberto Eco: "We like lists because we don't want to die"

Given the above, I am delighted that Umberto Eco has a coffee table book (is that an insulting term?) that's an anthology of lists in literature, history and visual art. (He classifies 'collections of objects' like still lifes and cabinets of curiosity as lists.)

He also put on an exhibition at the Louvre – this interview is about the exhibition:

Eco: The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order – not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

SPIEGEL: Should the cultured person be understood as a custodian looking to impose order on places where chaos prevails?

Eco: The list doesn't destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles.

The full interview. If you do read the Spiegel interview, there is a particular sentence that will make you think, "Wow, I wish he had chosen a different example." I just wanted you to know I had that reaction too.


The universe as pictured in Milton’s Paradise lost (1915)

Realm of Chaos and Night

As interpreted by Homer P. Sprague. Via the Internet Archive.

Leonardo Da Vinci's To Do List (1490s)

This list was found in one of Da Vinci's notebooks, which he wore hanging from his belt so he could write notes or sketch when he was out and about. It was translated by Tony Lester for the book Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image.

  • Calculate the measurement of Milan and Suburbs
  • Find a book that treats of Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio
  • Discover the measurement of Corte Vecchio [the courtyard in the duke’s palace].
  • Discover the measurement of the castello [the duke’s palace itself]
  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
  • Get Messer Fazio [a professor of medicine and law in Pavia] to show you about proportion.
  • Get the Brera Friar [at the Benedictine Monastery to Milan] to show you De Ponderibus [a medieval text on mechanics]
  • Talk to Giannino, the Bombardier, re. the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes [no one really knows what Da Vinci meant by this]
  • Ask Benedetto Potinari [A Florentine Merchant] by what means they go on ice in Flanders
  • Draw Milan
  • Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
  • Examine the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
  • Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
  • Ask about the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese
  • Try to get Vitolone [the medieval author of a text on optics], which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the mathematic.

NPR has it in cute sketch form here. Although the NPR writer adds "What a jumble! It's like his mind could wander off in any direction at any time." But it's a pretty cohesive list? It's all themed around what you might call applied geometry & physics. It's less jumbled than your average person's To Do list. ("Buy socks. Call mother. Take dog to vet. Scream into void. Recipe for butter chicken???")

Unsolicited Advice

Better friendship through spreadsheets

I have a friend who always sends the most thoughtful, non-generic birthday messages. I haven't seen him in 10 years, but every year, I still get a delightful message from him.

Since I have become a good person by stealing everyone else's good traits and shovelling them into my personality like a greedy raccoon, I tried to retro-engineer how he's managing this. (If the answer turns out to be "every time a friend has a birthday, spontaneously come up with a unique and charming message", I'm in trouble.)

Here's how I'd do it: At the start of each year, I'd put a fair bit of time and thought into writing one good birthday message. And then I'd send that same message to everyone throughout the year as their birthdays come up.

I know there are some people who view any nice gesture as cheap and fake unless it arises completely spontaneously without the aid of any tools or reminders, but this is (sorry) a very silly view. Being really intentional makes a gesture more lovely, and more sincere – not less. It shows you cared enough to figure out how to make it work, and what tools you would need. (I use a lot of phone reminders.) You cared enough to put a plan in place instead of just winging it.

(And if you think it's bad that everyone gets the same message, please consider that you are probably already sending everyone pretty much the same message because it is very hard to come up with an original version of "happy birthday".)

Anyway, you know what's better than speculating about people's methods? Actually asking them!

The thoughtful friend is singer-songwriter Alasdair Bouch, and he says I basically guessed right:

I made a spreadsheet of my friends' & acquaintances' birthdays so I can write to them at least once a year. It's as much for me to think of them & feel grateful for the role they have played in my life.

As for the content, I try to make something universally relevant – although it occasionally morphs throughout the year depending on current events or to whom I am writing. That said, I also make it something I would wish for myself, a thought that has come to me / helped me recently or an intention I would set for myself.

His Facebook page has links to his music and upcoming gigs [which are in Prague, not helpful for most of you I realise].

The advice
  1. Think of a gesture you would like to do for your friends, that would make you feel good to have done.
  2. Come up with a systematic plan to make it reliably happen.
  3. You can totally steal Alasdair's.

I always feel a bit gauche asking friends if I can use their thoughts in The Whippet. They say something insightful and I'm like "oh neat, do you mind if I grind that through the content mill?"

Not gauche enough to stop, obviously.

Thanks for reading!

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