V.H. Belvadi https://vhbelvadi.com Writings on the interconnections between science, technology and society en https://vhbelvadi.com <![CDATA[How to build a zettelkasten system]]> https://vhbelvadi.com/zettelkasten https://vhbelvadi.com/zettelkasten ]]> The idea of a ‘knowledge management system’ is all the rage these days and among the most popular of these methods is the zettelkasten, pioneered by Niklas Luhmann, the late sociology professor at the University of Bielefeld. The trouble with most online explanations and guides is that they are overly focused on either the software they use to build out their ‘KPM’ or the fascination of being able to see a ‘graph’ of all their notes, referring to a mind-map of sorts that many products offer as a highlight feature.

It is worth remembering in such times that the zettelkasten of Luhmann was built using boxes and index cards. It is perhaps time we returned our focus to understanding what zettelkasten really is so that the digital implementation we make can be our own and actually make sense rather than seem like an esoteric exercise. Lastly, if you are not a German speaker, every time you feel lost, keep remiding yourself that zettelkasten simply means ‘slip box’—a literal box of slips.

Part of my motivation for writing this article is to collect my thoughts on zettelkasten for implementation as my own system. This motivates my discussions in this piece and, since I employ these myself, you can rest assured that I stand by them firmly. I must also give credit to Sönke Ahrens’s excellent book ‘How to take smart notes’ for introducing me to this method.

There are three points to keep in mind as we begin: first, it helps to explore zettelkasten not from a technological standpoint but from the perspective of its many principles; second, we did not really know of the zettelkasten during its inventor’s lifetime or from its inventor beyond his own notes-to-himself on it, so whatever we do know about this method is inferential; and third, it appears that Luhmann recognised that ‘others work differently’1 which can be interpreted as his permitting us to make zettelkasten ours—but to do so without first understanding its principles would be a fallacy. We will therefore talk principles first and method next.

The principles

Networking is the core idea

At the heart of every system is a simple nugget of belief that drives and constructs everything else we know about that system. For zettelkasten this is the concept of networking.

In his book, Ahrens quotes Charlie Munger while talking about the idea of learning a network of information rather than a linear list of facts. “We know today,” he says, “that the more connected information we already have, the easier it is to learn because new information can dock to that information … [if facts] hang together in a network of ideas, or ‘latticework of mental models’ (Munger, 1994), it becomes easier to make sense of new information.”

There are two approaches that zettelkasten derives from this:

  • Remaining unorganised. Eschew hierarchy and structure in favour of networking or linking. Most other methods to information management rely on planning out a structure or organisation; this is not only forceful but also makes it impossible to discover connections between ideas that you did not manually set-up yourself.
  • Keep notes brief and concise. Linking becomes harder if you are looking to connect a dozen essays; it is much more palatable when you are connected simple ideas, claims or facts that do not each take more than a couple of sentences to describe.

Think about the future

Zettelkasten is not a note-taking method. It is a method of organising information you have collected—from books you read, videos you watch, conversations you have etc.—which necessarily means you are not taking notes for later reference or binning, rather you are doing so to exploit indefinitely. Your zettelkasten is intended to outlive you, carrying a piece of everything worthwhile that you ever read, listened to or watched.

A note you take today ought to be with you for the rest of your life and not until the end of a project or book reading or year. The fact that the ultime destination of our zettelkasten notes is called the ‘permanent’ box should have told us this already.

Once again, Ahrens puts it succinctly: “Ask yourself, ‘When and where do I want to stumble upon this idea again?’” So, in addition to being unorganised, being liberal about metadata is important. Link a note to remotely connected notes too if the thought occurs to you. Or tag your notes2 liberally—it does not take too long.

Make it a daily habit

Zettelkasten is a bit like inbox zero in that it is a beautiful thing to have but takes conscious, consistent effort. And by consistent I mean daily. You have to make it a point to ritually either end your work day with Zettelkasten or begin it that way.

Most people prefer to end their work day with it but I prefer to begin my day with Zettelkasten for two reasons: one, it helps me start my morning by recalling yesterday’s readings which adds some connectivity for today; two, it helps me sleep on my thoughts and ideas from the previous day and effectively think them through better before committing them to my permanent notes.

The ‘habit’ part of this method refers to the final step—the transition from literature notes to permanent notes—and not the first two steps of making notes and preparing literature notes: those simply have to comprise your workflow itself.

Make it a conversation

For our last principle we shall refer to Ahrens again who describes the first step in the zettelkasten method beautifully as writing down (notes) to have a meaningful conversation with the words we read3.

I would extend this analogy: during its many stages zettelkasten is a series of conversations. First you converse with what you read; subsequently you have two conversations with yourself. The whole process described in this way may seen tedious but when you think about the actual work that goes into it, the nature of the work, and the outcome of this effort, it becomes a pleasurable activity.

Retrieval is key

There is little to zettelkasten if it is all about throwing things into a box without any way to pick them back up or re-trace them again. The physical method resolved this by numbering index cards in sequence: X for an idea, Xa for a related idea, Xb for another related idea, XaY for a further related idea from Xa and so on. Imagine writing 90,000 index cards as Luhmann did only to have no way to retrieve the one you wanted when you wanted it.

Digital versions of zettelkasten understandably make this steps considerably easier. You can write in markdown and use [[wikilinks]] to link across notes, including to specific paragraphs in some programs, and automatically have those notes link back to this one (called back-links) so that when you want to retrieve it, you just need to start somewhere and your fancy zettelkasten system can take you everywhere else.

What this means simply is that every note must have a link to at least one other note. This harks back to the principle of networking from earlier. And what if your note legitimately has nothing else to link to, such as when it is a brand-new topic? That is where maps come in—see subsidiate steps below.

Hoarding is the way

Unfortunately, zettelkasten makes a case for hoarding. This is a problem physically but should not even be a topic of discussion digitally. Let us instead look at hoarding as a principle of zettelkasten.

Most note-taking approaches rely on decision-making when it comes to taking a note i.e. you place your note in a hierarchy or organisation system when you first take that note. Zettelkasten does away with this entirely. Instead all notes are assumed to be (a) useful at some point in time and (b) useful in ways you did not—cannot—foresee just yet. In other words, keep everything and you can afford to keep everything becayse you do not have to worry about structuring things.

With the principles clarified, we can finally address the question as to what precise steps the zettelkasten method entails. As we go over this, a few pointers: I use a digital system for my notes as do most others, which is why these steps are digitally-biased; if you fancy a paper-based system, you can still implement the same steps and the accomodations you would then have to make will be obivous; I would, if someone asked me, recommed the digital approach simply because of the many undeniable benefits a digital system brings that far outweighs any of its pitfalls; and lastly, feel free to make it your own—this is neither the method nor the best method, but it is what I have found to be no-nonsense and straightforward.

When you sit with the same system and repeat the same routines every day, you want something that gets the job done effectively above all else.

The method

Step 1: Fleeting notes, or collecting information

We consume information all the time and in many forms—sometimes too much of it. The idea of zettelkasten is to keep note of everything you consume that interests you. This has two benefits: first, and the more obvious one, it lets you retain what you liked so you can come back to it later; second, the critically divisive one, it forces you to reconsider what you want to consume at all4.

The next time you are reading, talking to a friend, listening to a podcast, watching a home video or documentary or film, be armed with a notebook, paper or app in which you can take down quick thoughts. In the zettelkasten system these are called ‘fleeting notes’ and can take many forms depending on the type of content and the context in which it is being consumed:

  • If you can return to the work you are consuming, as in a podcast or video, make an indirect note, such as of the time code or simply bookmark the instance around which you saw or heard something of note
  • If it is an eBook on your Kindle, highlight it to save the highlight automatically for later reference; make a quick note if needed, if the highlight does not speak for itself or if you have an associated idea not covered by the highlight
  • If it is a book, make a quick note of the paragraph and page number for longer notes or exact quotes along with a short-hand description of your thoughts; for briefer thoughts, just note them down in their entirety (a page number may not be needed here)
  • If it is a conversation with another individual, scribble while you speak or listen, or excuse yourself and make a note in shorthand on your phone; the same would apply to lectures, wokshops etc. where the speaker would not pause for you

The core idea of a fleeting note is for the action of making a note to take place without hindering your consumption of some content and to enable you, where possible, to return to that content should you need to do so later.

Step 2: Literature notes, or summarising information

After you have finished your consumption, you need to set aside some part of your day to summarise the information. This serves two purposes: it forces you to explain things so you can identify what you do not understand; and, where possible, it forces you to return to specific parts of the content that are worth a second look.

Needless to say, if you can or should go back to the content, as with the time codes you noted down or highlights from your book that you marked for re-reading, now is the time to do so. For everything else, write from memory.

The point of zettelkasten at this stage is to summarise in your own words and not to copy whatever text you read or words your heard. This makes you think about it, ensures you understand it, and opens the doors to new ideas and thoughts that might come to you while you write down what are termed your ‘literature notes’ .

Literature notes, also called reference notes, contain all your takeaways from (usually) a single ‘event’. Such an event could be reading a book, watching a documentary, listening to a podcast etc. Ideally, you will save as much meaningful information as you can about the data in a reference note, such as which page you found a quote or idea, what time code you listened to a curious mention and so on, drawn from—as you probably guessed it by not—your fleeting notes.

If you have ever taken an orientation course at university on academic integrity, this practise would have been emphasises to you multiple times. It should come as no surprise given zettelkasten was born in academia.

Step 3: Permanent notes and back-links

When Luhmann was preparing his permanent notes i.e. the ultimate destination of a zettel5, he used to mark each note with an index number in the top-left corner:

A sample digitised note from Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten.
A sample digitised note from Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten.

This is a case where digital apps can be objectively superior. You can do away with this concept entirely, relying completely on [[internal linking]] for your notes if you use a program that supports it (most do). But since you have to title your notes anyway—even if only as the file name—you can keep your filename more descriptive as an added advantage.

I use #####-author-concept as my basic file name structure. The hashthorpes in the begining stand for a serial numbering scheme that I use to be able to sort my notes chronologically. This is how I work, not how zettelkasten needs you to work. The point here is that you are free to choose how you handle such specifics so long as you follow the other basic steps outlined in this article. Comments on how I do things are only to serve as food for thought.

Permanent notes are supposed to be ‘bite-sized’, the smallest meaninful length to which you can break down ideas from your literature notes. Another way to look at this is that each permanent note must contain only a single idea along with one or more internal links to other permanent notes and/or bibliography note and/or map, as well as the literature note whence originated (bibliography notes and maps are discussed below).

These components of a permanent note are non-negotiable to ensure that when you do need this note again, you know where you got it from and how you arrived at the idea, to both spark new thoughts and allow you to attribute ideas to their origins correctly.

While several text editors have now come to offer [[wikilinks]] as standard features that work perfectly for internal linking, some programs have set themselves apart for also offering back-links. For instance, if you link to note x from note y, the program automatically marks a list of back-links showing on note x that you have linked to it from note y. This is a great feature that prevents manual back-linking. But it is also there when you do not need it, which has led some to conclude that back-links are anathema in general and can cause people to go down the rabbit hole of internal back-links. I disagree with this black-and-white outlook: so long as you are conscious of what you do—which is central not only to zettelkasten but to life itself—you should be fine. And if too many back-links cause you to lose your orientation, you should go check out what we call the internet.

A note on timelines The above three steps are the primary steps involved in zettelkasten but subsidiary steps exist (discussed below). However, at this point it is worth discussing briefly how long your notes last and how many folders you will really have, considering we are working digitally. Ideally you would have three folders with an optional fourth for bibliography. The three folders, as you may have guessed, are for fleeting notes (I call mine an ‘inbox’), literature notes and permanent notes.

Your fleeting notes are to be discarded daily once they have all been expanded into literature notes. Your literature notes often correspond to your bibliographic entries with one note per reading source; but you could also have one note per reading session or topic or project. My suggestion is that you keep this open and use what works for the task at hand rather than resorting to dogma for the sake of it. Your literature notes are permanent but not networked. And you should work on them daily or as your fleeting notes demand.

Finally, your permanent notes are permanent, bite-sized and networked. You should work on these daily as well, as you make new literature notes, but I prefer to work on permanent notes the morning after for reasons described earlier, which is still technically daily.

Subsidiary steps &c.

Bibliographic references

Niklas Luhmann kept two boxes, not one. The first is the main zettelkasten which would correspond to our three-step, three-folder procedure outlined above. He kept a second box for bibliography according to Sönke Ahrens:

“I make a note with the bibliographic details. On the backside I would write ‘on page x is this, on page y is that,’ and then it goes into the bibliographic slip-box where I collect everything I read.” (Hagen, 1997). But before he stored them away, he would read what he noted down during the day, think about its relevance for his own lines of thought and write about it, filling his main slip-box with permanent notes.

Digitally, this seems to translate to four folders but it need not be this way. The physical bibliography folder can simply be your literature notes folder and it would have clearer rules than all the others: one file per work (per book, per episode, per documentary etc.) and containing the title of the work, names of the author and editor, title of the book or compilation, the publisher, year, edition, URL, date of access and any other data you would normally list in academic references. And of course all your notes related to that work.

Handling internal links to your bibliography folder can be tough if done manually, so prefer programs that handle back-links for you to make it a breeze. With a proper bibliography folder you have a list of all the works you have ever referred to. Name it something like author-year and you have a nice bibliography listed by author. You can also use a generic, empty note exclusively for back-links; consider this you main bibliography index.

Maps of Contents

A slightly more advanced zettelkasten technique, and one that has no connection to Luhmann, is the special type of note called a Map of Contents or simply MOC.

These are useful if you want to further organise your zettelkasten by preparing a map of related ideas. You could, for example, store everything related to a specific experimental technique or new code standard or fringe idea in socialism all in one note which in turn links to several permanent notes.

You can probably see why you need not worry about this too much when starting out. Zettelkasten has enough working for its network as is, so when you really need something more you will know.

Remarks on information flow

Zettelkasten has no structure, just a web of organic links to and from notes. The only thing even resembling a structure can be found in the flow of information from fleeting notes up to permanent notes. These are some observations worth keeping in mind:

  • Fleeting notes and literature notes have a many-to-one map
  • The fleeting notes folder should ideally be empty
  • The literature notes folder is one of two permanent zettelkasten boxes
  • Literature notes and permanent notes have a one-to-many map
  • The permanent notes folder is the second permanent zettelkasten box

And now some observations on the nature of each stage:

  • Fleeting notes are direct quotes and passing original thoughts
  • Literature notes are exposition intended to crystallise your understanding
  • Permanent notes arise from the dismantling of your understanding into ideas as you comprehend them—not explanations, pure ideas—to be linked to other ideas

Stepwise example

To erase any sign of confusion, here is a stepwise explanation that boils all the ideas above into seven simple steps:

  1. As you read or listen or watch, take down notes wherever convenient
  2. Once you are done—or once daily—create (or update) a note in your bibliography folder titled author-year for a single book, podcast, video etc.
  3. Write down any reference details about the work you read, listened to or watched
  4. Link to the bibliography index cursorily
  5. Convert your fleeting notes from step 1 into literature notes in the note you created in step 2
  6. Break down your literature notes from step 5 into any number of ideas labeling each as short-description-of-idea and making sure to link each idea back to its literature note

Steps 3 and 4 are performed just once per ‘thing’ you consume. The rest can be done in one sitting or in multple sittings, but, even if you spreak a sitting across two days, it is important that you sit down every day for zettelkasten. Having intimate knowledge of your notes, not memorising them, is critical to a successful zettelkasten system.

Apps? What apps?

This question is the elephant in the room every time zettelkasten is discussed. Most people build their zettelkasten digitally these days and, while ideally any text editor should do, for effortless back-links you need a program that supports a two-way internal linking mechanism of some sort.

Caveat emptor but here is what app I would recommend and why: I have simple requirements from a program intended for zettelkasten, including platform agnosticism, markdown support and back-link capability. (And of course I’d love something with a free version so long as it has a solid business model.) Notion gets disqualified on the very first count; Logseq on the second count6; and iA Writer on the third count. My choice therefore is Obsidian and it is what I use with iCloud sync across all my devices.

That said, the beauty of zettelkasten is in its principles and system, not in the specific tools you use. Some tools can make some tasks easier but feel free to use what works for you—more important, do not get hung up on tools or spend too much time customising them. After all, zettelkasten is intended to help you get more out of your content consumption, not to keep you from consuming at all.

  1. From a remark on Luhmann’s note to himself, digitised by the University of Bielefeld

  2. One of the best enhancements made by digital programs for zettelkasten is, in my opinion, being able to tag notes. This introduces a added level of networking not otherwise present in standard zettelkasten but in its nature enhances the core principles of this method. I do not consider back-linking a digital enhancement because you could do that physically anyway; however, it would have to be done manually, which makes back-linking a digital convenience instead. 

  3. In 10.1 Read with a pen in hand, “…to have a meaningful dialogue with the texts we read” are his exact words. 

  4. If you ask yourself, “Is this something I would want to read, watch or listen to while making fleeting notes about it?” and use your answer as an indicator of whether you should or should not go ahead with this piece of content, it can be a useful method of filtering out unnecessary consumption. This is not universal as we may want to consume casually sometimes, but if you find ourself asking this questions 147 times a day before opening a new reel on your favourite social media website, you can be sure something needs to change. 

  5. This sort of thing divides rooms but I prefer to call a note in my zettelkasten as a zettel as opposed to a note which is a generic note everywhere else. The tougher, but pointless, debate is what the plural of zettel is; many opinions seem to exist on this seemingly banal question, ranging from the more German-sounding zetteln to the more English-sounding zettels to the more meditative zettel as if it were a plurale tantum

  6. Logseq has a lot of weird drawbacks. I will not list them out here but Chad Kohalyk did a great job of overviewing Logseq in comparison with Obsidian. Chad sums it up in the end quite nicely too: “If you don’t need a writing app, and are just looking to link knowledge and be productive, especially if you are just on a single device” you should get Logseq. For me particularly, Logseq fails for these very reasons. I write a lot in my zettelkasten and use it across devices and also prefer the simplicity of Obsidian to the tighter workflow pushed by Logseq. 

Thu, 23 Nov 2023 00:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Galileo’s letter to Duchess Christina]]> https://vhbelvadi.com/galileo-christina https://vhbelvadi.com/galileo-christina ]]> It is a well-known fact that the church hounded Galileo for his scientific convictions to the point of an inquisition that would see him to the end of his life. What is not known as well is that Galileo—and science itself—was not fundamentally at odds with religion back then. Galileo himself, for instance, was all for the Bible (as were his contemporaries such as Descartes) but against the church’s interpretation of the book, a stance that they often considered irrational if not outright illogical.

A primary source of Galileo’s beliefs, laid out by the man himself, comes in the form of a letter he wrote in 1615 to “the Most Serene Grand Duchess Mother”, one of the most powerful women in Reneissance-era Italy, the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, wife of Grand Duke Francesco I de Medici.

Galileo wrote to the Duchess not casually but specifically to clarify his views when he learnt from a friend that she did not believe in his heliocentric theory. Galileo’s work at this point followed from that of Copernicus, who had already opposed the church and been branded a heretic; so in opposing the Catholic church Galileo was neither alone nor the first. Martin Luther’s 95 theses had started a movement against the church nearly 100 years earlier. The physical distance1 and the Catholic Church’s incredible power2 meant the institution could sustain generations of opposition. In this context Galileo was among its earlier opposers.

Galileo’s other, arguably more critical, intention in writing this letter was likely to secure the support of the Medici family through its reigning lady. The Medicis not only weilded absolute money and power, and not only were they effectively ruling over Tuscany—the heart of the Renaissance—but they also held sway over the church. By the time Galileo was born three members of the Medici family had not only been part of the church but had in fact been the heads of Roman Catholicism, having weilded the title of Pope. During Galileo’s own lifetime, a fourth Medici would become Pope albeit for a brief tenure.

Attempting to swing the Medicis in his favour was a strategic move by Galileo who was prepared to do whatever it took to continue working on his scientific endeavours.

For more on this see The Galileo affair: a documentary history (ed. Maurice A. Finocchiaro). For now, let us confine our interests to Galileo’s letter itself. An english translation of the entire letter has been reproduced digitally by Fordham and relevant excerpts are reproduced below.

A pamphlet and a plea

Galileo was of course clever. His letter to the Duchess is a veiled attempt at popularising his scientific stance because the letter was dispatched as a pamphlet rather than in private, likely because there was little hope of a package from a commoner like Galileo reaching the Medici household. This was in spite of his knowing that Catholic strongholds in Italy would, by design and intent, curb his letter3. It was not published in these parts until after his inquisition was drawn to a close.

Galileo’s letter underwent several corrections and stylistic edits before its final, published form which begins with the following banger:

Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The … consequences which followed from them … stirred up against me no small number of professors—as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences.

The idolatry with which he starts this letter was no doubt an attempt to win the duchess to his favour and is a recurring motif in this writing. Equally important, just as he praises Catherine so does he remind her of his own achievements.

The achievements he selects are calculated. The “many things” he refers to having discovered “in the heavens” are Jupiter and its moons (as we now know them). This is important because he had published his discovery years ago with a dedication to none other than Catherine’s son and Galileo’s former student, Cosimo II de Medici; and the moons of Jupiter, then known as stars, he had dubbed “Medicea sidera” or the Medician stars after the four Medician brothers.

Already, Galileo is reminding Catherine that he favoured and honoured the Medici family in his work, as if to say it was now her turn to honour his name.

A Church against itself

Next he attacks the men of the church all but calling them fools:

Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill-suited to their purposes.

These men would perhaps not have fallen into such error had they but paid attention to a most useful doctrine of St. Augustine’s … [“]we ought not to believe anything inadvisedly on a dubious point, lest … we conceive a prejudice against something that truth hereafter may reveal to be not contrary in any way to the sacred books of either the Old or the New Testament.“

These two passages highlight beautifully Galileo’s frustration with the opposition he was facing. He was, in effect, ready to play dirty. He was shrewd, political and strategic in using what worked in his favour. And in this case he goes straight to the people opposing him to look for sympathisers.

Through his close friend the monk Benedetto Castelli, he sought the views of revered Catholic figures who favoured his interpretation of the Bible as not necessarily opposing science. Chief among these, and one Galileo favoured more than others, was St Augustine4 whom he quotes here and in several of his other writings as an example of a truly learned religious figure who agrees with Galileo insofar as the Bible goes.

Invoking Copernicus

Throughout his attempts to fend for himself, this approach helps Galileo because his argument has never been that the Bible is wrong, just that the church has been interpreting it incorrectly. He continues this line of reasoning going on to remind Catherine (see excerpt below) that the same Catholic church, headed in the past by more able men, even accepted and supported Copernicus’s work, and all he is himself doing is ‘approving’ Copernicus’s teachings and by extension, he seems to suggest, supporting rather than opposing the Church.

In doing all this he paints a picture of himself as a man out to seek the truth, intending to oppose nobody, yet unheard (“the refutation of arguments that … they have not even listened to”), wronged and ill-treated by misguided heads of the church.

…these men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible. These they apply with little judgement to the refutation of arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to.

First they have endeavoured to spread the opinion that such propositions in general are contrary to the Bible and are consequently damnable and heretical … [Next] they began scattering rumours among the people that before long this doctrine would be condemned by the supreme authority5

…they seek so far as possible (at least among the common people) to make this opinion seem new and to belong to me alone. They pretend not to know that its author, or rather its restorer and confirmer, was Nicholas Copernicus; and that he was not only a Catholic, but a priest and a canon. He was in fact so esteemed by the church that when the Lateran Council … took up the correction of the church calendar, Copernicus was called to Rome … to undertake its reform…

…[Copernicus] dedicated this book On the celestial revolutions to Pope Paul III. When printed, the book was accepted by the holy Church, and it has been read and studied by everyone without the faintest hint of any objection ever being conceived against its doctrines … All this they would do merely to satisfy their personal displeasure … against another man, who has no interest in Copernicus beyond approving his teachings.

Galileo’s argument here has the clarity of the sort of scientific evidence he praised himself for publishing. It is notable that not only did he not rely upon the fascination surrounding his discoveries, he also barely spoke of the strengths and watertight nature of his science. Galileo knew his audience: despite being patrons of the arts, the Medicis understood the church and its power better than they did scientific principles. So he spoke to them in their own language.

He continues to bring up Copernicus in his letter and continues to use the church against itself in an attempt to strengthen his case before Catherine. He reaches a point where, presenting his strongest argument yet, he quotes Copernicus addressing the then Pope, as Galileo himself believes, stating that science does not oppose a ‘proper’ interpretation of the Bible.

I hope to show that I proceed with much greater piety than they do, when I argue not against condemning this book, but against condemning it in the way they suggest—that is, without under standing it, weighing it, or so much as reading it. For Copernicus never discusses matters of religion or faith … which he might have interpreted erroneously. He stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions … He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood and thus at the end of his letter of dedication addressing the pope, [Copernicus] said:

“If there should chance to be any exegetes ignorant of mathematics who pretend to skill in that discipline, and dare to condemn and censure this hypothesis of mine upon the authority of some scriptural passage twisted to their purpose, I value them not, but disdain their unconsidered judgment … mathematics is written for mathematicians, by whom, if I am not deceived, these labours of mine will be recognised as contributing something to their domain, as also to that of the Church over which Your Holiness now reigns.”

(emphasis added)

Note Galileo’s considered reproduction of Copernicus’s sly remark at the Pope: my work is not a threat to your institution; if mathematics is correct, my results are sound and they may in fact help your Church if you are open to accepting it.

How much of this is Galileo’s sincere belief is hard to say, but going by the prevalent beliefs of his time there is little reason to doubt that Galileo was not a faithful believer in the Bible. However, as a shrewd counseller for himself, it is also not implausible that Galileo recognised that devout Catholics would rather claim that their interpretation of the Bible was wrong than concede that the Bible itself was wrong when it appeared to oppose the arts. He likely used this against them to good effect.

Knocking on the Medicis’ door

Despite his hard stance, Galileo’s tone takes on the nature of an appeal as he seeks to clarifies once again that he is not against the Church:

…[if] there is anything that may be serviceable to the holy Church in making a decision concerning the Copernican system, it may be taken and utilised as seems best to the superiors. And if not, let my book be torn and burnt, as I neither intend nor pretend to gain from it any fruit that is not pious and Catholic.

Galileo understood the power the Church wielded and went out of his way to clarify repeatedly that his work was not intended to be heretical, that his work simply followed in the footsteps of a certain Copernicus whose work the Church had already accepted, and that he was open to admitting any faults in his own work or in his interpretation of works outside his areas of expertise.

But Galileo’s humility is shortlived as he goes on to use the Medicis themselves as examples of what theologians ought not do. He does of course sugarcoat this first by putting theology on a pedestal:

Let us grant then that theology is conversant with the loftiest divine contemplation, and occupies the regal throne among sciences by dignity … lf she does not descend to the lower and humbler speculations of the subordinate sciences and has no regard for them because they are not concerned with blessedness, then her professors … [have no] … authority to decide on controversies in professions which they have neither studied nor practiced. Why, this would be as if an absolute despot, being neither a physician nor an architect but knowing himself free to command, should undertake to administer medicines and erect buildings according to his whim-at grave peril of his poor patients’ lives, and the speedy collapse of his edifices.

The Medicis are squarely the intended targets of Galileo’s last sentence in the excerpt above. They were despots but by openly using that term he pretends to be referring to someone besides them—because of course it is not you about whom I speak. And the Medicis were known to fund architecture and medicine liberally: they birthed what would come to be known as renaissance after all. So Galileo knew Catherine would understand precisely what he was saying. When you want to build a grand structure, do you lay the bricks yourself or pay dues and ask an expert to do it for you?

Yet again this is an example of Galileo speaking in a language that the Medicis would comprehend. Not astronomy, not mathematics, rather first the Church and now philanthropy.

Once again Galileo drags St Augustine into the mix, quoting him thusly:

“It is to be held as an unquestionable truth that whatever the sages of this world have demonstrated concerning physical matters is in no way contrary to our Bibles … [let us] neither become seduced by the verbiage of false philosophy nor frightened by the superstition of counterfeit religion.” (Galileo quoting St Augustine.)

By now, having run down all his arguments that use and address the Church as well as the Medicis, to thwart the former and appeal to the latter, Galileo at last tries to speak of his philosophy and mathematics itself. Still, he does this hesitantly as if speaking down to Catherine but verbally clarifying his reverence. This brings us to the concluding phase of Galileo’s 8,000-word letter.

Of mathematics

Galileo outlines the fundamental method in which philosophy works: those who believe something to be untrue, prove that it is in fact so. He describes this approach as one that all people involved in philosophy subscribe to, even offering a curious example.

Now if truly demonstrated physical conclusions need not be subordinated to biblical passages, but the latter must rather be shown not to interfere with the former, then before a physical proposition is condemned it must be shown to be not rigorously demonstrated—and this is to be done not by those who hold the proposition to be true, but by those who judge it to be false … And Your Highness knows what happened to the late mathematician of the University of Pisa who undertook in his old age to look into the Copernican doctrine in the hope of shaking its foundations and refuting it, since he considered it false only because he had never studied it. As it fell out, no sooner had he understood its grounds, procedures, and demonstrations than he found himself persuaded, and from an opponent he became a very staunch defender of it.

This is a simple, straightforward and ideal manner in which to explain philosophy to someone who might not understand but also, like the Medicis and unlike the Church, might not be inherently opposed to it.

The importance of reading primary source material becomes evident when we turn out focus to the latter half of the excerpt above. Galileo uses as an example an unnamed “late mathematician of the University of Pisa” who tried to disprove Copernicus but was instead turned into an ardent supporter of helipcentrism. While the digitisation of this letter offers no clue as to the person Galileo is speaking of, the original letter has on the margin a note clarifying the identity of this person as Fr Clavius.

Christopher Clavius was a professor of mathematics in Rome who was initially skeptical of heliocentrism but later came to accept it as true. He also received visits from Galileo who discussed with him his discoveries through the telescope. Clavuis supported all of Galileo’s claims except those of Jupiter’s four moons which, in all fairness, he said he could not see through his telescope. Galileo unhesitatingly uses a friend, or at least an acquaintance, as an example in this letter, placing emphasis on the importance this letter bore for him in the larger debate of the Church being misplaced in its rejection of his ideas.

There is another reason Galileo’s mentioning a Pisaian professor is interesting: chief among his academic doubters was Clavius’s colleague and current professor at Pisa, Cosimo Boscagli. It would not be farfetched to imagine that Galileo was making this sly remark as if to say that Boscagli, like Clavius before him, doubts heliocentrism now but will come to change his mind once he attempts to understand the theory.

A costly frankness

The final call Galileo makes sees him quite exhausted. By now he has tossed aside his charade (“If I may speak frankly…”) and openly calls on the men of the Church to either face him on rational grounds or let go once and for all. He implores that they do not hide behind scriptures (which he calls “a dreadful weapon”) that cannot be fought against. I find this specific example to be extremely interesting because Galileo is alluding to the idea of falsification—something one cannot possibly do with a scripture—which would not be formalised until 19596 and which would be one of the core definitions for what counts as a science.

…why do they, in the thick of the battle, betake themselves to a dreadful weapon which cannot be turned aside, and seek to vanquish the opponent by merely exhibiting it? If I may speak frankly, I believe they have themselves been vanquished, and, feeling unable to stand up against the assaults of the adversary, they seek ways of holding him off. To that end they would forbid him the use of reason, divine gift of Providence, and would abuse the just authority of holy Scripture—which, in the general opinion of theologians, can never oppose manifest experiences and necessary demonstrations when rightly understood and applied. If I am correct, it will stand them in no stead to go running to the Bible to cover up their inability to understand (let alone resolve) their opponents’ arguments, for the opinion which they fight has never been condemned by the holy Church.

In addition to the observations discussed above, two other points are of note in this excerpt: first, Galileo is again (for a third time) paraphrasing St Augustine—veiling it as the “general opinion of theologians”—and clarifying that he is not opposed to the Bible, although this time his clarification seems disingeneous; second, Galileo casually nods at divinity (“reason, divine gift of Providence”) as if to say that, deep down, he is a believer in the work of a God as much as any man of the church.

Had we not known that Galileo was a clever person, we might have glossed over these phrases thrown in to his letter. But knowing him as we now do it is highly likely that every word contained within his writing was well thought to strike just the right chords with the Duchess.

Galileo ends with two interesting remarks: one that should clarify to us that he is not against the Church as an institution, rather against select men of God who seem bent upon slandering him; and second that he does in fact recognise, and is willing to accept, the power of the Supreme Pontiff (“the proper authorities”) to condemn an idea. This is another excellent example of the power the Church still wielded in Galileo’s time. Note also how he (yet again) aligns himself with established figures like Copernicus as if to say that fighting him would be no different than fighting Copernicus, a man of God himself no less.

Therefore let these men begin to apply themselves to an examination of the arguments of Copernicus and others, leaving condemnation of the doctrine as erroneous and heretical to the proper authorities … With regard to this opinion, and others which are not directly matters of faith, certainly no one doubts that the Supreme Pontiff has always an absolute power to approve or condemn … And in brief, if it is impossible for a conclusion to be declared heretical while we remain in doubt as to its truth, then these men are wasting their time clamoring for condemnation of the motion of the earth and stability of the sun, which they have not yet demonstrated to be impossible or false.

After all his attempts at appealing to Catherine in ways that Galileo believes she can appreciate his situation, he cannot resist ending his letter with a quip about the notional supremacy of his own work. In a sense it also shows a growing denial in Galileo—as anyone who has faced troubling circumstances knows—that the Church can possible do much more than speak in hushed tones against his work.

He claims it is “impossible” for the men of the Church to condemn the heliocentric model when, after all, they have done nothing to disprove it.

An alternate view

Galileo’s belief in his ability to pursuade not only Catherine de Medici but also any priest who might read his letter shows in his underlying attempts at dragging theology into his arguments. Most mathematicians in his time kept out of the Church’s purview by treating mathematics as a purely ‘general’ endeavour, not one either favouring or opposing the Church. This was regardless of what the Church had to say on these matters.

While it is one thing to see this as Galileo’s attempts at easing himself into the debate as a devout man sympathetic to the Church’s view as much as to that of mathematics, it can also be seen as daring and reckless.

Galileo effectively broke the status quo philosophers had maintained with the Church up to that point and chose instead to draw the grandiose institution into a battle. He had the truth on his side but, in the end, the Church set the rules of war and Galileo found himself handicapped. Little did he expect that, for all his writing, the inquisition ordered by the Catholic Church would not only condemn his ideas but also suspend Copernicus’s senimal work until it too was rectified.

Arguing against irrationality has always been an uphill battle and even a genius of the order of Galileo learnt that the hard way.

  1. Martin Luther was in Germany and news travelled much more slowly in those days. 

  2. Descartes, living around the same time as Galileo, would supress his own ‘heretic’ views in his publications so as not to annoy the Church. Indeed the Church would outlive them all: Newton, who would come about half-a-century later, would in fact be a great believer in the Bible to the point of irrationality. 

  3. Not only did they stop the publication of Galileo’s letter, some even modified it to sound more heretical and sent it to local Churches. Galileo fought back by sending authenticated copies through members of the church whom he knew personally—a list that included several second-order connections high up the ladder but whose aid would be in vain eventually. 

  4. See Moss, J.D., Galileo’s letter to Christina: some rhetorical considerations. Available from JSTOR

  5. The Church had not officially taken a stance against Galileo yet. It was not something they openly wanted to do (hence the inquisition) for fear of appearing reckless in public. They instead preferred to deal their cards through officials lower in the Catholic pyramid who frequently used as a threat the inevitability of a statement from a superior official. 

  6. Karl Popper, The logic of scientific discovery

Fri, 10 Nov 2023 00:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Good and bad things on the internet]]> https://vhbelvadi.com/good-and-bad-internet-things https://vhbelvadi.com/good-and-bad-internet-things ]]> In the ’90s and as far as the late noughts, the internet was extremely different from how we know it today. One could not take for granted that they would be connected anytime and anywhere. The internet was something you used intentionally. To communicate you had Internet Relay Chat or IRC but your friends were not always available online and you could not always ping them. You could at best leave a message and they would get to it when they did. Often you ended up meeting them in person before they logged into the internet the next time in their house.

Things were problematic at home as much as across friends’ homes. If you wanted to connect to the internet you needed to use the phone line via dial-up. This meant nobody else could use the phone line. Using the internet was akin to calling someone up; you just did it with a lot more multimedia.

Despite all this, there was always entertainment online. Distraction is not a new entrant into the World Wide Web. The difference was that you intentionally set yourself up to get distracted—or get some down time if you will. You had the likes of Yahoo! Games or Miniclip where you could log in and play games. For what we knew then these games were pretty fun and exciting. And you played them in your browser.

You could play with friends but you had to plan ahead. As with IRC, there was no way to just hook someone into a conversation on your beck and call. There was no way to notify someone you wanted to get in touch with them. That brings us to the first item on this list of good and bad things on the modern internet.

Notifications are a bad thing

The internet has gone from being a tool to being a manipulator. Ever since dial-up died (which was a good thing) and was replaced with broadband and now fibre (which are good things) we have taken for granted the idea that one is eternally connected to the internet. With this comes the idea—also taken for granted—that we are always reachable. Be it a text, an e-mail or, the worst of the lot, social media, everyone is taken to be just a notification away from rushing to us.

Newsletters are a good thing

In terms of communication, good things on the internet are things that allow us to use them. These are not things that demand to be seen, read or reacted to but things that arrive—much like the humble post—and remain in our letterboxes while we make time to get to them.

At the top of this list then are newsletters: brief writings by people who care about certain things written for the consumption of people who are also interested in these things, with respect for the reader’s time and, on the part of the readers, respect for the writer’s efforts to want to remain subscribed.

E-mail is a good thing

Along the same vein as newsletters are e-mails. They arrive and wait for us to make time and space for them. Sure some may notify us, but who gets priority is based on our list. We can also sort some into junk and, more important, control from the receiver’s end who can reach us through blacklisting etc.

E-mail is, in effect, the ideal means of electronic communication that respects the time and interetss of all parties involved in an exchange. This is also why it has remained pretty much unchanged since inception. In a culture that is not drowing in hustle and that actually respects everyone’s time and privacy, e-mail works flawlessly.

Advertising (in its current form) is a bad thing

In the beginning the internet came with no strings attached. It was a platformn driven by independent individuals, not corporations. Things were not put with expectation of returns. ‘Sites’ on the web, like sites on physical ground, were places where you were you. You owned them, you showcased on them what resonated with you, and others saw it and enjoyed it and shared their own. The ’90s web was as good as it sounds in ways that mattered. It was a fun place to be and in its clarity lay its potential. (Of course there were seedy websites, but they too were not commercialised yet.)

Then came the corporatisation of the Web. Every inch had to be ‘monetised’. The Web is no longer just a level place for every individual to gather, rather an assortment of piecemeal handouts by large, faceless corporations that work to give us the impression of having some control over the rules that govern the web. Bringing about this change was no simple feat. The goodness of the internet had to appear to remain untouched; things had to give off the impression of possibility and openness even as ads blocked every square inch of our computer screens.

It was no different from the ads you see in a magazine already, they said, not remarking on the fact that everyone sees the same ads in a magazine, not different ones customised to our previous reading. Like real estate, advertising sold the internet to a table full of devils.

The corporate web is a bad thing

For many people who started using the web only in the late ’10s, the corporate web is all they have ever known. The idea of an independent web in which corporations fight for scraps seems like a revolutionary idea rather than the razed foundations of what once was. The ‘indie web’ has only been overshadowed by the flashy, colourful attractions of the corporate web. But the guise can only last so long.

Once people realise that they own the web just the same as a large corporation and that they can come together to get things done same as large corporations, the tables will turn. Corporations will no lnoger be able to dictate the rules of the land or oversee public conversation or take your eyes off the vast emptiness lying in wait for individuals to capture, beyond the corporate compound walls. The internet will return to what it once was: a place of possibilities driven by well-meaning individuals.

Platform-agnostic content and social media are good things

The internet dissolved the walls between content, presentation and platform. These were ideas that, from the early days of the computer right up to the mid-2000s, were crystal clear. In the early days of the internet the internet itself was simply a means of reaching out. The content was always under the complete control of the person who owned it.

Today, we think of Tweets that are Twitter-centric, Instagram posts that are Instagram-centric, and Notion notes that are pretty much locked into Notion1. We need to refuel our desire to own our content, to separate content from platforms. Platform-agnostic solutions should be the future but so far are not poised to be. Static sites or flat files with markdown are better than Squarespace or Wix. The Indieweb idea, still in its infancy, of content syndication for absolutely everything is ideal but lacks a frictionless workflow. Things are in their infancy but we need to catalyse their growth before platform lock-ins become the norm.

Translation services and the accessible web are good things

Although forms of the accessible web existed since the inception of the WWW, they are being put in force now. This is definitely a good thing. So also are translation services that are recognising a multilingual web without shutting anyone out.

New platforms and interaction protocols like Mastodon and ActivityPub are leading the way in this. Not including alt text is drawing soft ‘tut’s from the public—maybe this is how we get started with serious accessibility. Translation services are now being built into operating systems as we all learn to appreciate one another’s cultures—again, this is how we get started.

Pop-ups are a bad thing

It would seem that the ’90s were guilty of pop-ups or other similar weirdness, and the debate about whether they are a remnant of the ’90s or a child of the ’10s can rage on. Whatever the judgement, let us stop them. And while we are at it, let us take a moment to recognise that pop-up ads are the absolute worst.

What about pop-up discount coupons and pop-up newsletter subscription prompts? While their intention may be good, wolves in sheep’s clothing are still wolves.

Cookies are really okay

With GDPR, consent for cookies has become an irritant. Perhaps it is a necessary irritant and one that has even made people more aware of websites that might track them. But not all cookies are bad things. Some cookies are definitely unnecessary. So in the end we might say cookies are really okay.

Functional cookies and necessary cookies are perfectly safe. I would go so far as to say that analytical cookies are fine too: website owners need to know about their audience to build better. The trouble comes in the form of third-party cookies, advertising cookies and other such ignoble trackers. These are terrible and should continue to be opted out by default.

Cloud drives are a good thing with potential for evil

Storage has always been an issue ever since broadband speeds increased and storage itself became cheaper. Humans are hoarders by nature (perhaps even by evolution?) so the more space we can get, the more stuff we will find to fill it with.

The trouble arises when cloud drives have made themselves such intergral parts of our lives (which has already happened) and have amassed so much of our data (this will happen sooner than one might suspect) that we will be held hostage by them. The corporate internet will then rear its head again, trying to milk us for our hard-earned money thanks to our sunk costs.

Too much personalisation is a bad thing

In the beginning the internet just existed. It was nobody’s unless you specifically went to someone’s web site. That is to say, the internet was mine if you were on my (this) web site.

Now, the tables have turned: the internet is yours wherever you go. If I had an ad next to this paragraph, it would be on my website but tailored to you. This was sold as a good thing in the name of relevance and efficiency and meaning. It turned out to be a silo that reinforced your biases and acted as blinkers while you shot down a tunnel towards the only light you saw. Personalisation should be limited. That is how you strike a balance between your things and exposing yourself to ideas outside your neighbourhood.

E-commerce is a good thing

While the thought that immediately strikes most of us when we talk of e-commerce is shopping addiction, this is not entirely a product of e-commerce or even the internet itself. With that clarified, e-commerce is generally a good thing. It not only created employment as delivery personnel and packaging supervisors (although the conditions under which these people work is questionable), it also made the process of procurement of everyday household goods frictionless.

E-commerce is especially useful for older and disabled people who cannot go out as often or as easily as fitter youngsters. In a sense, this is promoting accessibility too. If we can agree that the capitalist associations of e-commerce are the stuff of another essay entirely, we quickly realise that—but for our ill-doing—e-commerce is generally a great thing.

Unfinished software programmes and update cycles are bad things

This is one I genuinely detest. Back in the ’90s and ’00s, you had certain expectations from software because there was only one way it came—compact discs. Sometimes you had as many as eight discs with which to install a programme or game. Magazines even came with CDs tucked in and companies delivered CDs to your doorstep. At one point you even needed a CD to set up your internet access.

In large part this had everything to do with the fact that most people could not get online at all, most did not bother, some would have liked to but the infrastructure did not exist. Today, we once again take the internet for granted and not just to deliver software, but in the assumption that software may be delivered in any (questionable) state because the user will be online to ‘update’ it with bug fixes down the line.

If a software can start earning money from this Thursday, companies have now normalised the idea of ‘launching’ an unfinished version of that software to start minting money knowing that they can issue bug fixes a fortnight later to bring their software to the level of stability it should have had when it came out in the first place.

The overuse of AI due to its a novelty is a bad thing

When Apple Music first launched, one of its key selling points was that it offerred playlists tailored to you curated by humans. The AI rage was in its infancy at this point2 but Apple seems to have seen two steps ahead because they sold human-led curation as a feature targetted at an audience tired of being misunderstood by Artificial Intelligence.

AI is not a bad thing in itself, but its overuse is. As of the time of writing this essay, AI is still a novelty. Many people know it exists, many others have heard about its wonders, but few have actually used it and fewer still use it regularly. But the general notion is to bend over backwards and find ways to include some semblence of AI activity in everything we do. Perhaps this will pass once AI is no longer a novelty, but until then (or if it does not pass) the overuse of AI will affect us socially, mentally and creatively.

These are fourteen things we have seen in the current age of the internet (from 2006 onwards at the earliest, or at least from 2010 onwards for the last thirteen years or so) that are worth judging from a period of greater calm.

This is all in hindsight of course; and none of these judgements are intended to be Luddism. But knowing what we do, reminiscing about the ’90s as we can, and learning what we must from history, it is worth being more proactive in shaping our future with the internet before it starts shaping us and normalises things.

  1. Sure, you can export from Notion but have you seen the markdown files its throws out? They are almost completely useless. 

  2. This was before Chat-GPT and the rush from every Tom, Dick and Harry to implement some form of AI into their programs. 

Wed, 01 Nov 2023 00:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Daylight saving time explained]]> https://vhbelvadi.com/daylight-saving-time https://vhbelvadi.com/daylight-saving-time ]]> On 29th October this year, we set our clocks back by one hour in Britain at 2 am. Internet-connected clocks, such as the ones on our phones, handled this just fine; but their analog counterparts—on our ovens, boilers and building towers—promptly ended up wrong by one hour. This little dance marked the end of Daylight Saving Time, known simply as “daylight saving” or officially “British Summer Time”. In Winter we return to the ‘correct’ time zone for this country, corresponding to the former Greenwich Mean Time, now called Universal Co-ordinated Time and shortened to UTC (due to the French)1.

Many of us find it hard to understand why daylight saving is needed in the first place, and how and why it works. This essay is an attempt at offering a self-contained clarification to all these questions.

Let us get some shortcuts in place to understand this game of clock-setting. First, keep in mind that daylight saving does not start in October, it ends in October. Trying to understand why we alter our clocks by examining the winter months will therefore make it harder to make sense of it all. Therefore, lesson number one, the time it is in winter—starting around the end of October—is the correct time. This will be our reference point.

Sunrise… sunset…

These words from the brilliant play Fiddler on the roof echoes in my mind whenever I think of daylight saving. On a normal day—which is pretty much every day the closer you head towards the equator—the sun rises at 6 am and sets at 6 pm.

For example, on 1 June 2024, the time of sunrise in India is set at 6:00 am and that of sunset at 7:30 pm. If you go closer to the equator, it gets closer to the 6 am – 6 pm bracket. For example on the same day in Equador, which lies exactly on the equator, the sunrise is at 6:09 am and the sunset is at 6:15 pm. As India is a bit further away from the equator than Equador there is a bit of a time shift. However, the difference of 45 min or so does not matter too much in practice.

The UK is much further away from the Equator and much closer to the North Pole, so the time shift is much more pronounced. On 1 June 2024 in the UK the sunrise time is set at 4:49 am and the sunset at 9:09 pm respectively. The time shift is now much more pronounced. Roughly, this shift is about 254 min in total compared to Equador and about 209 min compared to India. With the sun rising earlier and setting later, the UK is now left with over 200 min of extra daylight.

Living on borrowed time

The question now is what you do with all that extra sunny time. Most people are in bed till 6 am, and at work between 9 am and 5 pm, and are out shopping or dining till, say, 9 pm and then they go home and do some chores and watch the tele and go to bed by 10 pm or 11 pm. This means they use up electricity and artificial light for about two hours after sunset and, in the mornings, they are asleep for about two hours when the sun is already up and shining. In other words, you have a couple of hours of wasted daylight in the morning that you could instead use in the evening.

Daylight saving is a policy matter, not a scientific concern.

A better way to think of daylight saving time then is to think of it as “borrowing” time from one part of the day to another. Specifically, daylight saving is about borrowing time from the mornings and handing it to the evenings. Those two hours of wasted daylight when you were asleep till 6 am can be ‘saved’ if we move the clocks ahead i.e. you turn the 5 am sunrise into a 6 am sunrise so you get up without losing daylight, and then you turn the 9 am sunset into a 10 pm sunset so you get an extra hour of sun during which household energy consumption drops.

This is not just about lights; you also do not have to turn on your heater throughout the day because you have no need for either artificual light or artificial warmth.

From Ben Franklin to the First World War

The inimitable Benjamin Franklin was the first person to speak of an idea resembling daylight saving. He reasoned that doing so would mean we save on candles. Back then nobody bothered: how expensive could candles really get? In his famous quote, “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”, the claim to get ‘wealthy’ supposedly comes from the savings made on burning candles by arising early in the months when the sun rises early2.

In 1895 the New Zealander George Hudson, a hobbyist collector of insects, presented the idea of daylight saving because he wanted more daytime hours to collect insects. Nobody took the idea to implementation back then.

By the mid-1910s the First World War was in full swing and countries really started to feel the pinch. Sure, we had moved to modern electric grids just then (1880s–1910s) and candles were not as common as they were before but there were costs associated with lighting up homes anyway. They had simply moved from candles to electric grids, and Canada first moved, in 1908, to implement daylight saving. Britain and Germany followed in 1916 and the US in 1918.

daylight saving war propaganda poster from the US

The US used war propaganda to coax people into implementing daylight saving, reasoning that it would save the country money spent on coal that it could instead use on its war efforts. Japan made no such attempts and so its people shot down the idea of daylight saving when the government proposed it. This is why, despite being at the same distance from the equator as the US, Japan does not implement daylight saving. Further, regardless of the war, countries closer to the equator saw no need to switch to daylight saving while those further away needed more extreme measures3 such as implementing permanent daylight saving all year-round (e.g. Russia and Belarus).

Pros and cons

Daylight saving is a policy matter, not a scientific concern. While it is possible that syncing our waking hours with the sun might reduce energy consumption, the argument may no longer be valid in a society that produces self-sustainable, non-renewable energy at low or near-zero costs.

Some religions oppose daylight saving claiming it strains their beliefs. Muslims fasting during Ramadaan is a common, recurring example in countries around the globe. Morocco, for instance, uses daylight saving throughout the year but abandons it temporarily during the Ramadan month to help in fasting by reducing daylight hours. Lebanon on the other hand saw communal divide and confusion earlier this year when a last-minute decision to delay clock resets in favour of Muslims saw the Christian half of the country on a different time zone as a mark of opposition.

The exact benefits to energy consumption remain to be seen, so also the effects of daylight saving on health. Winston Churchill famously claimed daylight saving would give individuals more time to focus on their health with opportunities for walks and outdoor exercises. Funnily enough, among all the arguments it may be that Churchill hit the nail closest on the head: while energy savings are not a universally proven rule (savings were observed in Norway and Sweden but not considerably in parts of the US) most countries that still implement daylight saving do so because the extra evening daylight allows people to go out after work hours. Britain does it for this reason as well.

Saving daylight permanently

All said and done, reverting from daylight saving is not a popular move. A 2018 poll suggested that 80% of Europeans did not support daylight saving. The quicker darkening of day after daylight saving is reversed is also seen as a menace for traffic, which is why many traffic authorities oppose daylight saving. Along similar lines, turning back clocks to the ‘proper’ time in October increases energy consumption anyway as the days get darker sooner. Would it not make sense then to continue in daylight saving time and give up on the ‘proper’ time altogether?

That is to say, if in the winter the day gets darker sooner, why does Britain not continue to implement daylight saving time in winter too? After all it is better that the sun sets at 5 pm than 4 pm. In fact this is precisely what some countries, like Singapore and Iceland, have done and it is known as ‘permanent daylight saving’. Clocks are moved once for good rather than biannually. Here in Britain, a little over 50% of people seem to support the idea of permanent daylight saving but change does not seem to be on the horizon. After all the EU voted to scrap daylight saving back in 2019 but has still not put that law in place.

There is no question then that daylight saving time is a good idea in terms of maximising the available daylight. What it has done, inadvertently, is make us all realise that reverting to our normal times means losing out on daylight similarly. Until countries sort this out at a policy level, we will have to stick to the old American mnemonic of moving our clocks: Spring forward and Fall back.

  1. The Brits wanted to call it Co-ordinated Universal Time or CUT while the French wanted to call it Temps Universel Co-ordonné or TUC so the International Astronomical Union decided a middle path and abbreviated it to UTC. 

  2. I would take this claim with a grain of salt. The attribution of this quote is itself in question at times, but Ben Franklin’s French connection is real: he did publish an essay in Paris suggesting that the French should arise earlier in the day to save daylight hours. 

  3. Antarctic research stations often switch by two hours rather than one. 

Tue, 31 Oct 2023 00:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Review: Trek Dual Sport 2 hybrid bike]]> https://vhbelvadi.com/trek-dual-sport-2 https://vhbelvadi.com/trek-dual-sport-2 ]]> Having recently found myself commuting to and from Uni (besides dropping by my nearby Tesco) a lot, it made sense to pick up a decent ride for myself. After some shopping, I went with the Trek Dual Sport 2, fourth generation, thanks to the friendly blokes at my local Evans Cycles outlet. This is a quick look at my requirements and how I narrowed down on my options, should a reader ever find themself in my position.

Why hybrid bikes

Most of my riding is done on roads. The city I live in has pretty good cycle paths, and even more so along the roads I frequent, which means I rarely need to step offroad. That said, I do find myself occasionally riding on gravel if I venture towards the countryside or ride down to my neighbourhood cycle shop, which means a combination of path and trail riding ideally describes my requirement.

That said, most people need hybrid bikes. This is the common denominator of bikes people should be looking to buy in my opinion. Street racing bikes are too niche for most everyday users who like to go to their grocery store or place of work by bike; and mountain bikes while better balanced are unnecessarily bulky for road use. Hybrid bikes ride the middle path—forgive my puns—brining the handling of the mountain bike and the comfort and ease of a street racer.

The Trek Dual Sport 2 in particular comes with wider tyres (40mm Bontrager GR1 Comp) than counterparts from Canondale (Quick CX) or Specialized (Sirrus X) or even Trek’s own FX which is more road-focussed. The Dual Sport 2 also comes with front suspension which is great for gravel and which can be locked while the bike is in use on roads.


The Trek Dual Sport 2 that I bought is the fourth generation edition. It is worth noting that there is a fifth generation version too that does away with the front suspension. This is a curious move on Trek’s part and not one I fully understand, so I opted for the slightly older fourth generation model that also came with a generous discount.

The bike comes in three colours: a flashy red that Trek calls ‘viper red’, a classic ‘Mulsanne blue’ and of course the standard ‘Trek black’. My choice, like always, was the unassuming black because it keeps my bike inconspicuous and does not alert cycle thieves from two miles away like the viper red would (see picture above).

Tyres and rims. Both Bontrager, which is Trek’s own brand. The rims are Bontrager connection, double-walled alloys with 32 spokes. The tyres are all-weather Bontrager GR1 Comp 700x40c. These are wider than road bikes and have a deeper tread as well, but fall below mountain bikes as one would expect.

Saddle. One of the most important aspects of any bike, the Trek Dual Sport 2 comes with the comfortable Bontrager Sport saddle. It breathes well and disappears even with long periods of use, which takes half the pain away from cycling.

Derailleurs and shifters. The thing that makes the Dual Sport 2 such a great hybrid bike is its gear system. It allows for a ranger wider than almost any other comparable bike with a 9x2 system built with Shimano Altus shifters and an Altus and Acera pair of derailleurs for the rear and front respectively. What this means is you get a nice range for gear ratio that makes it considerably easy to climb uphill while also going pretty fast on flats; in other words, you get what you expect from a great hybrid bike.

Brakes. The Dual Sport 2 comes with two hydraulic disc breaks which means no worries in the long term. The braking has been effective in my brief experience.

The good and the not-so-bad

The thing about the Dual Sport 2 for me has been that it offers a lot of great stuff without skimping too heavily when it holds back. For instance, the drive train is the lower- and middle-tier of Shimano’s offerings and is paired with wheel hubs that are rather relaxed. Experienced cyclists might bemoan this but to someone like me who is more of a casual rider, this is really the perfect set-up.

The front fork is another oft-seen complaint (and probably why Trek did away with the front suspension on Gen 5) but not one that should turn you off this bike entirely. The SR Suntour NEX that this bike comes with offers movement of 56mm on average, which is alright for casual use again, not for pushing it to the limit. Forks are replaceable of course so you might accomplish the bike of Theseus with better forks and tyres before you give up on this bike ten or more years from now.

Lastly, the heft of this bike is not exactly negotiable. As a well-built person I can lug it up a flight of stairs but it would have been nice to have a lighter frame, especially after a long ride.

As for the good, the Dual Sport 2 rides smoothly, the gears shift pretty well in normal, everyday use (think rushing to work rather than officially competing), and the saddle system works great. The wires are almost completely internal, which means the bike looks good and chances of mehcanical failures are reduced.

I prefer flat handlebars which is what this bike comes with and they are incredibly well built. The Dual Sport 2 on the whole is extremely well put together and this shows in everyday use. The shocks come with a hydraulic switch which means you can keep your fork locked on on-road commutes and open it up when you hit the trails—you get the best of both worlds.

Looking forward

I am new to commuting by bike daily although I have been cycling for many years now. The Trek Dual Sport 2 is the ideal first bike for people in my position who need a bike for daily use but do not plan on riding mountains anytime soon. This is also a machine that is fit for comfortable riding as opposed to speeding through traffic, so if snaking past cars is your goal, look elsewhere.

The UK (and I assume certain other places) have bike registries that work with the local police to help trace your bike if you should ever lose it. I had mine registered on day one, which set me back about £25 or thereabouts. Trek also maintains a registry for warranty purposes to which you should probably enrol your new bike. That said, with my helmet equipped, golved hands and reflective gilet, I am thrilled in every way with the Trek Dual Sport 2 and see it as a great vale purchase for the long term.

Sun, 29 Oct 2023 00:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[How I organise and manage my e-mails]]> https://vhbelvadi.com/managing-emails https://vhbelvadi.com/managing-emails ]]> E-mails are my primary means of communication. They have held this position since at least fifteen years, which goes to say I might actually know a thing or two about e-mails that others may find helpful. Whether you are struggling to keep up with your inboxes or you keep stumbling upon e-mails from some two dozen companies whose entire business models are founded upon a scathing criticisms of e-mail, the solution to dealing with e-mail is understanding their simplicity, not rushing to seek alternates.

A tirade

The reality is, whether we like it or not, the humble e-mail is built atop a platform agnostic and scalable set of communication protocols. That means you ideally own your e-mail. I say ‘ideally’ because often we use e-mails on corporate platforms, like Gmail or ProtonMail or iCloud. These are great but they are examples of commercialisation of the e-mail. By design, it was intended for you to buy your own server and set up your e-mails and DNS. You would own the domain and the name—both parts of the e-mail address flanking the ‘@’ symbol—and you could communicate with anyone else who owned their domain and ran their own server. No platform mattered, no app, no ecosystem, nothing: just a set of universal protocols that allowed you to write letters with multimedia.

Then came the commercialisation. With Gmail (and ProtonMail) you got free (or paid) e-mail addresses while the company owning what is technically your e-mail got hold of your data through your communication (or not) and used it to target ads to you (or not) and profit (definitely).

The solutions peddled to sort this self-induced problem were commercial as well. Plus they did away with the platform-agnostic nature of e-mails and introduced vendor lock-in, all with the common promise of ridding you of your e-mail problems. In reality you simply replaced one problem with another.

If you did have trouble managing and staying on top of your e-mails, as with any good philosophy of life, there was always only one reliable solution: face the problem.

Step 1

Archive everything now

If your Mail app shows a red badge with the number 6,542 on it, you should start here. Regardless of what the badge shows, if you have more e-mails in your inbox than you can recall, start here. There is no way of getting up to speed with your e-mails without giving yourself a clean slate first.

The word inbox comes from the word in-tray, which back in the late 1910s was coined to indicate a literal tray into which you would pour your incoming mail to stack it until you got around to reading all of them. What we are doing now is effectively dumping them into a sack to be tucked away until later.

Imagine you had such an in-tray and you kept reading new post and throwing the letters and their envelopes back into your in-tray. Before long your in-tray would stack up to the ceiling and you would have lost track of what you have read and what you are yet to read. This is the best case scenario. Reading e-mails in your inbox and leaving them there is something like that.

Step 2

For a week, re-consider the neccessity of every e-mail shrewdly

This is not so much a one-time activity as a continued task. Now that you have tackled your messy inbox by taking a shortcut to a clean slate, you need to take steps to ensure your incoming mail is actually mail you want to spend your time on. This means the following:

  1. Unsubscribe from all marketing without exception. You never needed them, and ads have a knack of finding their way to you anyway.
  2. Re-consider newsletters (including the one I send) and unsubscribe to those you no longer find interesting. Keep others—newsletters are one of the good things still left on the internet.
  3. Unsubscribe from news in your inbox. Think of it this way: nobody ever tossed a broadsheet into their in-tray. There are a lot of good reasons to keep your news consumption intentional.
  4. Turn off all social media updates. You do not need to know in your inbox when someone sends you a direct message on Instagram. That is a bit like texting someone and calling immediately after to let them know you just texted them.

Go further This may not apply to you or you may not be aware of how to go about it, but if possible set up rules on your Mail app to file away e-mails on your behalf. A good example of this are terms and conditions updates from websites with whom you hold an account, portfolio updates from mutual fund companies and so on. These are generally of a regulatory nature, and you probably never read them, so set up a rule that marks these as ‘read’ and sends them out of your inbox into a folder or set of folders dedicated to such stuff. If you want to do this but do no know how, look up instructions on setting e-mail filters or inbox rules for your e-mail client.

Step 3

Define what a flag means to you

Many e-mail clients offer many bloated features like starring, pinning, colouring, hatching dinosaur eggs etc. But there are only two you really need: flags and the snooze button (see below). Flags are good because they have been around for quite some time and are a standard feature across apps so you would not be held hostage by that one app that delivers an outlandish feature under the guise of a USP. Indeed most ‘unique’ features on e-mail apps simply translate into flags on all other e-mail apps.

The other great thing about flags is that they are a just tool with no opinion. You use them as you see fit. Think of a highlighter: some people paint pages with them while others use them incredibly sparingly. Some people similarly flag their e-mails like their life depends on it while others flag e-mails based on conditions they have defined for themselves.

It can seem like a good idea to flag ‘important’ e-mails but that leads to a terrible habit: the use of one’s inbox like a storage service. If something in an e-mail is important, make note of it elsewhere, like on a dedicated password management app or note-taking tool. If it is an attachment, save it onto your local or cloud drive; if it is a reference number, save it into your note-taking app; if it is a number you need to hold on to for life, or something sensitive like bank details, save it into your locally synced password management app. What you should definitely not do is flag an e-mail on your inbox and leave it there.

Personally, I use flags to designate e-mails that are about upcoming events or e-mails that need my attention but that I cannot get to immediately. Most e-mail apps have a dedicated ‘smart’ inbox that pulls together all your flagged e-mails to give you a quick overview. On Apple devices (and in some form on Android too I suppose) flagging gives the added benefit of filtering by flagged emails on widgets adorning your Lock Screen which can be a great way to gain quick access to important e-mails.

Step 4

Use the snooze feature

Snooze is a newer feature but most e-mail apps offer it. It takes some of the brunt of organisation from flags and most of the organisational nightmares too (like too many flags or forgetting why you flagged something at all e.g. was it time-sensitive or content-sensitive?) Snooze is intended for e-mails that do not need your attention until a later date or time.

Snoozing an e-mail makes it return to your inbox at a designated time in the future as if it was delivered then. This is a purely cosmetic effect in that the e-mail headers are not altered: the e-mail for all intents and purposes was delivered when it was actually delivered; but to the receiver, the e-mail appears when it is most meaningful for them.

Step 5

To archive or to delete? That is the question

It used to be the case that whenever you got an e-mail you did one of many things with it: you left it in your inbox for later (or forever), you deleted it, you placed it into a designated folder, or you flagged it (all this is besides responding of course). However, it would be considerably more productive to reduce decision fatigue. Keep your options simple: archive or delete. In most e-mail apps this could be a choice between swiping left or right.

Especially if you have rules set up like we discussed in step two, your only use for folders will be to have your e-mail programme automatically run those rules for you. In the age of robust search, e-mail folders are redundant. It is faster to search for an e-mail than to wade through a folder to find it.

Every time an e-mail comes, unless you figure out, right off the bat, that you need it to pop up later, make it a rule to swipe left or right, to archive or delete. If you do not think you can set aside enough time to do this, do not check your inbox yet.

Are folders completely useless? In short, not really. Folders can help especially if you have one-off e-mails to handle. Say you are conducting an event and want to keep invitee responses together, you could manually toss those into folder. Such folders are useful but for a defined time period. Permanent folders that require you to manually sort e-mails into them are definitely outdated. Remember, though, we are talking about e-mail folders here, not operating system folders—those are still incredibly useful.

A quick summary up to this point: first we took a shortcut to clearing out our inbox with mass archival just because there is no way we can make a routine out of good e-mail habits without first rewarding ourselves with a clean slate. Then we began critically analysing the relevance of every e-mail slipping into our inbox, unsubscribing from certain classes of e-mail and select others. Finally we talked about imbibing a three-step organisational procedure:

  • Define what flagging means and flag selectively
  • Use the snooze button to keep your inbox clean
  • When you sit to go over your e-mails, keep your options limited to archive or delete

That sums up how I personally manage my inbox. For the most part doing this even just once or (as I do) twice a day means your inbox ends up cleaned by the end of every sitting. Each sitting will then take no more than a couple of minutes (not accounting for any replies you may need to type) and leave you with either an empty inbox or an inbox with nothing but e-mails relevant to upcoming events or dates. In other words you may not reach ‘inbox zero’ using my method every time. Call it inbox bliss instead.

Sat, 14 Oct 2023 00:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[To complain is human]]> https://vhbelvadi.com/complaining https://vhbelvadi.com/complaining ]]> I recently moved from India to the UK and the one thing I found that was overwhelmingly common in both countries was the complaining. People in India constantly complain about the situation there, about municipal decisions and about pathetic governance—all with good reason. People in the UK also complain about the situation here, about council decisions and about pathetic governance—also seemingly with good reason. If one went by all the complaints alone one would think there is barely anything separating the two countries; and yet the two countries are far apart by several measures.

Complaints are aspirational in nature. We complain based on what we aspire; we complain because we are not where we think we ought to be. Every society has complaints because every society is aspirational. We are simply aspirational along differet lines or on differet timelines entirely. One country could be complaining aspirationally in search of somethng another country has already complained about and obtained. It is simply that we are moving in the same direction. Someone could be complaining about needs while someone else could be complaining about wants.

The other commonality is the entity about whom we complain: the municipality, the council, the government are all usually at the receiving end of people’s ire. This is because they hold the power to affect change and complaints almost always seek change.

The many types of complaints

There are two key reasons why people complain: first, they see, feel or experience something negative; second, they believe that the thing they saw, felt or experienced is out of their ‘locus of control’ i.e. beyond the realm of all things they can change by themselves.

Based on these psychologists identify three types of complainers. First, the chronic complainers and people who are not the subject of this article. They are so focussed on the problem that all they can do is complain about it. Second, the venters and people who want their issues to be heard. They are talking about something real, something that is genuinely a problem and can be improved, but it comes from a place of personal discomfort. They recognise only what bothers them and when they do they want their botheration voiced and heard. Their complaints are conceptual. These are slightly more important than the first kind so we shall consider them for the purposes of this essay.

Finally, there are the solution-oriented folk. These identify problems—not always ones that bother them—and they complain with an aim to arrive at solutions. These complaints are backed by concepts but are not limited by them. They define a problem and break it down so that a solution may be found. To these complainers, the solution and not the problem is the focus of every discussion.

My city stinks

In 2019 NPR Radio broadcasted an episode asking why Seattleites complain so much. Apparently, they figured out that people in the city that Microsoft and Amazon (and Frasier Crane) call home tend to complain a lot more than people in most others American towns. Their complaints revolved around a carriageway that is constantly backed up and potholes and trees chopped beside pavements and of course the weather.

Complaints are a personal form of protests ... complaints are a form of communication. And to communicate is human.

Here in England, where the weather is almost certainly gloomier and more unpredictable, people have actually become a bit understanding about it. The weather is not a complaint anymore here as much as it is a joke.

Not a year later the BBC published an article like NPR’s except this time it was about why the French love to complain. The BBC even mentioned the three famous French complaining styles: se plaindre and porter plaindre and râler, meaning complaining, filing a complaint, and a balanced cross between venting and grumbling.

For our purposes, let us consider the conceptual complainer and the solution-oriented complainer. We shall call these productive complainers.

The complaints ladder

The timeline of complaints is key to understanding the level of development of a town. Are people complaining more about essential services, like garbage collection or the availability of clean water and regular electricity? Or are they complaining more about what some would term ‘first-world problems’ like the unavailability of the latest gaming console or a millimetre-deep ‘pothole’ on an obscure alleyway? A complain can provide insights into what people consider immediate problems, in turn showing us how developed a place is. The more developed a place the fewer essential needs people would be complaining about.

While this works qualitatively it does not seem to be true quantitatively. One might assume that the less developed a nation the more people have to complain about and therefore the more they will complain about. But a (somewhat funny and questionable) 2022 study shows that Americans complain more than anyone else in the world. The United Kingdom follows a close second. The rest of this list, though, is not as predictable as one might expect: Canada, Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Chile, South Africa and Armenia form the top ten. India is nowhere in the top twenty.

Within the UK things are a bit more predictable. The cities that complain most are London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. These are also among the largest cities on the island.

The Globaliser

Complaints are as essential to a city as water supply and electricity. They are in effect a balance of power. With elected representatives and council members holding actual power, little is left in the hands of the people for whom these chaps ought to be working. Journalism has long been the primary balance against accumulation of power but there has always been one in the shadows that swayed the scales in the people’s favour: our long-practised art of complaining.

Complaining is also a direct reflection of the people’s belief in entitlement. It held a mirror to how well society provided a platform for the people to voice themselves. An election is one thing; it is a fleeting occurrence that happens (for good) only across a handful of years. While an election gives people glimpses of power, complaining offers them a route to sustained pressure. Complaints are a personal form of protests—enough complainers just have to realise others exist who think like them for change to come into place. Along the same lines, complaints are a form of communication. And to communicate is human.

When I moved from India I noticed that people complained but were not as bold about it. The complaints were usually behind closed doors, not with random strangers. I knew the complaints existed because I knew enough people personally. Flying to another country on another continent, how could I tell so quickly that people were complaining and what people were complaining about? It was simply that people were complaining to random strangers. People were emboldened. This was not a society that closed people’s mouths or a government that ruled by fear.

This is not a celebration of one country over another; it is merely an observation that a country where people are encouraged to complain productively is a country that can grow. Complaining needs no mass media, no money or power to spread; it spreads by word of mouth, draws no attention and is enough for at least once other person at a time to realise there are others who sympathise with their views or think like them. It is enough to embolden society. It is time we are liberal with out productive complaining.

Tue, 26 Sep 2023 00:00:00 +0000