Zettelkasten, TiddlyWiki and TiddlyPWA

Currently I am experimenting with the Zettelkasten method for writing notes. I just want to share some of the books that I am reading and the software that I am using:

I use TiddlyWiki to store my notes. It is an incredibly flexible personal and portable wiki. It has been around forever, is open source, and will hopefully have some staying power.

It can be a bit hard to get to grips with how it works. To really get going with it, Grok TiddlyWiki by Soren Bjornstad is required reading.

In principle TiddlyWiki is a single file, which you can sync between different devices. I need a solution that allows me to seamlessly switch between my laptop and my phone. TiddlyPWA seems to do the trick. It turns TiddlyWiki into an offline-first Progressive Web App, keeping my notes synced through a server that only every sees my encrypted data.

The two books that are helping me in applying the Zettelkasten method are How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens, and Digital Zettelkasten by David Kadavi.

Image by Kai Schreiber, licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Turnitin User Agreement: I disagree

For the past one and a half year or so I’ve been studying Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Today I wanted to hand in my very first and very tentative ideas about my Master’s thesis. Using the archaic, mindnumbing, and Repetitive Strain Injury-inducing Blackboard digital learning environment I was confronted with the following screen:

Turnitin User Agreement popup

I have better things to do than read the whole text (~ 5.100 words) but I did read enough to know that I couldn’t agree with this User Agreement. Instead I decided to write this blog post explaining what I find so disagreeable.

But first, what is Turnitin? It is the market leader (although monopolist is probably the better term) in plagiarism detection services. They have a few hundred million student submissions in their database. So when a new submission comes in they check it against the web (Wikipedia is plagiarism source number one) and against the submissions they already have and presumably give out a plagiarism score or percentage (I am not privy to that part of the interface).

The User Agreement

The terms of service of many companies can often be best summarised as: “We can do whatever we want, you can’t expect anything from us and, even though this agreement already gives you zero rights into perpetuity, we still reserve the right to change this agreement at our will without telling you.”

Turnitin’s terms closely follow that general pattern. Let me quote you some relevant passages. All emphasis is mine.

Let’s start with the good: They acknowledge that you keep ownership over your work:

You or the person who has authorized You to submit a paper for review as part of the Services will, subject to the license granted hereunder to Turnitin and its affiliates, vendors, service providers and licensors, retain Your ownership of the submitted paper. This User Agreement grants Turnitin and its affiliates, vendors, service providers and licensors only a non-exclusive right to Your paper solely for the purposes of plagiarism prevention and the other Services provided as part of Turnitin.

What does retaining ownership actually mean? Not much, because by agreeing with Agreement you completely lose control of your work. This is because you give Turnitin a license:

If You submit a paper or other content in connection with the Services, You hereby grant to Turnitin, its affiliates, vendors, service providers, and licensors a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license to use such papers, as well as feedback and results, for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally.

And the license is very broad: it will last forever, counts everywhere and is not just for Turnitin but also for anybody they have dealings with. The text does say that the license is limited for the purposes of providing the services. The problem is that these services are in themselves not limited. The services are defined as follows:

The Site offers certain services, together with other content, data, images, information and other materials which allow authorized educational institutions (“Educational Institutions”), and teachers, instructors, professors or other faculty members who are currently teaching a registered class (together, “Instructors”) to use software tools hosted by Turnitin to check enrolled students’ work for possible textual matches against Internet-available resources and Turnitin’s own proprietary database.

But it then also says:

You acknowledge and agree that the form and nature of the Services and the Site which Turnitin provides may change from time to time without prior notice to You.

So there we have it: If you agree to the User Agreement you have just given Turnitin (and its partners) permission to use your paper for any service and at any point in the time in the future.

And even though you have not limited them in any way, they still want to make sure that you agree with them changing the rules whenever they want:

Turnitin, LLC reserves the right to change the terms, conditions, and notices under which the Site is offered.

What needs to change before I will agree

Whether or not it make sense for a university to use a plagiarism detection service is outside of the scope of this blog post. And so is a discussion about what constitutes plagiarism. So assuming the University of Amsterdam will continue to want to check whether I have plagiarized, I will list my conditions before I can agree to the User Agreement. These are as follows:

  • My work can only be used by Turnitin to check for plagiarism.
  • As I see no reason for it being my responsibility to help Turnitin get better at doing their job (by giving them the ability to recognise when somebody plagiarizes my work), I want Turnitin to delete my work as soon as the check has been done.
  • If Turnitin relies on third parties to do the plagiarism check, then I would need a limitative list of these parties and the assurance that the above two conditions will also count for them.

Until my conditions are satisfied I will not be using Turnitin to hand in any of my work at the university. And I am pretty confident that in this case my principles will be stronger than my pragmatism. Let’s see what happens next…

Update on January 16th, 2018: Folia, the university’s magazine, published an article about this issue. In it, the university says they will look into it and Turnitin has given a ludicrous reaction. My teachers for this course have said that I can hand in all my assignments via email. I’ve asked the university to keep me posted.

Liberia Outsources Primary Education

Wait. What?

Admittedly I know little to nothing about education in Liberia and it really isn’t up to me to judge the decision of their Minister of Education (how would you solve his problems?). However, I am still terribly saddened that this is apparently what we have now come to: outsourcing the education of the youth to an American for-profit company that has ‘teachers’ use scripts on their hand-held tablets. Dehumanisation backed by the capital of the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar…

This is starting to beg the question: What parts of our society don’t we consider to be ripe for public-private partnerships yet? Why not work towards a true educational commons which, next to curriculum, also includes process and methodology?

Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary and primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage. The deal will see the government of Liberia direct public funding for education to support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company.Under the public-private arrangement, the company will pilot the programme in 50 public schools in 2016, as well as design curriculum materials, while phase two could have the company rollout mass implementation over five years, “with government exit possible each year dependent on provided performance from September 2017 onwards,” the report from Liberia’s FrontPage Newspaper said.“Eventually the Ministry of Education is aiming to contract out all primary and early childhood education schools to private providers who meet the required standards over five year period,” the article states.

Source: An Africa first! Liberia outsources entire education system to a private American firm. Why all should pay attention | MG Africa

 Pupils at a Bridge International Academy in East Africa.

Pupils at a Bridge International Academy in East Africa.

Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise

Jason Fried has writen an incredible post about the benefits and the pitfalls (mostly the latter) of group chat after ten years of experience at 37signals and Basecamp.

I think he is fundamentally right in giving ‘attention’ so much importance as a precious resource. I’ve come to realise that the ability to singletask is the one skill that most people are lacking in their working lives. It is certainly the thing that I would like to get better at.

At my place of work we have been experimenting with Mattermost over the last few weeks and are on the cusp of implementing it for the whole team. I look forward to implementing Fried’s recommendations on how to make that a success.

I believe attention is one of your most precious resources. If something else controls my attention, that something else controls what I’m capable of. I also believe your full attention is required to do great work. So when something like a pile of group chats, and the expectations that come along with them, systematically steals that resource from me, I consider it a potential enemy. “Right now” is a resource worth conserving, not wasting.

Group chatSource: Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise — Medium

The Books I Read in 2013


Just like last year I decided to publish an overview of the books that I’ve read during the year.

Covers of the books I read
Covers of the books I read

This year I managed to read 48 books (I am really missing my daily commute, don’t believe the 47 in the picture above) which I’ve put in the following categories:


Mcluhan’s Understanding Media is the single most important book on technology that I’ve ever read. His probes are all-encompassing and still very relevant 50 years after their first publication. Taleb gave me a new way of looking at the world and a set of tools for thinking that is richer than Dennett’s attempt at doing the same. Carse’s classic is well worth reading and I would love to read more Žižek in 2014.

  • Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man — Marshall McLuhan (link)
  • Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (link)
  • Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking — Daniel C. Dennett (link)
  • Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility — James P. Carse (link)
  • Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium — Paul Levinson (link)
  • First as Tragedy, Then as Farce — Slavoj Žižek (link)
  • Het socratisch gesprek — Jos Delnoij (link)
  • McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed — W. Terrence Gordon (link)
  • The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth, and Trust — Robert David Steele (link)

Digital Rights

I expect this category to grow in 2014 with more books about privacy, freedom of expression and the Internet. Solove delivers good arguments on why privacy is important and Edwards (inadvertently) showed me how scary it is to work for Google.

  • Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security — Daniel J. Solove (link)
  • I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 — Douglas Edwards (link)


My focus will move away from learning, but I still managed to read some fascinating books on the topic in 2013. Harrison left me itching to try his method for running meetings with large and diverse groups. Illich clearly showed the institutionalizing effects of schooling (confusing being taught with learning and confusing certification with competence). Gatto made me loathe to put children in schools (read Dumbing Us Down, the Underground History is less cogent).

  • Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide — Harrison Owen (link)
  • Deschooling Society — Ivan Illich (link)
  • Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling — John Taylor Gatto (link)
  • De canon van het onderwijs — Emma Los (link)
  • The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling — John Taylor Gatto (link)

B00kc7ub 4 N3rd5

The book club read nine books in 2013. By far the most thought- and discussion-provoking was Morozov battling “internet-centrism”, “epochalism” and “solutionism”. Eggers enlarged current Google and Facebook practices to show us the grotesque direction we are moving in. Zamyatin wrote a Russian version of “1984” (way before Orwell) subverting the concept of freedom. Silver was a great read and Lanier gave me the useful concept of “Siren Servers”.

  • To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism — Evgeny Morozov (link)
  • Makers: The New Industrial Revolution — Chris Anderson (link)
  • The Circle — Dave Eggers (link)
  • Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet — Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, Jérémie Zimmermann (link)
  • The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t — Nate Silver (link)
  • Bleeding Edge — Thomas Pynchon (link)
  • We — Yevgeny Zamyatin (link)
  • Who Owns the Future? — Jaron Lanier (link)
  • The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production — Peter Marsh (link)


For some reason I had yet to read Kafka’s The Trial. It didn’t disappoint. Shteyngart made me laugh the hardest (with Thomése coming in a close second) with his near-future dystopian novel on our hypercommercialized digital future.

  • The Trial — Franz Kafka (link)
  • Super Sad True Love Story — Gary Shteyngart (link)
  • Cat’s Cradle — Kurt Vonnegut (link)
  • De laatkomer — Dimitri Verhulst (link)
  • 2BR02B — Kurt Vonnegut (link)
  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia — Mohsin Hamid (link)
  • Homeland (Little Brother, #2) — Cory Doctorow (link)
  • Het bamischandaal — P.F. Thomése (link)
  • Gelukkige Slaven — Tom Lanoye (link)


There were some real gems in this miscellaneous category. Feddes has set the standard for books on cities. Because of Hillis I finally understand how computers work. My friend Dorien Zandbergen‘s PhD thesis gave some wonderful insights into hacker culture in the bay area. Van Casteren’s book made me think of my early teenage years living in a young neighbourhood in a forensic town just above Amsterdam.

  • 1000 jaar Amsterdam — Fred Feddes (link)
  • Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping — Mike Clelland (link)
  • The Pattern on the Stone (Science Masters) — W. Daniel Hillis (link)
  • Japan’s Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese — Boyé Lafayette de Mente (link)
  • The Incredible Secret Money Machine — Don Lancaster (link)
  • New Edge, Technology and Spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area — Dorien Zandbergen (link)
  • Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design — Jane Fulton Suri (link)
  • The Big Lebowski: An Illustrated, Annotated History of the Greatest Cult Film of All Time — Jenny M. Jones (link)
  • Lelystad — Joris van Casteren (link)
  • Treat Your Own Neck 5th Ed (803-5) — Robin McKenzie (link)
  • The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm — Tom Kelley (link)
  • Een halve hond heel denken: Een boek over kijken — Joke van Leeuwen (link)
  • How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum — Keri Smith (link)
  • What Color Is Your Parachute? 2012: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers — Richard Nelson Bolles (link)