File Hierarchies: Images & Email

Every now and again, I come across something that makes me realize there is something about me that is different than most people. It happened this week while reading A World Ordered Only By Search by L.M. Sacasas, which is, in part, a commentary on an article Monica Chin’s File Not Found in The Verge. Here’s the relevant bit:

There comes a point when our capacity to store information outpaces our ability to actively organize it, no matter how prodigious our effort to do so. Consider our collections of digital images. No one pretends to order their collections. I’m not sure what the number might be, maybe 10,000, at which our efforts to organize images falters. Of course, our apps do this for us. They can self-sort by a number of parameters: date, file size, faces, etc. And Apple or Google Photos offer a host of other algorithmically curated collections to make our image databases meaningful. We outsource not only remembering but also the ordering function.

I order my images. I find it is pretty easy actually. There’s the main principle, which is by year. Then, you group them into relevant categories. Smugmug essentially uses symbolic links to files that allows for easy hierarchical ordering. So, I can keep files in a specific year. Then, another folder that points to a sequence within that year that corresponds to a vacation or event. You can also create folders for particular people, such as scans of older photos of relatives.

This is really only a problem if you only have one method, such as year, as an organizing principle, which forces you into a search paradigm. You need to be able to organize in multiple places within a hierarchy, and you need to choose software that enables you to do that. However, if you think in terms of search, then you are less likely to think in terms of symbolic links that allow for multiple points of categorization and points of entry to the same file or set of files.

It may be more “natural” to me for a number of reasons. One, *nix systems incorporate symbolic links into their file structure exactly for this reason. So, anyone that primarily uses a *nix system is going to think of hierarchies and using symbolic links to create different points of access to the same files. Two, I used to be a librarian. So, I might claim that I have a greater familiarity with classification systems, indexing, and other ways of organizing information than most people. This blog is probably a good illustration of this point. Another is email. I use a fairly simple structure in email that looks like this:

  • Archives
    • Blog
    • Correspondence
    • Goods
    • Information
    • Jobs
    • Statements
    • Subscriptions
    • Travel
  • Family
    • Name 1
    • Name 2
  • Friends
    • Name 1
    • Name 2

Blog is anything related to this blog. Correspondence is something official, like a politician. Subscriptions tend to be when I sign up for something online. If it is a friend or family member that doesn’t have their own folder, they get dropped into the main folder. If there’s enough email exchanged, then I create a new folder and add all their emails to it later. The rest is self-explanatory.

It’s easy to keep this file system in your head and to quickly categorize a piece of email. The aesthetic for edge cases is to try to use an existing category to cover it, if it is unclear. Information and Goods covers a lot of territory.

Of course, some people may have large families with different branches or different friend groups. It is easy enough to categorize these under sub-headings. But, I think trying to over-categorize is probably why a lot of people end up giving up on file hierarchies. They are trying to impose too much order on a system that should be fuzzy, allowing for rough categorization without too much detail.

The same principles apply to this blog, personal files, and elsewhere. For, for instance, there are the categories that act as a rough heirarchy and tags are symbolic links that give other ways to access a particular post. When you start thinking of files as having a main organizing principle and then other avenues for access, hierarchies become a useful supplemental (or starting) strategy that complements search.

L.M. Sacasas made me realize that this kind of mental model for organizing information is unusual. I thought discussing it might spark ideas or be useful for someone else.

Crony Connect

“Crony Connect allows you to identify politically-connected individuals, using data from Companies House, the Electoral Commission and the MP’s Register of Financial Interests.

How does it work? When you enter the name of an individual, Crony Connect looks for any companies linked to that individual in the Companies House database. Then it searches for the individual and any of their associated companies in the donations and financial interests databases.”

Crony Connect

I tried Michael Gove, 1967 and August and it had two entries. One indicated he was affiliated with the Henry Jackson Society, which probably doesn’t add much to what you might know of his politics. But, it’s interesting none-the-less.

I like how projects like these try to make information more accessible and present it in different ways. It also shows the problems in how information is organized. For example, Michael Gove should have one authority record, and all variants should point to the authority record, rather than multiple listings based on whether his middle name is included or not.

Crony Connect reminded me of, which was a Flash site from 2001 that described itself in this way:

“They Rule is a website that allows you to create maps of the interlocking directories of the top 100 companies in the US in 2001. The data is static, so it is fast becoming out of date, as companies merge and disappear and directors shift boards.”

But, the site provided a visual representation of interlocking corporate boards that showed how information and power is shared in a visual way. I found it fascinating. But, it also shows how quickly this information changes, so there needs to be a dynamic way to generate and present this information that makes these kinds of relationships clear. Because it is when they are not clear that corruption flourishes.

Crony Connect is an interesting attempt along these lines. I found the search mechanism, particularly the need to include birth year and month, a bad user experience. But, I liked the spirit of the thing.

Calling Bullshit

“Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

* Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.

* Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.

* Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.

* Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

* Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.”

Calling Bullshit Syllabus

Decide to K.I.S.S.

“…irrelevant information or unavailable options often cause people to make bad choices. When both elements are present, the probability of a poor decision is even greater.”

—Chadd, I., Filiz-Ozbay, E. & Ozbay, E.Y. “The relevance of irrelevant information.” Experimental Economics. November 11, 2020.

Determining what is possible and the relevant information between choices is key to good decision-making. It’s obvious, but at the same time, it’s something worth keeping in the forefront of our minds when making decisions.

The Syllabus

“By combining algorithms and human curation, we salvage the most thoughtful intellectual output from the ever-mounting great pile of information — most of which is simply rubbish.

The result? An eclectic selection of the best new academic articles, essays, talks, podcasts, books, lectures, and more, produced for you, once a week.

Led by technology critic Evgeny Morozov, The Syllabus method combines algorithmic filtering, categorisation and systematic human curation – across six languages – to power our various syllabi.

Importing Excellence

“If you want to know what it is that your own country produces that is genuinely excellent, look for what the most obsessively discerning residents of London and Tokyo choose to import. Look for the choices of the otaku, the fanatic of pure information.”

—William Gibson in the introduction to Paul Smith, “You Can Find Inspiration in Everything.” London: Violette Editions, 2002.

Russell Conjugation

“Sentence 1: I am firm.

Sentence 2: You are obstinate.

Sentence 3: He/She/It is pigheaded.

-Bertrand Russell, quoted in David Perell, “News in the Age of Abundance.” February 4, 2020.

“Most people will have a positive emotion to the first sentence, a mild reaction to the second, and a negative reaction to the third. Likewise, writers can vary the meaning of their words by changing the length or structure of their sentences. Once their words are set in print, they can enhance their messaging with images that manipulate the reader’s emotions.”


Many if not most people form their opinions based solely on whatever [Emotive] Conjugation is presented to them and not on the underlying facts.

Most words and phrases are actually defined not by a single dictionary description, but rather two distinct attributes:

 1. The factual content of the word or phrase.

2. The emotional content of the construction.

-Eric Weinstein, ibid.

The Three Main Forces Shaping the World: Demographics, Inequality, and Access to Information

“The greatest innovation of the last generation has been the destruction of information barriers that used to keep strangers isolated from one another…

…What’s happened over the last 20 years – and especially the last 10 – has no historical precedent. The telephone eliminated the information gap between you and a distant relative, but the internet has closed the gap between you and literally every stranger in the world.”

—Morgan Housel, “Three Big Things: The Most Important Forces Shaping the World.” October 4, 2019.

Obvious, but sometimes stating the obvious and looking at data and likely implications is a useful exercise.