In the oil industry it is common to have every meeting start with a ‘safety moment’. One of the meeting’s participants shares or discusses something that has to do with a safe work environment. This helps keep safety in view of all involved, and helps reduce the number of safety related incidents in oil companies.

Recently I wondered if every meeting in data rich environments should start with an ethics moment. Where one of the participants raises a point concerning information ethics, either a reminder, a practical issue, or something to reflect on before moving on to the next item on the meeting’s agenda. As I wrote in Ethics as a Practice, we have to find a way of positioning ethical considerations and choices as an integral part of professionalism in the self-image of (data using) professionals. This might be one way of doing that.

This morning I gave a guest lecture at the Amsterdam University College as part of a course on Big Data mostly (using Rob Kitchin’s book The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences). I talked about open data, open government data more particularly. How it creates impact, the challenges for government in publishing it, and also quite a bit on the pitfalls connected to using open data for some sort of application. I ended on the note that the ethical issues tied to open data usage are also connected to the notion that data is now a prime geopolitical factor. Any choices you make w.r.t. re-using open data will therefore tell the world a lot about who you are, and to which of the geopolitical data propositions you adhere (e.g. surveillance capitalism, data driven statism, data driven enlightenment)

The lecturer I’ve known for a decade or so from open data efforts, and he invited me as well as TU Delft’s Frederika Welle Donker. She and I have been speaking together in various settings before. A combination that worked well again this time I think, my own practice based perspectives in combination with the insights that research provides from approaching in a more rigorous manner the same questions I deal with.

I published the slides and transcript in my new set-up running ‘my own Slideshare‘, and shared the URL at the start of the talk.
This came in handy as this of course was an online event, and convenient and immediate sharing of content makes more sense in such a setting than when doing a talk in the same room as the students.

It has been a while I did such a general introduction about open data. So I spent time yesterday evening and early this morning first rewatching a general talk I gave 8 years ago, and one two years ago, thinking about what are the current developments that are relevant, and current things we are actually working on (e.g. data governance and ethical issues).

Today in a conversation at the IndieWebCamp East 2020 someone mentioned the book Ergodicity by Luca Dellanna. I haven’t decided yet if I would want to read the book, but one thing did stand out: the book is not just available in various e-book formats, but also as a Roam-research graph. This means it’s available as JSON data file, where various parts of the book’s content are interlinked. This allows you to non-linearly explore the book.

This allows you to load the book directly into your note taking environment. If you use Roam research.
I myself wouldn’t want to load someone else’s book sized content directly into my own collection of Notions. Only stuff in my own words goes in there. But I do think it would be a great experience to go through an entire book like that. So I am curious to do something like that, separate from my own vault of notes.

Dellanne claims to have invented the future of e-books, with roam-books, but of course there’s a long history of book hypertexts where links are a key part of the content and experience (Victory Garden an early hypertext novel was published in 1987). Eastgate’s tool Tinderbox also allows multiple types of visualisation to let you navigate through (and automatically manipulate) a chunk of content, and it too is saved and shareable in a XML format. Then again, a Roam-book could be a website just as much, except for the graph view.

He’s now also sending out a newsletter published as a Roam-research file. I can see the appeal, with things like block transclusion and graphical representation. In Obsidian doing something like that would be a collection of small interlinked text files. Which basically is a …. website… you would send in the mail. As both Roam and Obsidian are only viewers. So that might be something, offer a newsletter in e-mail format, as a pdf or as a interlinked collection of notes. Different formats for different viewers. The added benefit is that loading a newsletter into your note-taking tool means you can immediately put it through your own summarisation / processing, throwing out the things you’re not interested in, basing additional stuff on the things you are interested in. Another benefit is that if you use generic link titles (e.g. things like [[Indieweb]]) the newsletter will automatically link to your own mention of that term (and to previous mentions of it in earlier editions of the newsletter). I don’t want to load another project on Frank‘s plate, but it sure does sound like something he might be interested in exploring.

I’m participating in the IndieWebCamp East 2020. It’s nominally held on the US East Coast, but as everything else, it’s online. The 6 hr time difference makes it doable to take in at least part of it.

The first introductory talk today was by David Dylan Thomas, which I thoroughly enjoyed. He’s a content strategist, and took acknowledging the existence of cognitive biases (and the difficulty of overcoming them, even if you try to) as a perspective on content strategy. How do you design to mitigate bias? How do you use bias to design for good? It’s been the basis for his podcast series.

A short 106 page book was published this fall, and after the talk I bought it and uploaded it to my reader. Looking forward to reading it!

I coined a new Dutch word I think. This early morning I was thinking and writing about the words dependency, independency, interdependency, and codependency, and did so in both English and Dutch in parallel. In Dutch I realised I didn’t like the usual translation of interdependency as ‘wederzijdse afhankelijkheid’ which literally translated back to English says mutual dependency. It seems to miss a key aspect. It emphasizes the mutuality of being dependent i.e. two separate dependencies in a vice versa fashion. To me the ‘inter’ in interdependent is not merely the two things that are connected through it, but a third place. A strenghtening of multiple independents by entering into a constellation, not a weakening through mutually assured dependence. A third place that is a synergetic togetherness, centered between the things connected through it, something that is more than the sum of its parts. In that richer connectedness lies the complexity of our lives. ‘Mutual dependent’ sounds like a so much poorer term than ‘interdependent’. It leans more towards codependency even. I of course have a strong interest in the meaning of the word interdependent, as it has been the most important word in the name of this weblog since 2002 (and hence became part of my personal company and holding company name too).

I tried to find a Dutch term for it, couldn’t find an existing one and then I came up with ‘samenhankelijk’, which is a concatenation of ‘together’ and ‘pendant’, into something akin to ‘tangled together’ (the Dutch word for entanglement, ‘verstrengeling’ lacks the mutuality and relational aspect, is more a physical description like of a Gordian knot).

I searched samenhankelijk. It turns out that it doesn’t exist. The word is not in the most authoritative Dutch dictionary, Startpage doesn’t have any results, and Google has 5 (but used, wrongly, as the word ‘samenhangend’ which means coherent).

Van Dale dictionary no results Startpage no search results
No results in the dictionary, no results in search.

Now I am blogging this to put the word samenhankelijk out there, and have it indexed by the search algorithms. I also registered the domain name samenhankelijk.nl, just because I can, and will put up a ‘dictionary’ page there, to claim the term’s definition. By default that domain has perfect SEO! Let’s see how soon this blogpost is the first for this Google search 😀

I’ve been using Obsidian a little over 100 days now. So, with over three months of daily use it’s good to review the experience. I will do this in some detail, and it will span several blogposts. To explain both the evolution over time, as well as how I currently work with Obsidian in practice in a more detailed way, as Frank (rightly!) requested.

My system leads the use of tools

First off, a key point to make. I am using a system for myself to plan and do my work, maintain lots of things in parallel, and keep notes. That system consists of several interlocking methods, and those methods are supported by various tools. What I describe in my review of 100 days of using Obsidian, is not about Obsidian’s functionality per se, but more about how the functionality and affordances of Obsidian fit with my system and the methods in that system. With a better fit with my system and methods, I can reduce friction in my methods, and reduce the number of tools I need to use in support of those methods. At the same time, the use of a new tool like Obsidian influences the practical application of methods, it creates a different daily practice. Those shifts are of interest as well.

What I started with

The image below shows you how my overall system of work and taking in information looks. It’s a personal knowledge management system, that both takes care of the networked nature of making sense of new information and evolving interests, as well as the more hierarchical nature of working on projects and executing tasks. Both start with my general notion of where I want to be headed (‘goals’).

I used different tools for different parts of that image:

  • Excel (orange) for: listing goals (3-10 yrs out), the 3 month planning cycle I keep (along the lines of ’12 week year’), the habits I want to maintain or introduce, and tracking of those habits and project progress/fulfillment.
  • Things (red) for: areas of my life I’m active in, projects within those areas, and tasks in those projects.
  • WordPress (darkblue) for: daily logs (which I started keeping end of April this year, on an internal WP instance), week logs (internal draft blogposting), and of course for public blogging itself.
  • Evernote (blue) for: a list of all my current interests/favourite topics, all types of note taking, related to my work/projects and my information diet.
  • Other tools (grey) come into play for feedreading (Readkit), blocking time (Nextcloud calendar in Thunderbird), book reading (Kindle, Nova2), keeping references (Zotero since June, Evernote before that)

While evaluating my system, I tried Obsidian

In the spring I had started evaluating my system. I found I was not keeping up several parts of it, had fallen out of practice with a number of elements, and had changed some of my practices without adapting the flow in my tools. It had therefore suffered in its usefulness. Being at home because of the pandemic allowed me to allocate some time to take a better look, and to start testing some changes. On the tool side of that evaluation, I want to get rid of Evernote (as a silo and single point of failure) since some years.

One change in my system I was experimenting with, was keeping better atomic notes about the core concepts and key elements in how I work. Late last year I thought a bit about atomic notes, i.e. cards with individual snippets, and bringing those collections of snippets and the process of curating them and threading them into e.g. a blogpost or a line of argumentation. In January I came across Zettelkasten and took a closer look, in the spring I read a book about Zettelkasten and knew I wanted to adopt parts of it into my system (linking notes first and foremost, and storing references in a better way). That’s when I started using Zotero to keep references, and stopped doing that in Evernote (Zotero can take website snapshots and store them locally, something I used Evernote for a lot. On top of it if you give Zotero a reference it will find and store a PDF of a scientific article, very useful to read more deeply).

I started to keep atomic notes, sometimes called ‘evergreen notes’ which I to myself now call Notions, capturing concepts from my work (so not work related notes, but conceptual notes) first in both WordPress and Evernote simultaneously. WordPress (a local instance on my laptop, not online) because I already used it for day logs since April, and it allows relatively easy linking, and Evernote because it is much easier to keep notes there than WP, but linking in Evernote is much harder. I also played with some note taking tools, and that’s when I came across Obsidian. It immediately felt comfortable to use it.

How after 100 days Obsidian has covered my system

After over 100 days of Obsidian my use of it has expanded to include a much larger part of my system. Along the way it made my use within that system of Things, Evernote and almost Excel obsolete. It also means I sharpened my system and practice of using it again. This is how the tool use within my system, with the use of Obsidian in green, now looks

Obsidian now contains some 1200 mark down files. 500 are Notions, atomic notes almost exclusively about my own concepts and other core concepts in my work, in my own words. Mostly taken from my own blogposts, reports, and presentations over the years. The other 700 are some 115 day log / week log / month maps, about 100 proto-notions and notes that contain conceptual info to keep from other sources, and some 500 work and project related notes from conversations and work in progress. This sounds as a very quantitative take, and it is. I have in the past months definitely focused on the volume of ‘production’, to ensure I could quickly experience whether the tool helped me as intended. I think that monitoring the pace of production, which I’ve done in the past months, will no longer be relevant by the end of this year. I used the quantity as a lead indicator basically, but have been on the lookout for the lag indicators: is building a collection of linked notes leading to new connections, to more easily creating output like blogposts and presentations, having concepts concisely worded at hand in conversations to re-use? And it did. One very important thing, central to the Zettelkasten method, I haven’t really tried yet however, which is to use the current collection as a thinking tool. Because I was more focused on creating notions first.

On Obsidian as a tool

There are four things in Obsidian that are to me key affordances:

  1. it is a viewer/editor, a fancy viewer/editor, on top of plain markdown text files on my laptop. It builds its own local database to keep track of links between notes. Whatever happens to Obsidian, my data is always available.It being ‘just’ a viewer is important because Obsidian is not open source and won’t be. There is a potential open source alternative, Foam, but that tool is not yet developed enough.
  2. being ‘just’ an editor means using regular text files, it feels like coming full circle, as I have for the most part been note taking in simple text files since the late ’80s. Textfiles always had my preference, as they’re fast and easy to create, but it needed a way to connect them, add tags etc., and that was always the sticking point. It means text files are available outside of Obsidian. This allows me to access and manipulate notes from outside Obsidian without issue, and I do (e.g. on mobile, but also with other software on my laptop such as Tinderbox that I used for the images in this post).
  3. it makes linking between notes (or future links) as simple as writing their filenames, which is supported by forward search while you’re typing.
  4. it shows graphs of your note network, which to me is useful especially for 2 steps around a note you’re working on.

I use Obsidian as simple as possible; I do not use plugins that are supposed to help you create notes (e.g. the existing Zettelkasten and Day log plugin), because they make assumptions about how to create notes (how to name them, which links to create in them). I created my own workflow for creating notes to avoid functionality lock-in in Obsidian: day logs are created manually by keyboard shortcuts using Alfred (previously TextExpander), as are the timestamps I use to create unique file names for notes.

Timeline of three months of Obsidian use

Below is a timeline of steps taken in the past months, which gives you an impression of how my use of Obsidian in support of my system has evolved.

November 2019 I discuss the concept of cards (i.e. atomic notes), curation and writing output

January 2020 I first looked at the Zettelkasten method and some tools suggested for it. I mention the value of linking notes (possible in Evernote, but high friction to do)

May 2020, read the book about Zettelkasten by Sönke Ahrens, adopted Zotero as a consequence.

7 July started with deliberately making Zettelkasten style atomic notes in WordPres en Evernote in parallel, to move away from collecting as dumping stuff in your back yard. Atomic notes only concerning my concepts in my work.

8 July started using Obsidian, after having just started creating ‘evergreen’ notes

15 July having made 35 atomic notes, I make a new association between two of them for the first time.

28 July I’m at 140 conceptual notes. I named the collection Garden of the Forking Paths. I switched my digital tickler files (a part of the GTD method) from Evernote to Obsidian. I had stopped using them, but now it felt normal again to use them. The post I wrote about this, was made from atomic notes I already had made beforehand.

5 August I find I haven’t used WordPress anymore for my day logs ever since starting with Obsidian, and that I also added week logs (an automatic collation of day logs), and monthmaps (a mindmap at the start of the month listing key upcoming things and potential barriers). My Evernote use dropped to 4 notes in 4 weeks, whereas it was 47 the 4 weeks before it. After almost a month of Obsidian, I am getting more convinced that I am on a path of ditching Evernote.

12 August I renamed my ‘evergreen’ notes, that contain my concepts mostly, to Notions, as the generic word notes doesn’t make a distinction in the character of some the things I’m putting into notes.

12 August I write a first long form blogpost made from Notions

13 August Added Nextcloud synchronisation of the note files, allowing mobile viewing and editing of notes

31 August I keep track of tasks in Obsidian and drop Things. There was a time I always did such things in straightforward text files. Being able to do so again but now with a much better way of viewing and navigating such text files and the connections between them, makes it easy to ‘revert’ to my old ways so to speak.

13 September I am at 300 Notions. These first 300 notions are mostly my notions, the things that are core to my thinking about my own work, and the things I internalised over the past 25 years or so, of doing that work. I expect that going forward other people’s ideas and notions will become more important in my collection.

13 September I describe how I make notions and notes

September / October I increasingly use my conceptual Notions as reference while in (online) conversations.

5 October I gave a client presentation (about the Dutch system of base registers) pulled together completely from existing Notions.

7 October added a ‘decision log’ to my note keeping.

16 October 100 days in Obsidian, 500 Notions and about 700 other types of notes.

16 October reinstated a thorough Weekly Review (a component of GTD) into my system.

21 October I gave a brief presentation Ethics as a Practice, the second this month pulled together from existing notes.

This all as a first post looking back on 100 days of Obsidian.
Part 2: Hierarchy and Logs
Part 3: Task management
Part 4: Writing connected Notions, Ideas, and Notes
Part 5: Flow using workspaces
Part 6: Obsidian development vs my usage