A few days ago Om Malik blogged about his writing advice, ‘write like a human‘, saying there’s no need for more bland mediocrity like ‘freeze-dried news reports’. Being real will always be as unique as yourself.

It coincided with me rereading something I blogged around this time in 2003, saying ‘blogging is about people first and people only, personal relationships are the stuff of our lives‘.

Om Malik also writes that writing in your own voice means your words will reflect who you are, that there’s no hiding behind fancy words.

I think it is even impossible to hide behind fancy words, or even freeze-dried reporting, the longer you sustain a personal blog. Through the years your blog will always reflect who you are, as your interests move with your own life and experiences, regardless whether you chose to limit yourself to non-personal topics and interests. It is very hard impossible to portray yourself as anything other than you over the course of many years, or not have your self be revealed through your writing during that time. (For instance Peter and Frank have been blogging for 2 decades or more, and I’m coming up on 18 years on this blog.) Even more so if your blogging leads to face to face encounters, repeated meetings a few years apart, and generates distributed conversations. It’s the reason that when a couch-surfing initiative for bloggers was suggested by Henriette Weber in 2005, I added a requirement to my profile there for anyone interested in staying with us would need to have a blogging history of at least a year. It would let me see you, to decide upon your request.

Your blog is your avatar, not in the one-dimensional sense of a profile pic, but in the original sense of a god made flesh in terrestrial form, in the sense of Ultima IV, where your own ethics determined the outcome by presenting you dilemma’s with short and longterm consequences attached to your choices. Your blog is your avatar, a full representation of yourself, made manifest online in HTML texts. Whether you want it to be or not. Time makes it unavoidable.

In the past 2.5 weeks I have focused some time on building better notes. Better notes, as in second order notes: processed from raw notes taken during the day. Below are some experiences from that note taking.

My intention

This in order to build a better thinking aid, by having an easy accessible collection of my own ideas and concepts, and interesting viewpoints and perspectives of others (and references). It isn’t about collecting factual info.

I want to build a more deliberate practice this way, to enable a flow to create more and better output (writing, blogging, idea development etc.), in which more ideas are turned into something I apply or others can apply. In past years I have regularly stayed away from reading non-fiction books as I felt I had nowhere to go with the thoughts, associations and ideas reading something normally generates. No deliberate practice to digest my readings, resulting in it bouncing around my head and a constant nagging notion ‘I should be doing something with this’. Getting it out in atomic notes is a way of letting those associations and ideas build a network of meaning over time, and for me to see what patterns emerge from it.

In turn this should make it easier and faster for myself to create presentations, e-books, and blogposts etc. To have those writings start within me more. Only doing responsive writing based on daily RSS feed input feels too empty in comparison. And more importantly to not reinvent my own concepts from the top of my head everytime I e.g. put together a presentation (making it very slow going).

Curent state

I’m now at 140 notes. Which is about double the number I expected to be at, as I estimated earlier some 4 notes per day should be possible. Notes get linked to eachother where I feel there’s a connection. The resulting cloud is shown below.


(The singular points around the outer edge are not part of the thinking tool, they’re ticklerfiles from my GTD notes. Similarly there is a series of daily logs that aren’t part of the thinking tool either, but may point to notes in it. I don’t count or discuss those notes here.)

Two tactics helped me generate notes more quickly to incorporate more of my own previous thinking/writing.

  1. Daily I check my old blog postings made on today’s date in previous years. This presents me with a range of postings during the week (not every day), for me to process. Sometimes it will be easy and short to capture key notions/ideas from them, other times it might be a trip down the rabbithole.
  2. I go through presentations I made earlier, and lift out the concepts and ideas from the slides. I’ve done four sofar, one on Networked Agency, MakerHouseholds, on FabLabs, and on Community building / stewardship.

Doing just those two things resulted in the cloud of linked notes above. Especially going through presentations is a rich source of notes. I tend to build new stories every time for a presentation, so they often represent my current perspective on a topic in ways that aren’t documented elsewhere. With these notes I am turning them into re-usable building blocks.

What’s additionally valuable is that making the notes also leads to new connections that I hadn’t thought of before, or didn’t make explicit to myself yet. The first time happened early on, at about 35 notes, which was a linking of concepts I hadn’t linked earlier in my mind. In subsequent notes processing my SHiFT 2010 keynote ‘Maker Households’, that connection was fleshed out some more.
Another type of linkage isn’t so much previously unlinked concepts, but linking across time. A blogpost from a year ago and one from last month turned out to be dealing with the same notions, and I remember them both, but hadn’t yet perceived them as a sequence or as the later post being a possible answer to the earlier post.

Garden of Forking Paths

I call my collection of notes my Garden of Forking Paths. It refers to the gardening metaphor of personal knowledge management tools like wikis, commonplace books etc., often named digital garden, like my public wikisection here.
The fantastic title “Garden of Forking Paths” comes from a 1941 short story by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges titled El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan. It foreshadows the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and has also been referred within hypertext fiction and new media. In 1987 it was worked into Victory Garden, an early hypertext novel, published by Eastgate. Eastgate is Mark Bernstein’s company, an early blogger I first met 16yrs ago, that also creates the Tinderbox software, an amazing tool I use almost daily. Such a rich layering of connections and meaning, both contentwise and personally, are precisely what my notes collection is about, which makes ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ the most fitting title I could hope to find.

The set-up now

My current set-up for taking notes currently is based on using the tool Obsidian. This is a closed source app, but my notes are stored as regular text files, so can be accessed, edited etc through the file system itself. Obsidian provides bidirectional linking, and builds a connection graph on the fly (as shown above). I mentioned Tinderbox, which is also very useful for storing notes. In this case I’m not using it. Though notes in Tinderbox would be available as XML through the file system too, they aren’t easily human readable as the mark down notes I am creating now are, and thus access through the file system is of limited use. While Tinderbox is very useful at visually presenting information, that visual presentation is created by myself. What I am looking for is the emerging patterns from such visualisation, which Tinderbox can’t provide.
Obsidian not being open source is only slightly problematic to me at the moment, as it provides a view on a collection of text files, and nothing is lost except the visualisation if the application falls away. However, an open source alternative exists, which is Foam. However that in turn builds on the only pseudo-open application VS Code by Microsoft, unless I would compile VS Code myself. I may well go that way, but currently I’m experimenting and I’m not sure I want to spend that effort right now. The text files can be used in Foam, so that’s not a barrier. I did install Foam and VS Code, and will try it out in the coming days, although I haven’t fully figured out how to work with it.

Next to Obsidian I use Zotero to keep references to books, documents and snapshots of webpages. This removes these types of material from Evernote, which I count as a positive, without diluting the notes collection as something that are just my views and other things in my own words. In notes I point to references in Zotero where appropiate. It allows notes to be properly referenced, which is valuable when using them to write material based on them.

The note taking process

The process for note taking has several inputs, which currently aren’t all in use:

  1. old blogposts, which I look at daily
  2. old presentations, which I’ve been doing
  3. notes resulting from feed reading, which I am doing
  4. notes from primary notes (made during conversations etc.), which I’m not yet doing
  5. notes from reading books / texts, which I haven’t done yet.

The first two inputs are my key way of building up notes capturing my existing notions, ideas, concepts etc. This is a way to create a repository of existing thought, and that’s the phase I am now in. Especially presentations are a rich source, but can take a lot of effort to process.

Notes as output from feed reading is currently limited but I expect this to grow over time. The same is true for notes from primary notes and from reading books, both I expect to pick up pace over time, once the first wave of ‘braindumping’ is over.

There is another part of my book reading-to-notes process that is already in place, however. That is the part which pertains to Zotero. I am reading non-fiction books on a Nova2 e-ink tablet. Both highlights as well as notes I make during reading, can be easily exported from it, and I add those to Zotero alongside the metadata of the book itself. The same can be done for notes made on a Kindle (find your Kindle notes here). This keeps those annotations as raw material available in Zotero, and allows me to more easily process them into proper notes, capturing a concept or perspective. I have read a few books this way, but haven’t gotten around to processing my annotations from one yet. It’s next on my experimentation list.

My intention, reprise

At the start of this posting I wrote note taking in this way should make it easier and faster for myself to create blogposts and other written output. This post was written re-using notes, which sped up the creation time considerably, so that part of the experiment seems to be working. A true test will come when creating a new presentation I think, outlining a narrative using existing singular notes. The current set-up supports that much in the same way Tinderbox supports it: it’s easy to create a note that contains references to other notes and/or embeds them, turning them into a readable whole, even as you’re still shifting singular points around.

I was surprised to receive a 2am automated message from ‘rocket.cat’ in our company’s self-hosted Rocket.chat instance. It was a notice from Rocket.chat alerting me that from now on registration is mandatory to use the Rocket.chat gateway to enable push notifications to mobile devices.

The reason we run our own instance is to be in full control of the data we share between ourselves in rocket.chat.
However, something that wasn’t clear to me before, push notifications in Rocket.chat involve multiple third parties without users giving explicit consent (which is very problematic in terms of GDPR). Especially as there is no way in Rocket.chat to finetune when/how you want to receive alerts, nor any meaningful instance wide settings, and the default is alerts get pushed always.

When you @user someone, or @all a channel, or even share any message in any channel, the server pushes an alert by default to the mobile devices of the users involved.
That push notification isn’t generated within your own server, or within the mobile applications after receiving the messages concerned directly from our server. It is generated by sending an alert to the Rocket.chat gateway. Through that gateway all alerts from every rocket.chat instance anywhere, self-hosted or not, pass. The connection is encrypted, but the content isn’t. The gateway then sends the alert onwards to Google and Apple, for them to generate the alert on the mobile devices involved when the mobile app isn’t running or in the background. Using Apple’s Push Notification Service and Google’s Firebase Cloud Messaging is common, I realise, but both allow encrypted and/or empty payloads, which doesn’t seem to happen here.
Rocket.chat put in the gateway as a workaround, where every alert gets send with their keys, to prevent independent instance owners needing to have their own keys to APNS and FCM (and as Rocket.chat suggests to compile their own mobile apps and have them accepted in the app store). I’m not knowledgeable enough about how push notifications generally work on mobile devices, but it surprised me that push notifications always require third party involvement this way.

Rocket.chat is now starting to enforce registration of instances to be able to use the gateway, because that gateway is becoming a major cost to them. Not surprisingly if all alerts of every single Rocket.chat user in the world pass through it. Because those costs are rising, they want to start charging for sending alerts above a certain threshold. To start charging they need you to register with them to both show you your usage and store your payment method.

I don’t like the existence of such a centralised bottle-neck. It also comes across as a next step of building on something that seems to have been implemented as a workaround fix to begin with.
This way, even if you run your own independent instance you’re still tethered to Rocket.chat the company indefinitely. It’s completely at odds with why we (and others I presume) run our own instance in the first place.

I therefore disabled all push notifications in our rocket.chat server.

Nick Punt writes a worthwile post (found via Roland Tanglao) on “De-Escalating Social Media, Designing humility and forgiveness into social media products

He writes

This is why it’s my belief that as designed today, social media is out of balance. It is far easier to escalate than it is to de-escalate, and this is a major problem that companies like Twitter and Facebook need to address.

This got me thinking about what particular use cases need de-escalation, and whether there’s something simple we can do to test the waters and address these types of problems.

And goes on to explore how to create a path for admitting mistakes on Twitter. This currently isn’t encouraged by Twitter’s design. You see no social reinforcement, as no others visibly admit mistakes. You do see many people pilig onto someone for whatever perceived slight, and you do see people’s reflex of digging in when attacked.

Punt suggest three bits of added functionality for Twitter:

  • The ability to add a ‘mea culpa’ to a tweet in the shape of “@ton_zylstra indicated they made a mistake in this tweet”. Doing that immediately stops the amplicifation of those messages. No more replies, likes or retweets without comments. Retweet with comment is still possible to amplify the correction, as opposed to the original message.
  • Surfacing corrections: those that have seen the original tweet in their timelines will also get presented with the correction.
  • Enabling forgiveness: works just like likes, but then to forgive the original poster for the mistake, as a form of positive reinforcement.

I like this line of thinking, although I think it won’t be added to existing silo’d networks. This type of nudging of constructive behaviour as well as adding specific types of friction are however of interest. Maybe it is easier for other platforms and newer players to adopt as a distinguishing feature. E.g. in Mastodon.

Today I came to the realisation that my ‘x years ago on this day you blogged…‘ widget is a great way to every day do a recap of those postings and capture the ideas in it in my notes. In a year it would mean all readily apparant ideas mentioned here since 2002 would be included in my notes as well as their interconnectedness, in two years it would mean I’d have had a second iteration on it.

I also realised that after a year (or two), having processed my blog that way, I could do the same thing on the thus emerging collection of notes themselves, as I have a way of surfacing all notes from e.g. July 12th in any given year.

This is akin to how I am my own blog’s most intensive reader already, reading back and forth, following links etc. But it could now be aimed at capturing some of that in a different form than the blog’s timeline.

Probably I could do the same for my existing Evernote collection, although I suspect it would be much less fruitful. My blog is my own writing, output resulting from my own thinking, doing and curation. A large chunk of my Evernote is a snippet collection from around the web without much context. Except for elements I already marked during note taking for action or as ideas, those would be easily findable.

In the past days I have been both exploring my process for second order note taking, and part of that is evaluating tools. I’ve been trying the note taking process in both WordPress and Evernote. In parallel I have also been looking at other tools for note taking. I’ve looked at a few tools that say to have implemented the Zettelkasten method, but I don’t want tools that assume to shape my process. I want to shape my tools, based on my routines.

In terms of tools that support me, I want tools that increase networked agency. Tools that treat data as fully mine, the tool itself as a view on the data, and its interface(s) as queries on that data.

Between WP and Evernote, the first does that, the second most definitely not. At the same time Evernote makes note taking much easier than WP can ever do. This is not surprising as WP is a blogging tool that I am using as a wiki on my local host while Evernote was designed for note taking. From the other tools I looked at, Joplin and Obsidian stood out, both tools that use markdown. Joplin because it is open source, allows easy import from Evernote, and can save webpages locally, can sync with Nextcloud allowing easy mobile access. It does store notes in a sqllite database which makes accessing my data more difficult.

Obsidian is still in beta but already looks pretty amazing to me (similar to Roam it seems). It operates on text files in a folder, thus allowing direct access through my file system to any data I add. It provides a view on that data that allows easy linking between notes, and you can split off any number of panes in the interface with whatever content or query. This means you can have a variety of notes open, pin them, see what links to what etc. There is also a graphical view, that allows you to explore notes based on the cloud of links they form. That makes it look a bit like the Brain of old. It’s all in markdown, so easy to use on mobile with a different client if I sync it through Nextcloud. I added the same notes I previously added to WP and EN in Obsidian, to experience differences and commonalities. In comparison with the other notes tools I tried a key difference is that I left this app open since I started it up this morning. A key difference with WP and EN is that I want to add notes to this tool. It does mean I need to relearn markdown, which has gone rusty since I last used markdown (in a locally hosted wiki), but of course it was easy to make a note and pin it to use as cheat sheet.

Obsidian screenshot, list and search pane on the left, a graphical overview middle top, a note middle bottom, and my markdown cheat sheet on the right

Having used Obsidian for a day, I am now wondering if I still need my local WP instance. The combination of Obsidian and Zotero which I started using for reading references even looks like something to replace Evernote with. This is the first time I’ve thought that in the past 4 years for longer than an hour.