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.

10 reactions on “Planting the Garden of Forking Paths

  1. @jeremycherfas a very interesting read. I’ve also started experimenting with Obsidian after seeing a link to it via a Drafts post. I like the idea of creating a set number of notes each day – I’m struggling a bit at the moment being on holiday!

    The other area that I’m struggling a little with is iOS. I do not use my Mac automatically when I can do it on iOS – at the moment I’m using iA writer but can’t form the links until back on the Mac which seems a bit counter productive. Lots of ‘coming soon’ on iOS but it’s not here at the moment.

    Going to investigate your Evernote alternative as well. I have Evernote but don’t like being stuck in it’s proprietary format. I tried getting the notes out a year or so ago and had real trouble.

  2. @RossA Not mine, @ton‘s. I hear good things about Drafts for cross-machine work. I’m still very much trying to switch from collecting to processing, but it seems to be in that important-not-urgent quadrant where good ideas go to die.

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