Through my feedreader Jane McConnell tells me she’s started using Obsidian to re-organise her notes into a network of information. She points to a 2001 (!) posting by Thomas Vander Wal, a long time connection of mine, about a model of attraction for information. I’ll have to read that 2001 article by Thomas, and think about what I can use from it (attractors, barriers, patterns and boundaries are important elements in looking at complexity, and feature in my own information strategies as well). Then I realised I hadn’t read anything by Thomas recently, only to find out I was subscribed to the wrong RSS feed. Having fixed that, I stumbled upon his recent posting on his own note taking system and the role of Obsidian in it.

All in all a pattern that suggests I really should add my write-up of using Obsidian for 100 days and contribute it to the distributed conversation.

Extending my note / notion collection in the past three months has emerged a new tagging practice.

I’ve started tagging notes that I encounter with the keywords that led me to wander through the notes and encounter such a note.

A significant difference between my current notes collection and my previous use of Evernote for it, is the ease of linking between notes. Adding new notes means linking them to relevant existing ones. Following those links later means I end up in notes from a thought or association that led me down a path. If one of those notes strikes me as relevant I find myself adding tags based on the thoughts or associations that led me there.

This is an extension of my existing tagging practices, as it adds traces of my searches through the collection of notes, or rather my findlings.

Existing tagging practices already included adding tags naming the reasons and associations why I made the note, what triggered my interest. (An article ‘the 10 biggest tech developments to watch in 2021’ might be tagged ‘prediction’ and ‘2021’ e.g.)
I also use as tags the terms with which I think my future self should be able to find them, tags allowing search in different languages (I write notes in 3 language, but have notes with parts in at least 4 other languages which I can read ok enough to keep the original), and tags denoting some time, status or action (urgent, waiting, sharpen etc, year/month/day of creation) which taken together means usually tags are words that do not feature in the content of the note otherwise (which would already surface in a full text search). I don’t use tags as objective descriptors much, as mostly those terms will be in the article or note already, and they don’t add much meaning for me other than as pretend categories.

The way I look at other people’s tags is how their use of different words than mine for the same things is an expression of socio-professional distance. Others likely will be using their own jargon for things, and the more different that is, the more likely you are part of a different community than the circles I operate in. This lets me use tags as a pivot to find other people and communities of interest and connected to my own current interest. (Allowing me to e.g. extend my feed reading by social distance to additional voices unlike the ones I already follow. This was what I appreciated in the Delicious bookmarking service, as it showed you the tags used for your bookmarks by others, and let you navigate to their collection and profile).

With the new tagging practice, adding tags to a note over time based on how/why I found that note will allow me to see how my own language evolves. This leads I think to a similar measure of socio-professional distance, but now between my past, current and future selves. It will be highly interesting to watch over time if that happens.

Tags to me are a tool to aid associative emergence of connections and meaning, and I think this new tagging practice I find myself adopting will aid in that.

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’m intrigued by Zettelkasten, that Roel Groeneveld describes in his blog. Zettelkasten means filing cards cabinet, so in and of itself isn’t anything novel. It’s all in the described process of course, which originates with systems thinker Niklas Luhmann. I recognise the utility of having lots of small notes, and the ability to link them like beads on a necklace, which is much like the ‘threading cards‘ I mentioned here recently. A personal knowledge management process is extremely important, and needs to be supported by the right tools. Specifically for more easily getting from loose notions, to emergent patterns, to new constructs. Balancing stock and flow. Zettelkasten coming from a paper age seems rather focused on stock though, and pays less attention to flow. Crucially it encourages links between notes, a flow-like aspect, but to me often the links carry more meaning and knowledge than the notes/nodes it connects. The reason for linking, the association that makes a link apparent is an extremely valuable piece of info. Not sure how that would find its place in the Zettelkasten process, as while links exist, they’re not treated as a thing of meaning in their own right. Also some of the principles of the process described, especially atomicity, seem prone to creating lots of overhead by having to rework notes taken during a day. That type of reworking is I think best done in the style of gardening: when you are searching for something, or passing through some notes anyway, you can add, change, link, split off etc.

Filing...Tossed out filing card cabinets of the Manchester City Library (NH/USA), image license CC BY SA

In terms of tools, I am on the look out for something other than Evernote that I currently use. What I like about it is that it ‘eats anything’ and a note can be an image, text, web page, book, pdf, or a drawing, which I can add tags to, and can access through scripts from e.g. my todo tool, etc. Zettelkasten is fully text based in contrast. As a strong point that means it can be completely created from plain text files, if you have a tool that allows you to create, edit, search and put them in an overview extremely fast. But very often ideas are contained in images as well, so dealing with media is key I think. The Zettelkasten tool The Archive is worth a try, but lacks precisely this type of media support. Devonthink on the other hand is way over the top, and let’s one loose oneself in its complexity. The Archive keeps things simple, which is much better, but maybe too simple.

Replied to Knowledge Management, arses and elbows. (The Obvious?)
For me the purpose of KM was to make it easier to have useful conversations with people who knew stuff that you didn’t.....

As back in the ’00s, I’m still very much with you on the KM as conversations front, Euan. Back then in a conversation with Sally Bean, while visiting another large KM event I used the metaphor of visiting an art convention and seeing nothing but paint and brushes vendors. Luckily, reading that event report I still had valuable conversations that day.

As a timely reminder of the value of conversations to learn stuff you didn’t before, I received a touching thank you note just this afternoon before seeing your posting in my feed reader.

It was from an Irish civil servant, telling me about something major he had been involved in in an African nation. He thanked me for a conversation we had in 2012 about crowdsourcing as a means for government agencies to collaboratively build public services with citizens. That started him on a path that helped his regional government entity, and resulted in the impactful work in an African nation mentioned. It’s humbling to know something like that has come about with some sort of contribution from my conversations seven years ago, and awesome and attentive he sees our conversation as part of that journey.

Pretty powerful stuff, conversations and stories.

Replied to Introduced to infostrats by an authoran author ( )
So I am very intrigued by Kicks’ mention of the linkage between blogs and wikis. I like the idea of the blog timeline crystallising into a personal wiki over time.

To me blogs and wikis are the original social software. My blog emerged as a personal knowledge management tool (Harold Jarche is the go-to source for PKM). Knowledge management to me has always been a very people centered, social thing. Learning through distributed conversations, networked learning (George Siemens and Stephen Downesconnectivism). My friend Lilia Efimova did her PhD on it, with our shared blogger network’s conversations as an empirical case. At some point social software morphed into social media, and its original potential and value as informal learning tools was lost in my eyes.

Blogs and wiki’s, they go well together. Blogs as thinking out loud and conversations (also with oneself). Wiki as its accumulated residue. I had a wiki alongside this blog for a very long time (until it succumbed to spam), both a public external one, and a private one. My friend Peter Rukavina still has his wiki Rukapedia alongside his blog. It serves in part as an explainer to his blog readers (e.g. see his wiki entry on me). Boris Mann, also a long time barcamp/blogging connection, runs a wiki which is editable by the public in part.

A year ago I felt the need to accumulate things in a more permanent way next to the timeline like blog. As I am the only one editing such a ‘wiki’, I opted to use WordPress pages for it (but you could open pages up for wider editing with a separate user-role). I added a few plugins for it, e.g. to add categories to pages so I can build menu structures. Kbase in the top menu leads to this wiki-for-just-me, although it doesn’t show all pages it contains (search will surface them though).