Nicole van der Hoeven published one of her videos on using Obsidian on the topic of the ExcaliBrain plugin. The plugin is made by Zsolt Viczián, the same creator as the Excalidraw plugin which brings easy visualisation to Obsidian. I use Excalidraw within Obsidian with some regularity (I’m mostly text oriented).

It’s not mentioned in the video, but the ExcaliBrain plugin is clearly inspired by The Brain software, both in terms of types of links between notes, and how it shows them (even the placement of the little circles where links attach). The name suggests so too, and the plugin author names The Brain as source of inspiration in the github reposository. I used The Brain as desktop interface from 1997 until 2004-ish, and this plugin seems to bring The Brain as a visualisation layer to my notes. That alone is enough to try it out.

The plugin can both infer relationships between notes, through existing links, much as the general graph view in Obsidian does, but does so in a more navigable style. This I hope allows it to be used as a visual navigation interface to notes, something the graph view does not meaningfully, as The Brain so usefully did for me for a number of years.

You can also set explicit relationships by adding named links to your notes, for which it uses the inline data fields (yourfieldname::) that the DataView plugin makes possible. I already use that plugin so that’s not an extra step for me.
I disagree with Nicole van der Hoeven on her suggestion to comment out explicit relationships so that the plugin will visualise them but the note won’t show the links, except in edit mode.
The notes should always show all links I explicitly set, that’s the whole point of links.
Machine inferred links are a different matter, which deserve a toggle as they are suggestions made to me.
Links are my own and real work in my notes.

Setting explicit links (parent, child, friends ExcaliBrain calls them) is similar to how I already create links. When I write a new note I aim to link other notes in the way Soren Bjornstadt describes in a video of his touring his Zettelkasten. I make three links, if possible, from a new note. One to a higher level of abstraction note, one to a lower level of abstraction but more concrete note, and one to a related note at the same level. This creates ‘chains’ of 4 notes with a content-based implied order.

For example: a note on the role of public transport might link to urban mobility and the liveability of car-free city centers as higher abstration concepts, to a note on urban rail systems or bus networks as a lower abstraction level, to the German 2022 summer reduced fare scheme as an example, and to another communal public service like urban public internet as a same level but different type of note.

I strongly dislike the parent-child-sibling(-friend) vocabulary Excalibrain introduces though, as it implies an order of creation. Parents exist first, children from parents. This means for the way I described creating links in notes that abstract concepts come first. This is not how it mostly works for me. Abstract notions are often created from, intuited from, less abstratct ones. The scaffolding created by less abstract notes and concrete examples is what leads to them. Overarching concepts and insights emerge from linking lower level items. Thankfully the terms you actually use to denote such connections between notes can be freely chosen in the plugin settings. That is a design choice by Zsolt Viczián I greatly appreciate.

Nicole van der Hoeven in her run-through of ExcaliBrain also talks about this implied hierarchy, and mentions a higher level type of use, which is adding more semantics to links using the renaming options in the plugin settings. For instance to express lines of argumentation, and how material reflects on eachother (e.g. Note A reinforces / contradicts Note B). This is the type of linking that Tinderbox allows you to do visually too, which I’ve used a lot. She hasn’t used it that way herself yet she says, but suggests it’s likely the most valuable use case. I think that rings true. It’s where linking becomes the work you have to do yourself again, as opposed to lazy or automatic linking between notes.

I very much want to experiment with the ExcaliBrain plugin.


A screenshot after activating ExcaliBrain of the vicinity of a single note

I’ve now added over 100 annotations using Hypothes.is (h.), almost all within the last month. This includes a few non-public ones. Two weeks ago I wrote down some early impressions, to which I’m now adding some additional observations.

  1. 100 annotations (in a month) don’t seem like a lot to me, if h. is a regular tool in one’s browsing habit. H. says they have 1 million users, that have made 40 million annotations to over 2 million articles (their API returns 2.187.262 results as I write this). H. has been in existence for a decade. These numbers average out to 20 annotations to 2 articles per user. This to me suggests that the mode is 1 annotation to 1 article by a user and then silence. My 100 annotations spread out over 30 articles, accumulated over a handful of weeks is then already well above average, even though I am a new and beginning user. My introduction to h. was through Chris Aldrich, whose stream of annotations I follow daily with interest. He recently passed 10.000 annotations! That’s 100 times as many as mine, and apparently also an outlier to the h. team itself: they sent him a congratulatory package. H.’s marketing director has 1348 public annotations over almost 6 years, its founder 1200 in a decade. Remi Kalir, co-author of the (readworthy!) Annotation book, has 800 in six years. That does not seem that much from what I would expect to be power users. My blogging friend Heinz has some 750 annotations in three years. Fellow IndieWeb netizen Maya some 1800 in a year and a half. Those last two numbers, even if they differ by a factor 5 or so in average annotations/month, feel like what I’d expect as a regular range for routine users.
  2. The book Annotation I mentioned makes a lot of social annotation, where distributed conversations result beyond the core interaction of an annotator with an author through an original text. Such social annotation requires sharing. H. provides that sharing functionality and positions itself explicitly as a social tool ("Annotate the web, with anyone, anywhere" "Engage your students with social annotation"). The numbers above show that such social interaction around an annotated text within h. will be very rare in the public facing part of h., in the closed (safer) surroundings of classroom use interaction might be much more prominent. Users like me, or Heinz, Maya and Chris whom I named/linked above, will then be motivated by something else than the social aspects of h. If and when such interaction does happen (as it tends to do if you mutually follow eachothers annotations) it is a pleasant addition, not h.’s central benefit.
  3. What is odd to me is that when you do indeed engage into social interaction on h., that interaction cannot be found through the web interface of my annotations. Once I comment, it disappears out of sight, unless I remember what I reacted to and go back to that annotation by another user directly, to find my comment underneath. It does show up in the RSS feed of my annotations, and my Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin also captures them through the API. Just not in the web interface.
  4. Despite the social nature of h., discovery is very difficult. Purposefully ‘finding the others’ is mostly impossible. This is both an effect of the web-interface functionality, as well as I suspect because of the relatively sparse network of users (see observation 1). There’s no direct way of connecting or searching for users. The social object is the annotation, and you need to find others only through annotations you encounter. I’ve searched for tags and terms I am interested in, but those do not surface regular users easily. I’ve collated a list of a dozen currently active or somewhat active annotators, and half a dozen who used to be or are sporadically active. I also added annotations of my own blogposts to my blog, and I actively follow (through an RSS feed) any new annotation of my blogposts. If you use h., I’d be interested to hear about it.
  5. Annotations are the first step of getting useful insights into my notes. This makes it a prerequisite to be able to capture annotations in my note making tool Obsidian, otherwise Hypothes.is is just another silo you’re wasting time on. Luckily h. isn’t meant as a silo and has an API. Using the API and the Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin all my annotations are available to me locally. However, what I do locally with those notes does not get reflected back to h., meaning that you can’t really work through annotations locally until you’ve annotated an entire article or paper in the browser, otherwise sync issues may occur. I also find that having the individual annotations (including the annotated text, in one file), not the full text (the stuff I didn’t annotate), feels impractical at times as it cuts away a lot of context. It’s easily retrievable by visiting the url now, but maybe not over time (so I save web archive links too as an annotation). I also grab a local markdown copy of full articles if they are of higher interest to me. Using h. in the browser creates another inbox in this regard (having to return to a thing to finish annotation or for context), and I obviously don’t need more inboxes to keep track of.
  6. In response to not saving entire articles in my notes environment, I have started marking online articles I haven’t annotated yet at least with a note that contains the motivation and first associations I normally save with a full article. This is in the same spot as where I add a web archive link, as page note. I’ve tried that in recent days and that seems to work well. That way I do have a general note in my local system that contains the motivation for looking in more detail at an article.
  7. The API also supports sending annotations and updates to h. from e.g. my local system. Would this be potentially better for my workflow? Firefox and the h. add-on don’t always work flawlessly, not all docs can be opened, or the form stops working until I restart Firefox. This too points in the direction of annotating locally and sending annotations to h. for sharing through the API. Is there anyone already doing this? Built their own client, or using h. ‘headless’? Is there anyone who runs their own h. instance locally? If I could send things through the API, that might also include the Kindle highlights I pull in to my local system.
  8. In the same category of integrating h. into my pkm workflows, falls the interaction between h. and Zotero, especially now that Zotero has its own storage of annotations of PDFs in my library. It might be of interest to be able to share those annotations, for a more complete overview of what I’m annotating. Either directly from Zotero, or by way of my notes in Obsidian (Zotero annotatins end up there in the end)
  9. These first 100 annotations I made in the browser, using an add-on. Annotating in the browser takes some getting used to, as I try to get myself out of my browser more usually. I don’t always fully realise I can return to an article for later annotation. Any time the sense I have to finish annotating an article surfaces, that is friction I can do without. Apart from that, it is a pleasant experience to annotate like this. And that pleasure is key to keep annotating. Being able to better integrate my h. use with Obsidian and Zotero would likely increase the pleasure of doing it.
  10. Another path of integration to think about is sharing annotated links from h. to my blog or the other way around. I blog links with a general annotation at times (example). These bloggable links I could grab from h. where I bookmark things in similar ways (example), usually to annotate further later on. I notice myself thinking I should do both, but unless I could do that simultaneously I won’t do such a thing twice.

Attempting to understand the ‘Noosphere’ and Subconscious tooling that Gordon Brander is developing results in several questions. Brander proposes a new ‘low level infrastructure’ (subconscious) for sharing stuff across the internet, which should result in us thinking together on a global scale (the noosphere).

I’ve followed the recent Render conference on ‘tools for thought’ where Gordon Brander presented Noosphere and Subconscious. In the wake of it I joined the Discord server around this topic, and read the ‘Noosphere Explainer‘. Brander’s Render talk roughly follows that same document.

Brander says: The internet is already a tool for thought, so we should make it better at it. The tools at our disposal to deal with this new voluminous information environment haven’t reached their potential yet. Learning to think together at planetary scale is a needed ingredient to address global issues. There are many interesting tools out there, but they’re all silos of SaaS. They’re silos because of same origin policy which prevents cross-site/host/domain/port sourcing of material. Subconscious is meant to solve that by providing a ‘protocol for thoughts’.

This leaves me with a range of questions.

  • Subconscious is meant to solve same origin policy. SOP however seems to be a client (i.e. browser) enforced thing, focused on (java)scripts, and otherwise e.g. ignores HTML. Apps are/can be viewers like browsers are viewers. So why isn’t the web suitable, with the app or a tweaked browser on top? Why a whole new ‘infrastructure’ over the internet? That sounds like it wants to solve a whole lot more than same origin to remove the bias towards silos. What are those additional things?
  • The intended target is to make the internet a better tool for thought. Such thoughts are text based it seems so what does Subsoncsious do in contrast to current text based thoughts shared that e.g. the web doesn’t?
  • Assuming Subconscious does what it intends, how do we get from a ‘low level infrastructure’ to the stated overarching aim of thinking together globally? I see texts, that may or not be expressed thoughts, being linked and shared like web resources, how do we get to ‘thinking together’ from there? The talk at Render paid tribute to that at the beginning but doesn’t show how it would be done (and the invocation of the Xanadu project at the start might well be meaningful in that sense), not even in any ‘and then the magic happens to get to the finish line’ fashion. Is the magic supposed to be emergent, like I and others assumed the web and social software would do 20-30 years ago? Is it enough to merely have a ‘protocol for thoughts’? What about non-infrastructure type decision and consensus building tools like Liquid Feedback or Audrey Tang’s quadratic voting in vTaiwan? Those are geared to action, and seem more immediately useful towards solving global issues, don’t they?

I’ll be hanging out in the Discord server, you can too (invite link), and going through Gordon Brander’s earlier postings, to see if I can better understand what this is about.

Here are some impressions of my increased usage of Hypothes.is, a social annotation tool, in the past few days.
I follow Chris Aldrich his Hypothes.is RSS feed, and his usage has been both a good example and source of learning in the past months, as well as a nudge to experiment and adopt Hypothes.is myself.

What follows is a list of some early impressions that I formulated earlier today in an email. I thought I might as well post them here.

  • I played with the API to get a grip of how I might interact with the annotations I make, and with those of others I’m interested in. Added the existence of annotations to my blogposts in WordPress through the API too.
  • The Obsidian plugin to get annotations into my notes is an absolute prerequisite, because I need those notes in my own workflow.
  • I find working in browser for annotations somewhat distracting and uncomfortable (and I need to remind myself that they will end up in my notes, I feel the urge to also download it directly to my notes.)
  • I try to add an Archive link to the annotated article as the first link. It is slowly becoming habitual.
  • I mention existing notes in my annotations when I make them in Obsidian. Because it is one context that is a matter of starting a link [[ and I have forward search through all note titles. In hypothes.is being browser based this is a bit harder, as it means switching tools to retrieve the correct note titles. They do then work when they end up in Obsidian of course. At the same time, in my earlier use of a markdown downloader I would just mention those associations in the motivation to save a link, which is worse. Hypothes.is sits in the middle of saving a bookmark with motivation and annotating in Obsidian itself.
  • I do have some performative urges when annotating publicly. Maybe they will disappear over time.
  • The firefox hypothes.is bookmarklet I use doesn’t seem to play nice with archive.org. There’s another I haven’t tested yet.
  • I notice that any public annotations are licensed CC0 (public domain). Not sure what I think about that yet. It’s a logical step as such, but I don’t fully see yet what it may mean for subseqeunt learning processes internally and further down the process of creating insights or outputs. Is CC0 also applied to closed groups (educational settings e.g.)? Private annotations are just that, and don’t have CC0, but then you miss out on the social aspects of annotation.
  • My thoughts keep wandering to interacting with hypothes.is without using it directly to annotate webarticles through the browser. Are there any tools or people who build on or share with hypothes.is using the W3C standards / API, but don’t necessarily use hypothes.is themselves? Or run their own instance, which should be possible? I suspect that would open opportunities for a more liquid experience between this blog, my notes, and annotated articles.

In reply to [Bookmark] No End to Content Overload by Frank Meeuwsen

Inderdaad er is altijd meer materiaal dan je tot je kunt nemen. Je tip is herkenbaar, focus op de diversiteit in je eigen netwerk en op je eigen nieuwsgierigheid. Aanvullende tip: digitaal is het makkelijker heel verschillende stemmen een plek te geven in wat je tot je neemt en met wie je interacteert. Mijn via RSS gevolgde netwerk is een stuk diverser dan mijn toch cultureel en geografisch sterk bepaalde netwerk hier om me heen in Nederland.

Een tip: omring je met mensen die iets anders lezen en luisteren dan jij en praat er met elkaar over. Zo heb je een leuke dag én je leert iets nieuws.

Frank Meeuwsen

Bookmarked Using GPT-3 to augment human intelligence: Learning through open-ended conversations with large language models by Henrik Olof Karlsson

Wow, this essay comes with a bunch of examples of using the GPT-3 language model in such fascinating ways. Have it stage a discussion between two famous innovators and duke it out over a fundamental question, run your ideas by an impersonation of Steve Jobs, use it to first explore a new domain to you (while being aware that GPT-3 will likely confabulate a bunch of nonsense). Just wow.
Some immediate points:

  • Karlsson talks about prompt engineering, to make the model spit out what you want more closely. Prompt design is an important feature in large scale listening, to tap into a rich interpreted stream of narrated experiences. I can do prompt design to get people to share their experiences, and it would be fascinating to try that experience out on GPT-3.
  • He mentions Matt Webbs 2020 post about prompting, quoting “it’s down to the human user to interview GPT-3“. This morning I’ve started reading Luhmann’s Communicating with Slip Boxes with a view to annotation. Luhmann talks about the need for his notes collection to be thematically open ended, and the factual status or not of information to be a result of the moment of communication. GPT-3 is trained with the internet, and it hallucinates. Now here we are communicating with it, interviewing it, to elicit new thoughts, ideas and perspectives, similar to what Luhmann evocatively describes as communication with his notes. That GPT-3 results can be totally bogus is much less relevant as it’s the interaction that leads to new notions within yourself, and you’re not after using GPT-3s output as fact or as a finished result.
  • Are all of us building notes collections, especially those mimicking Luhmann as if it was the originator of such systems of note taking, actually better off learning to prompt and interrogate GPT-3?
  • Karlsson writes about treating GPT-3 as an interface to the internet, which allows using GPT-3 as a research assistant. In a much more specific way than he describes this is what the tool Elicit I just mentioned here does based on GPT-3 too. You give Elicit your research question as a prompt and it will come up with relevant papers that may help answer it.

On first reading this is like opening a treasure trove, albeit a boobytrapped one. Need to go through this in much more detail and follow up on sources and associations.

Some people already do most of their learning by prompting GPT-3 to write custom-made essays about things they are trying to understand. I’ve talked to people who prompt GPT-3 to give them legal advice and diagnose their illnesses. I’ve talked to men who let their five-year-olds hang out with GPT-3, treating it as an eternally patient uncle, answering questions, while dad gets on with work.

Henrik Olof Karlsson