This is a brief description of how I make my ‘notions’, which are permanent notes I keep as part of my private digital garden (titled ‘Garden of the Forking Paths‘). I choose a title and type “.nu” which inserts the current timestamp (as shown above in the title), ensuring unique titles. I use TextExpander for such keyboard shortcuts. This means I don’t have to use e.g. the ‘Zettelkasten’ plugin for my note taking tool Obsidian, or deal with the fact that such plugins never precisely match your personal preferences. It also means I can change my process anytime I like.

If the notion is based on a blogpost or presentation or other material I wrote, then I will change the timestamp (and the tags at the bottom) to reflect the date of that post / presentation / document.

Then I write the content of the notion.

I include at least one link to an existing notion e.g. something like [[Notes input tactics 20200728173504]], but usually more.

If I think it needs more work then I can do now, I add the tag #aanscherpen (Dutch for ‘sharpen’)

Where applicable I include references of one or more of three types:
Ref: something I just directly name here, a person, book, or ‘my presentation 2018 at conference X’
Ref blog: the url to one of my own bloposts
Ref Zotero: something that can be found in my reference library in Zotero.

I end with tags which look like #2020-, #2020-09, #2020-0913, which represent the year, year and month, and date of the creation of the note. This is done by using a shortcut (“/now”) as well. These tags allow me to search by year, month and exact date, as well as allow me to create timelines if needed. E.g. the screenshot below shows my Notions dated July 2003, found by searching the tag #2003-07.

This morning I wrote my 300th notion, the term I use for my permanent notes (it was on how the societal impacts of novel infrastructures change the scope and paths of your empathy). These notions I started writing from July 8th, so it took about two months. I hadn’t written almost any in the past week or two, and that felt uncomfortable. Thinking about it I realised I wasn’t going through my old presentations as much anymore, and just picking a presentation from the list helped me get back into it. Regularly those presentations contain 1 idea per slide, so they are a rich source. A second much used source are my existing blog posts. Each day I look at which postings I created on this date in the previous 17 years of this blog.

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. Likely there will be a point where I’ve worked through most of my existing material, and new notions will come more from reading novel material, reading other people’s material. This will take more effort I expect, because I’d need to digest my reading and think about it before lifting out the bits I want to keep. That’s different from what is now basically transcribing my slides or my old blogposts. Likely it will need a slightly different process, with more notes in the process of turning into notions in parallel.

I just realised that it’s a month this Friday that I started using markdown textfiles and Obsidian for notes, and that I have not used my local WordPress install at all during that time, nor Evernote much. I made 4 notes in EN in a month: 1 bookmark, 1 shopping list, 2 call logs. Compared to 47 notes the month prior to it.

Day logs and work notes are now in markdown files, internal wikipages are now my Garden of the Forking Path notes in markdown files. Those were previously in my local WP install. Bookmarks aren’t mindlessly send to Evernote at a touch of a button anymore, with the vague intention of reading later and/or having it come up in a search at some point in the future. Reading ‘later’ never really works for me (Instapaper never succeeded in really landing in my workflow). So now it’s either I read it and want to keep it for reference by adding a snapshot to Zotero, or I did not read it and trust that if it’s important it will resurface at some point again. Other elements in my use of Evernote I’ve recreated on the go in text files quite naturally: Folders for each of my areas of activity match up with what I have as Notebooks in EN.

It feels like coming full circle, as I have for the most part been note taking in simple text files since the late ’80s. I started paying for Evernote in 2010, after using the free version for a while, and used wiki in parallel to text files for note taking for a number of years before that (2004-2008 I think). 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. Tools like Obsidian, Foam and others like it are mere viewers on top of those text files in my file system. Viewers that add useful things like visualising connections, and showing multiple queries on the underlying files in parallel. It adds what was missing. So after a month, I am getting more convinced that I am on a path ditching Evernote.

Time to start syncing some of my notes folders to my phone (through NextCloud), and choose a good editor for Android, so I can add/use/edit them there too.

I’ve been exploring my note taking, trying to shape it as a more deliberate practice. As part of that exploration I’ve been reading Sönke Ahrens ‘How to take smart notes’ on Luhmann‘s Zettelkasten (now digitised). More later on that book. What stands out in all things I find about note taking is the importance of taking time to process. Going through notes iteratively, at least once after you created them first.

My own main issue with a lot of the stuff I collect, is just that, it’s a collection. They’re not notes, so the collection mostly never gets used. Of course I also have a heap of written notes, from conversations, presentations I attended etc. There too a second step is missing, that of going through it to really digest it and lift the things out that are of interest to myself and taking note of that. Putting it into the context of the things I’m interested in. The thing I regularly do is marking elements in notes I took afterwards (e.g. marking them as an idea, an action, or something to blog), but that is not lifting them out of the original notes into a place and form where they might get re-used. Ahrens/Luhmann suggest to daily take time for a first step of processing rough notes (the thinking about the notes and capturing the results). Tiago Forte describes a process of progressive summarisation, every time you happen to go back to something you captured (often other’s content), for up to 4 iterations.

There are different steps to shape in such a process. There is how material gets collected / ends up in my inbox, and there’s the second stage of capturing things from it.
I started with looking at reading non-fiction books. With my new e-ink reader, it is easy to export any notes / markings I make in or alongside a book. Zotero is a good tool to capture bibliographic references, and allows me to add those exported notes easily. This covers the first step of getting material in a place I can process it.

The second step, creating notes based on me digesting my reading, I’m now experimenting which form that should take. There are several note apps that might be useful, but some assume too much about the usage process, which is a form of lock-in itself, or store it in a way that might create a hurdle further down the line. So, to get a feel for how I want to make those notes I am first doing it in tools I already use, to see how that feels in terms of low barrier to entry and low friction while doing it. Those two tools are a) Evernote (yes I know, I want to ditch Evernote, but using it now is a way of seeing what is process friction, what is tool friction), and b) my local WordPress instance, that basically works as a Wiki for me. I’m adding key board shortcuts using TextExpander to help easily adding structure to my notes. I’ll do that for a few days to be able to compare.

I made 7 note cards in the past 2 days, and as the number grows, it will get easier to build links between them, threading them, which is part of what I want to experience.

Last week I treated myself with an Boox Nova2 e-ink Android tablet, after reading about it in Robert Lender’s blog. (Meanwhile he has blogged his first impressions and experiences, in German) For most of the week the device sat on my desk, as I didn’t have time yet to take a proper look. Today I finally tried my hand at working with the device, so here are some first impressions.

The Nova2 is intended as a work device for me. To read non-fiction and annotate, as well as for handwritten notes and sketches. It therefore needs to be a seamless part of my workflow, meaning that things I write or annotate need to easily flow into other steps and the tools connected to those steps. Handwritten notes to be either exported as is, or transposed into text. Annotations exported and retrievable. The crucial thing for that is the ability to escape the specific silo a device is part of.

The Nova2 promises a handful of useful things:

  • Syncing with various cloud tools (Evernote, Dropbox e.g.),
  • E-mailing,
  • Handwritten note taking,
  • Multilingual text recognition of handwritten notes,
  • Run a variety of e-reader apps as a generic Android tablet
  • Optimise it for left handed use

My first impressions are only about trying those things out. Once I’ve done that, I can start looking at the workflow of the device itself, and the fit with the rest of my workflow.

It starts up slowly I feel.

It’s a Chinese product, so despite it being an Android device, there’s no preloaded Google stuff on it. That isn’t a big issue, on the contrary, but to use it as an e-reader I also wanted to have the Kindle app installed and that required the Google store. It took me several attempts to get it loaded, until I realised I had to register the device with Onyx first as well. That was a simple as giving it an e-mail address (a unique one as per usual), and typing in the confirmation code received on that mail address. I’m not sure what activating it with Onyx means. I’m not synchronising with the Onyx platform, but I’m not fully sure nothing gets send there. After that connecting it to a Google account and loading the Google store was easy. I also connected my Evernote account, which worked flawlessly.

I set the device up to push my handwritten notes to Evernote. That at first didn’t work. As it turns out this too was because the device wasn’t registered yet with Onyx. So after I got the Google store working, pushing to Evernote also worked.

I set up a new email address, that IMAPs to my mail server from the mail app on the device. This should mean I can also mail notes (to various other applications I’ve given an email address, like my Kindles, my blogs etc.)

Handwriting on devices I’ve never much liked, such as on an iPad, or using the Wacom A4 sized writing pad I use on my desk. Too often it feels like writing with your finger, it lacks fine motor control, and the feedback is usually slightly off, making writing awkward and the result illegible. My handwriting is already hard enough to read in the best of circumstances. This device handles it very well, I’m impressed. I’ve set it up for left handed writing, also meaning I moved the controls to the right hand side of the screen. Writing in the notes app that comes with the Nova2 is really good, and feels natural, also as the protective adhesive layer helps provide the right type of resistance like you have on paper. Hand writing in Evernote doesn’t work. It’s the ‘fat finger’ style of writing again, and the writing shows up on the screen a bit down and to the right of where the pen tip actually is, making it really hard to continue in the spot you left off a second or two earlier.

When you write in the device’s notes app, you have an ‘AI’ option to turn it into text. It will try to also interpret doodles, so you can’t really use it if you have notes and doodles on the same page. For just text at first I got very weird results, but then remembered I should set the language right. Once I did that, letting the writing recognition function know the notes are in Dutch, then it worked fine. Transmogrifying my handwriting into text is done online somewhere, so the device needs to be connected. I don’t know where my notes end up to be processed. I take notes in Dutch and English mostly, sometimes in German. My notes usually contain both Dutch and English at the same time. It seems that I can only select one language for the text recognition algorithm, so that isn’t optimal. That it is able to process Dutch at all is a step up from other apps and devices I tried.

I’ve installed several reading apps, next to the Onyx one itself: Kindle and Kobo. I keep my e-book library in Calibre (and I really should add my more recent Amazon purchases there), and it should therefore be possible to also load books into the native reader app. Likely that is the fastest one after all.
However, I haven’t succeeded yet in connecting the Nova2 to my laptop over USB. My filetransfer application sees the device as locked all the time, so I can’t access its storage. This is something I need to figure out, as this is the preferred route to move files between Calibre and the Nova2. It is possible to transfer files via wifi. If you go to the devices IP address in your local network (the Nova2 will tell you what its IP address is), then you get a html page allowing you to select files to upload. Doing that, I got some epubs and pdfs loaded on the Nova2 to read. [UPDATE plugging the Nova2 into the other USB port on my Mac, Calibre launches automatically as it immediately recognises the device. Android File Transfer does not see the device at all on that port, where it does see it on the first port but as locked. With Calibre working I can now manage the books on the Nova2 well]

We visited “O’Hanlons Heroes” yesterday, in the local natural history museum (Twentse Welle). In this exposition by Redmond O’Hanlon, in parallel to a previous tv series, he follows in the footsteps of all his 19th century explore heroes.

19th Century Notebook
19th century explorer’s notebook

What jumped out for me, once again, from all the displays, is that taking notes of each and every thing is a key habit. Because you never know what will have meaning afterwards, or which patterns jump out at you when you take a step back.

A good reminder that all those notebooks, the 20.000+ photos, all the stuff in Evernote, 12 years of blogging isn’t useless. Even if for most of the time I never look at it. It is raw material. Taking notes are for taking note.