A note taking problem and a proposed solution

tl;dr

It’s too painful to quickly get frequent notes into note taking and related platforms. Hypothes.is has an open API and a great UI that can be leveraged to simplify note taking processes.

Note taking tools

I’ve been keeping notes in systems like OneNote and Evernote for ages, but for my memory-related research and work in combination with my commonplace book for the last year, I’ve been alternately using TiddlyWiki (with TiddlyBlink) and WordPress (it’s way more than a blog.)

I’ve also dabbled significantly enough with related systems like Roam Research, Obsidian, Org mode/Org Roam, MediaWiki, DocuWiki, and many others to know what I’m looking for.

Many of these, particularly those that can be used alternately as commonplace books and zettelkasten appeal to me greatly when they include the idea of backlinks. (I’ve been using Webmention to leverage that functionality in WordPress settings, and MediaWiki gives it grudgingly with the “what links to this page” basic functionality that can be leveraged into better transclusion if necessary.)

The major problem with most note taking tools

The final remaining problem I’ve found with almost all of these platforms is being able to quickly and easily get data into them so that I can work with or manipulate it. For me the worst part of note taking is the actual taking of notes. Once I’ve got them, I can do some generally useful things with them—it’s literally the physical method of getting data from a web page, book, or other platform into the actual digital notebook that is the most painful, mindless, and useless thing for me.

Evernote and OneNote

Older note taking services like Evernote and OneNote come with browser bookmarklets or mobile share functionality that make taking notes and extracting data from web sources simple and straightforward. Then once the data is in your notebook you can actually do some work with it. Sadly neither of these services has the backlinking functionality that I find has become de rigueur for my note taking or knowledge wrangling needs.

WordPress

My WordPress solutions are pretty well set since that workflow is entirely web-based and because WordPress has both bookmarklet and Micropub support. There I’m primarily using a variety of feeds and services to format data into a usable form that I can use to ping my Micropub endpoint. The Micropub plugin handles the post and most of the meta data I care about.

It would be great if other web services had support for Micropub this way too, as I could see some massive benefits to MediaWiki, Roam Research, and TiddlyWiki if they had this sort of support. The idea of Micropub has such great potential for great user interfaces. I could also see many of these services modifying projects like Omnibear to extend themselves to create highlighting (quoting) and annotating functionality with a browser extension.

With this said, I’m finding that the user interface piece that I’m missing for almost all of these note taking tools is raw data collection.

I’m not the sort of person whose learning style (or memory) is benefited by writing or typing out notes into my notebooks. I’d far rather just have it magically happen. Even copying and pasting data from a web browser into my digital notebook is a painful and annoying process, especially when you’re reading and collecting/curating as many notes as I tend to. I’d rather be able to highlight, type some thoughts and have it appear in my notebook. This would prevent the flow of my reading, thinking, and short annotations from being subverted by the note collection process.

Different modalities for content consumption and note taking 

Based on my general experience there are only a handful of different spaces where I’m typically making notes.

Reading online

A large portion of my reading these days is done in online settings. From newspapers, magazines, journal articles and more, I’m usually reading them online and taking notes from them there.

.pdf texts

Some texts I want to read (often books and journal articles) only live in .pdf form. While reading them in an app-specific setting has previously been my preference, I’ve taken to reading them from within browsers. I’ll explain why in just a moment, but it has to do with a tool that treats this method the same as the general online modality. I’ll note that most of the .pdf  specific apps have dreadful data export—if any.

Reading e-books (Kindle, e-readers, etc.)

If it’s not online or in .pdf format, I’m usually reading books within a Kindle or other e-reading device. These are usually fairly easy to add highlights, annotations, and notes to. While there are some paid apps that can extract these notes, I don’t find it too difficult to find the raw file and cut and paste the data into my notebook of choice. Once there, going through my notes, reformatting them (if necessary), tagging them and expanding on them is not only relatively straightforward, but it also serves as a simple method for doing a first pass of spaced repetition and review for better long term recall.

Lectures

Naturally taking notes from live lectures, audiobooks, and other spoken events occurs, but more often in these cases, I’m typically able to type them directly into my notebook of preference or I’m using something like my digital Livescribe pen for notes which get converted by OCR and are easy enough to convert in bulk into a digital notebook. I won’t belabor this part further, though if others have quick methods, I’d love to hear them.

Physical books

While I love a physical book 10x more than the next 100 people, I’ve been trying to stay away from them because I find that though they’re easy to highlight, underline, and annotate the margins, it takes too much time and effort (generally useless for memory purposes for me) to transfer these notes into a digital notebook setting. And after all, it’s the time saving piece I’m after here, so my preference is to read in some digital format if at all possible.

A potential solution for most of these modalities

For several years now, I’ve been enamored of the online Hypothes.is annotation tool. It’s open source, allows me reasonable access to my data from the (free) hosted version, and has a simple, beautiful, and fast process for bookmarking, highlighting, and annotating online texts on desktop and mobile. It works exceptionally well for both web pages and when reading .pdf texts within a browser window.

I’ve used it daily to make several thousand annotations on 800+ online web pages and documents. I’m not sure how I managed without it before. It’s the note taking tool I wished I’d always had. It’s a fun and welcome part of my daily life. It does exactly what I want it to and generally stays out of the way otherwise. I love it and recommend it unreservedly. It’s helped me to think more deeply and interact more directly with countless texts.

When reading on desktop or mobile platforms, it’s very simple to tap a browser extension and have all their functionality immediately available. I can quickly highlight a section of a text and their UI pops open to allow me to annotate, tag it, and publish. I feel like it’s even faster than posting something to Twitter. It is fantastically elegant.

The one problem I have with it is that while it’s great for collecting and aggregating my note data into my Hypothes.is account, there’s not much I can do with it once it’s there. It’s missing the notebook functionality some of these other services provide. I wish I could plug all my annotation and highlight content into spaced repetition systems or move it around and modify it within a notebook where it might be more interactive and cross linked for the long term. Sadly I don’t think that any of this sort of functionality is on Hypothes.is’ roadmap any time soon.

There is some great news however! Hypothes.is is open source and has a reasonable API. This portends some exciting things! This means that any of these wiki, zettelkasten, note taking, or spaced repetition services could leverage the UI for collecting data and pipe it into their interfaces for direct use.

As an example, what if I could quickly tell Obsidian to import all my pre-existing and future Hypothes.is data directly into my Obsidian vault for manipulating as notes? (And wouldn’t you know, the small atomic notes I get by highlighting and annotating are just the sort that one would like in a zettelkasten!) What if I could pick and choose specific course-related data from my reading and note taking in Hypothes.is (perhaps by tag or group) for import into Anki to quickly create some flash cards for spaced repetition review? For me, this combination would be my dream application!

These small pieces, loosely joined can provide some awesome opportunities for knowledge workers, students, researchers, and others. The education focused direction that Hypothes.is, many of these note taking platforms, and spaced repetition systems are all facing positions them to make a super-product that we all want and need.

An experiment

So today, as a somewhat limited experiment, I played around with my Hypothes.is atom feed (https://hypothes.is/stream.atom?user=chrisaldrich, because you know you want to subscribe to this) and piped it into IFTTT. Each post creates a new document in a OneDrive file which I can convert to a markdown .md file that can be picked up by my Obsidian client. While I can’t easily get the tags the way I’d like (because they’re not included in the feed) and the formatting is incredibly close, but not quite there, the result is actually quite nice.

Since I can “drop” all my new notes into a particular folder, I can easily process them all at a later date/time if necessary. In fact, I find that the fact that I might want to revisit all my notes to do quick tweaks or adding links or additional thoughts provides the added benefit of a first round of spaced repetition for the notes I took.

Some notes may end up being deleted or reshuffled, but one thing is clear: I’ve never been able to so simply highlight, annotate, and take notes on documents online and get them into my notebook so quickly. And when I want to do something with them, there they are, already sitting in my notebook for manipulation, cross-linking, spaced repetition, and review.

So if the developers of any of these platforms are paying attention, I (and I’m sure others) really can’t wait for plugin integrations using the full power of the Hypothes.is API that allow us to all leverage Hypothes.is’ user interface to make our workflows seamlessly simple.

Read Best Roam Research alternative? Amplenote offers more for less (amplenote.com)
Amplenote and Roam are more different than they are similar, but there are still many common touchpoints. Below, we'll outline how the two compare as of mid-2020. If you would like to import your Roam JSON file to see how it compares in Amplenote, you can start a free trial and then try out our Roam Research Importer here. Paid annually, Amplenote pricing ranges from about $5/month to $25/month.
Looks like yet another silo version of a note taking application. I think I’d prefer something more IndieWeb.
Replied to Hey Pressto! Conference 2020 Submissions (2020.heypresstoconf.org)
Hello, it’s great you want to submit. Any issues please contact us. If you’d like help with your idea, feel free to contact us too. We want to help. You have until Midnight on September the 3rd to submit your idea

Using WordPress as a Digital Commonplace Book

A personal website is more than a blog. Rather than spread my digital identity & data across social media, I keep it in one spot for (re)search & re-use. I’ll show how my site is an evolution of the Renaissance era commonplace book, digital garden, second brain, or zettelkasten.

Read On Digital Gardens, Blogs, Personal Spaces, and the Future by Justin Tadlock (WordPress Tavern)
I have been thinking a lot about digital gardens this week. A blog post by Tom McFarlin re-introduced me to the term, which led me down a rabbit hole of interesting ideas on creating a digital space…

My blog posts were merely random thoughts — bits and pieces of my life. 

Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:52AM

Despite having something that worked sort of like a blog, I maintained various resources and links of other neat ideas I found around the web. It was a digital garden that I tended, occasionally plucking weeds and planting new ideas that may someday blossom into something more. 

The idea of a thought space hiding in here….
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:53AM

“The idea of a ‘blog’ needs to get over itself,” wrote Joel Hooks in a post titled Stop Giving af and Start Writing More. “Everybody is treating writing as a ‘content marketing strategy’ and using it to ‘build a personal brand’ which leads to the fundamental flawed idea that everything you post has to be polished to perfection and ready to be consumed.”
It is almost as if he had reached down into my soul and figured out why I no longer had the vigor I once had for sharing on my personal blog. For far too long, I was trying to brand myself. Posts became few and far between. I still shared a short note, aside, once in a while, but much of what I shared was for others rather than myself. 

For many, social media took over their “streams” of thoughts and ideas to the point that they forgot to sit, reflect, and write something longer (polished or not).

Personal websites used for yourself first is a powerful idea for collecting, thinking, and creating.

Getting away from “branding” is a great idea. Too many personal sites are used for this dreadful thing. I’d much rather see the edge ideas and what they flower into.
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:56AM

Personal websites can be so much more than a progression of posts over time, newer posts showing up while everything from the past is neatly tucked on “page 2” and beyond. 

This is an interesting idea and too many CMSes are missing this sort of UI baked into them as a core idea. CMSes could do a better job of doing both: the garden AND the stream
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:57AM

While I lament the loss of some of the artistry of the early web and lay much of the blame at the feet of blogging platforms like WordPress, such platforms also opened the web to far more people who would not have otherwise been able to create a website. Democratizing publishing is a far loftier goal than dropping animated GIFs across personal spaces. 

WordPress has done a lot to democratize publishing and make portions of it easier, but has it gone too far in crystalizing the form of things by not having more wiki-like or curation-based features?
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 10:01AM

Throughout the platform’s history, end-users have remained at the mercy of their WordPress theme. Most themes are built around what WordPress allows out of the box. They follow a similar formula. Some may have a fancy homepage or other custom page templates. But, on the whole, themes have been primarily built around the idea of a blog. Such themes do not give the user true control over where to place things on their website. While some developers have attempted solutions to this, most have never met the towering goal of putting the power of HTML and CSS into the hands of users through a visual interface. This lack of tools has given rise to page builders and the block editor. 

an apropos criticsm
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 10:02AM

I also want them to be able to easily build something like Tom Critchlow’s wikifolder, a digital collection of links, random thoughts, and other resources.
More than anything, I want personal websites to be more personal. 

Those in the IndieWeb want this too!! I definitely do.
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 10:03AM

Replied to What I'm Excited About with Joining the Indie Web by Tracy DurnellTracy Durnell (Cascadia Inspired)
I've always been about having my own site instead of relying on companies, but the IndieWeb represents a new philosophy and approach to using the internet.
This just tickles me pink.

And now we’re going to have to nerd out on digital gardens and commonplace books too…

Read Hypothes.is Collector by John Stewart (johnastewart.org)
One of my favorite online tools is Hypothes.is. It allows you to annotate web pages as you would a book. When you’re using Hypothes.is you can highlight text on a webpage or add notes. The tool can be used to take private notes, but it becomes all the more powerful when you use it for collaborat...
Read Tuesday 19 May, 2020 by John NaughtonJohn Naughton (memex.naughtons.org)
How to read
Good things happen quickly, sometimes
I’ve been away from the Memex for a while and just catching up. Interesting to see John has been keeping a Quarantine Diary in the form of a microcast for quite a while.
Read Seneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity (Farnam Street)
“Combinatory play,” said Einstein, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” Ruminating on the necessity of both reading and writing, so as not to confine ourselves to either, Seneca in one of his Epistles, advised that we engage in Combinatorial Creativity — that is, gath...

“Combinatory play,” said Einstein, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” 

excellent quote

Annotated on May 20, 2020 at 12:17AM

cull the flowers 

definitely reminiscent of the idea of floriligeum (or anthology)

Annotated on May 20, 2020 at 12:19AM

The Loeb Classic Library collection of Seneca’s Epistles in three volumes (1-65, 66-92, and 92-124), should be read by all in its entirety. Of course, if you don’t have time to read them all, you can read a heavily curated version of them. 

Annotated on May 20, 2020 at 12:21AM

Read Commonplace Books: Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity (Farnam Street)
Commonplace books are personal knowledge libraries; notebooks full of collected ideas and bits of wisdom all mixed up together. Here, we take a look at their history and benefits.
There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when you have occasion for anything, you can’t use it...

Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques. 

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:38PM

“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes Professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”
Arranged under ‘Heads’ and recorded as ‘common-places’ (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices. 

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:51PM

Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory. Yeo writes,
This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. This imagined space was then searched for the images and ideas it contained…. In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory. 

I particularly love the way this highlights the phrase “‘placed’ in the memory” because the idea of loci as a place has been around so long that we tacitly use it as a verb so naturally in conjunction with memory!

Note here how the author Richard Yeo manages not to use the phrase memory palace or method of loci.Was this on purpose?
Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:56PM

While calling memory “the store-house of our ideas,” John Locke recognized its limitations.
On the one hand, it was an incredible source of knowledge.
On the other hand, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time, memory faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. 

As most humanists of the time may have had incredibly well-trained memories (particularly in comparison with the general loss of the art now), this is particularly interesting to me. Having had a great memory, the real value of these writings and materials is to help their memories dramatically outlive their own lifetimes. This is particularly useful as their systems of passing down ideas via memory was dramatically different than those of indigenous peoples who had a much more institutionalized version of memory methods and passing along their knowledge.

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:00PM

“Extraordinary Commonplaces,” Robert Darnton 

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:03PM

Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant. 

This is incredibly important for me, though in a more technology friendly age, I’ve got tools like Hypothes.is for quickly highlighting and annotating pages and can then later collect them into my commonplace book as notes to work with and manage after-the-fact.

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:07PM

The aim of these books wasn’t regurgitation but rather combinatorial creativity. People were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone — in this case, information — is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play. 

I was really hoping for so much more in this essay on the combinatorial creativity, espcially since the author threw the idea into the title. The real meat must be in the two linked articles about Seneca and Einstein.

There is a slight mention of combinatorics in the justaposition of pieces within one’s commonplace book, and a mention that these books may date back to the 12th century where they were probably more influenced by the combinatoric creativity of Raymond Lull. It’s still an open question for me just how far back the idea of commonplaces goes as well as how far back Lull’s combinatoric pieces go…

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:13PM

Read John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books (Farnam Street)
“You know that I voluntarily communicated this method to you, as I have done to many others, to whom I believed it would not be unacceptable.”  In 1685 English physician and philosopher John Locke published “Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils,” which explains his unique method of ind...

People in the Renaissance broke texts into fragments and used these to assemble and connect. It was, perhaps, the original remix culture and ultimate foundation of creativity. 

I’m wondering if I’m going to see signs of Raymond Lull’s ideas here?

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:05PM

In going down rabbit holes relating to wikis for Saturday’s IWC pop up event, I came across Mark Bernstein’s (@eastgate) Storyspace and Tinderbox products from the early 1990’s, and I couldn’t help but thinking that Roam Research (@RoamResearch) is reinventing an old wheel.

It’s all rather similar to TiddlyWiki with TiddlyBlink and TiddlyMaps added as well. While most of these are private note taking tools, I can’t help but wonder if making the data public may actually be the linchpin for adding tremendous value?

Replied to a tweet by James BernardJames Bernard (Twitter)
James, I’ve been watching a few people use public-facing TiddlyWikis for “hyperchat“. One of them also has it set up with Webmention functionality so that other sites can send it notifications (though they’re not yet displaying them). To me this looks like the beginning of a different sort of social network and online communication.

I ran across an example yesterday of someone using a private local TiddlyWiki as a static site web generator, which is quite different from people hosting them directly on web servers.

I’m interested in off-label use cases for wikis (particularly in the vein of commonplace books), so do let us know when your article comes out.

Replied to Questions (Reclaim Hosting Community)
Everyone has questions and most likely someone here has an answer for you. Whether it be about hosting, domains, or anything else you need help with, this is the place to ask.
I’ve been looking closer at wikis, online commonplace books, and similar personal/work/lab/research notebooks recently and have come across TiddlyWiki as a useful, simple, but very flexible possibility.

While most of its ecosystem revolves around methods for running the program locally (and often privately) or in Google or Dropbox storage, I’ve come across a growing number of people hosting their instances on their own servers and using them publicly as a melange of personal websites, blogs, and wikis.

Has anyone tried hosting one (particularly the newer TW5) through Reclaim before? Of the many methods, I’m curious which may be the easiest/simplest from a set up perspective?

Here are some interesting examples I’ve come across:
* “A Thesis Notebook” by Alberto Molina
* PESpot Lesson Planner by Patrick Detzner (this one seems to be heavily modified)
* sphygm.us