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.

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…

Learning Paths Annotations and Highlights to One’s Website Using ThreadReaderApp

Some small pieces, loosely joined for owning one’s highlights online.

I ran across a Chrome extension for highlights, annotations, and tagging tonight. It’s called Learning Paths. It works roughly as advertised for creating and saving highlights and annotations online. With a social silo log in process (I didn’t see an email login option), you’ve quickly got an account on the service.

You can then use the extension to highlight, tag, and annotate web pages. One can export their data as a .csv file which is nice. They’ve also got an online dashboard which displays all your data and has the ability to see public data from other users as well.

Screencapture of the Learning Paths UI for their Chrome extension

One of the interesting pieces they support is allowing users to tweet a thread from all their highlights of a piece online. Upon seeing this I thought it might make a useful feature for getting data into one’s personal wiki, website, or digital garden, particularly now that  ThreadReaderApp supports posting unrolled Twitter threads to one’s Micropub enabled website

So the workflow goes something like this (with links to examples of my having tried it along the way):

Screencapture example of ThreadReaderApp’s Authored Threads tab interface

While this works relatively well, there are a few drawbacks:

  • The UI for the annotations is a bit flaky at times and in my experience often disappears before you’ve had a chance to save them.
  • The workflow misses out on any of the annotations and tags you might add to each of the highlights (unless you manually add them to the thread, and even then you may run out of space/characters).
  • The appearance of the thread on your site is simply what you get.

While the idea works roughly in practice, it isn’t as optimal as the workflow or data fidelity I’ve found in using more robust tooling like that found in Hypothes.is for which I’ve also built a better UI on my website.

Still others, might appreciate the idea, so have at it! I’d love to see others’ ideas about owning their highlights, annotations, and related data in a place they control.

 

Sarah, (@practicing_dsgn) there are a few Homebrew Website Clubs coming up on July 15, 22, and 29. Would you like to co-host one of them with me? We could also use another co-organizer to help get a Gardens & Streams II pop-up session up and running if you’re interested in helping out there.
Liked a tweet by Nikita Voloboev (Twitter)
There are now so many digital gardens discussions spread across the web, it may be time to make a feed to aggregate them all. Collections and curation can become a big problem quickly…
Read Blog graph by Dima GerasimovDima Gerasimov (beepb00p.xyz)

This is an experiment, an alternative way to represent blog posts, as a graph. Click this if you want to get back to the plain list.

The idea is that if you encounter a blog, it's often unclear how to start reading it: typically it's an overwhelming linear list of posts, ordered by date. (thanks Jonathan for bringing my attention to it!)

Representing as a graph allows to relax this linear structure by introducing a partial order (shown by edges). You can start reading from a title that seems most interesting to you, and keep exploring the related posts.

  • clicking on a post title brings you to the post
  • clicking on a tag will bring you to the description of the tag
  • clicking on a date will highlight all connections to the corresponding post, to make the navigation easier
  • clusters correspond to 'themes' (although it's pretty fuzzy)

If you have any ideas on improving this page, or notice any problems, please let me know! You can find the source here.

An interesting visualization for the content in a blog. Somewhat reminiscent of the modus operandi of TiddlyMap. 

This is the sort of thing that Maggie Appleton and the digital gardens gang would appreciate.

Liked a tweet by Maggie Appleton (Twitter)
Read 7 Things Roam Did Right by tre (Proses.ID)
Sections Seven things Roam did rightPotentialsIs Roam just a fad, a shiny new tool?All the small thingsAnecdotesThe trifecta: getting things into, out of, and across heads Roam Research is a phenomenon that took the tools for thought space by storm. Let’s appreciate the seven things it did right a...
Followed Theresia Tanzil (Proses.ID)

Hey there. I’m Theresia Tanzil. Or tre in short.

When I first got to know the internet in the year 2000, I made a commitment to myself: to spend each and every single day to learn as much as I can. Fast forward 20 years – that decision had taken me to very good places.

But from now, I am going to flip the commitment: to spend each and every single day to produce and share what I have learned as much as I can.

This is where I:

  1. talk to myself. 100% of the stuff I post here is my way of thinking through something.
  2. share things I am working on, things that interest me, ideas, and musings that I came across as I learn about the world.

Click here for topics you can expect in this blog.

And here to find out what I’m currently working on, thinking about, and spending my time.

If you need help or just want to chat about to any of these areas,  I am most reachable on Twitter.

Replied to Webmentions and Campfires by Kevin CunninghamKevin Cunningham (kevincunningham.co.uk)
Over in the garden, I’ve started a section on webmentions - including how Lauro (@laurosilvacom) and I got them up and running on our Gatsby blogs. We streamed that and I’ll link to the video when it’s available. Equally, I’ve linked to some excellent examples and posts over there.

I want these posts to be part of a conversation rather than a one-sided proclamation from the roof-tops. Using webmentions to poll for replies on Twitter and other blogs seems like a good start.

What other ways can we stop ourselves standing in dark rooms and shouting into the void? How can we light campfires and create spaces for conversation that are welcoming and mutually beneficial?
Kevin, I like your ideas here and there are many of us who have been discussing it in various nooks of the internet over the past couple of years. It’s a movement and a discussion that has been slowly brewing, but seems to be coming to a boil.

While some of these ideas sound romantic at present with minimal penetration and implementation, we’ll definitely need to be cognizant of how they grow and building tools to mitigate abuses in the future as they become more common. No one wants Webmention to become a vector for spam and harassment the way it’s poorly designed and implemented predecessors like Pingback or Trackbacks were.

While the IndieWeb seems to be the largest hub of this conversation so far, especially for the technical portions, it’s also been distributed across multiple platforms and personal websites and wikis. If you haven’t come across the IndieWeb you may appreciate their wiki and bridged chat channels.

Lately I’ve noticed a big spillover into the wiki space primarily by way of Tom Critchlow, Kicks Condor, some from TiddlyWiki and the Roam Research spaces, and many of your colleagues at egghead.io. I’m personally looking forward to the convergence of the website, blog, personal wiki, commonplace book, etc. in a single platform. 

As I notice that you’re in Brighton, if you haven’t been before, you might consider joining in one of the local Homebrew Website clubs either there, in other parts of the UK, or across the world. I see events for Nottingham and London coming up on the schedule, but I’m sure Jeremy Keith or other organizers will do another in Brighton soon.

In any case, you’re on the web, and we can “see” and “hear” you. Thanks for drawing up a campfire to create a discussion.