[LFR] Letters from a Roaman - Letter XXXVI

Happy Tuesday Roamans,

Yesterday I celebrated two full years in Roam.

twitter profile avatar
Andy Hens𐃏n
Twitter Logo
@RoamFm @AndyNarracott @RoamResearch This is my [[GENESIS BLOCK]] pic.twitter.com/8lqqJMFbo0
Video or Gif
twitter profile avatar
Inspired by my conversation with @AndyNarracott, let's play a game: What is your [[GENESIS BLOCK]]? Block no. 1 in your private graph. What was the date, and contents? Mine was the words "Today, I tried @RoamResearch" on January 22nd this year. #roamcult pic.twitter.com/L8NxmL4Ynm
September 23rd 2020

As you may well know by now, the Roam team have launched a big new important feature with encrypted graphs, alongside a number of other improvements including some pretty significant performance boosts. There’s even been some indications that a mobile application is in early testing.

Before we get into what’s been happening over the last couple of weeks in the Roam community, I have one quick bit of errata:

In my last letter, I linked to the BlueprintJS library but, as several people informed me, the link didn’t work (new item on my newsletter launch checklist; pay attention when ConvertKit warns you of potentially broken links 🤦).

Here’s the correct link to the callout section to make your Roam blocks stand-out.

Right, let’s get on with the round-up.

Around the Roaman Empire

Premium Tweets

David Vargas added a premium feature to his RoamJS Twitter extension so you can schedule sending tweets at a later date directly from within Roam.

Write your own adventure

For those of you who use Readwise, Mark Lavercombe has created a SmartBlock, available in the SmartBlocks v2 store, which enables you to export certain notes into Readwise to make use of its spaced repetition system.

I have been doing this myself manually until now as a way to remind me and instil my own operating principles.

Use the Command Palette in Roam to open the SmartBlocks Store and look for the “Send to Readwise” block in the store.

Tag, you’re it

Luke Miller shared a short Twitter thread showing the simple taxonomy of tags he’s been using in his graph, and some of the benefits he’s found to using them so far. I’ve definitely taken some as food-for-thought.

Terminal Velocity

Taylor Mitchell shared a sneak peek at a Roam Terminal plugin he’s working on, though it’s not yet released as this newsletter goes out. It looks like a really nice way to extend Roam with custom functions that can act on blocks in your graph.

Roaman Log Cards

Mark Robertson shared the CSS to his Log Cards system. It utilises a simple type/ tag namespace to denote a card type to give a bit more visual structure to blocks that conform to a particular type such as meeting notes or perhaps making your permanent notes look more like a traditional index card.

Encrypted Graphs

Having written about the need for the Roam team to focus on security and encryption in several previous letters, the release of encrypted graphs is excellent news. It means that with complete end-to-end encryption of your data no-one can see your notes. All the data is encrypted within your local browser before it’s sent to Roam’s servers.

It’s pretty seamless, and it means that Roam is now one of the few tools-for-thought that provides a “Trust-No-One” secure system. The downside is that if you forget your encryption password, your graph data becomes inaccessible. The Roam team will be unable to help you recover any data. I highly recommend using a password manager to store the password to your graphs securely.

When you create a new graph you’ll have the option to make it encrypted. You cannot directly encrypt your existing graphs. To do so, you’ll need to make an EDN backup of your graph, create a new encrypted graph, and then restore the backup into the newly encrypted graph.

For a deeper dive into how it works, and to verify for yourself that all your private data is encrypted before being sent to Roam, Josh Brown, Roam’s co-founder has recorded a few Loom videos.

And in case that’s not enough for you, Alexander Rink has written a three-part series diving more deeply into why this is such a big deal, how it works, and the performance impact. Read part one on his website.

Thinking Out Loud

A recent twitter thread by C Thi Nguyen about how organisaations use Powerpoint presentations and its default bullet style to communicate and share institutional knowledge got quite a few Roamans talking.

twitter profile avatar
C Thi Nguyen
Twitter Logo
February 2nd 2022

I thought I’d take this opportunity to riff a little on the topic myself to clarify and refine more of my own thinking.

In previous letter’s I’ve discussed the differences between writing to think and writing to communicate. They are very different vehicles, and one which leads to one of the more interesting aspects of the thread. That of Edward Tufte’s argument that prose-style work is better for complex communication, while powerpoint-style presentation bullets are effectively asking you to constantly summarise.

In the thread he said that this summarising effect mimics management structures where the deeply understood complexity and nuance of the engineer, have to summarise their work to middle-manager, who in turn have to give an even more compressed summary to their bosses.

Applying this thinking to Roam, and Roam-like outliners an argument could be made against using outliners for effective communication, so how might this work in an organisation and collaborative environment?

In Roam, we often use the term bullet and block interchangeably, but blocks are more than simply bullet points. They can be far richer, composed of many other blocks through the block references.

While bullet lists can imply a “façade of order” and outliners do convey a sense of structure, it is the block referencing ability of Roam which can imbue semantic meaning and show relations of causality, i.e. A causes B and C.

As we think through problems, the lightweight and frictionless flow enables us to capture thoughts before they disappear. Then we can wrangle and wrestle with them, expanding and elucidating on the malleable structure until we have imposed more structure on them.

Remember we’re in a digital environment where there aren’t constraints for presentation. Unlike in Powerpoint where the slides have a distinctly limited amount of space for text, there’s no such constraint in a Roam block. A single block, can contain multi-paragraph narrative prose if you so desire.

Alternatively, it is also possible to structure effective distillation of knowledge using techniques like Mike Kramer pioneered in Roam Book Club 5, combining Barbara Minto’s pyramid method with Joseph Laronge’s universal logic to form question linked notes and propositions to structure arguments and use it to create summarisations in a bottom-up style.

If you’re familiar with the Prezi style of presentation, where slides are an single infinite canvas that can be zoomed in and out, a multiplayer Roam graph can closely mimic this via RoamJS extensions, allowing users to focus and drill down into the block structure or explore less linearly.

I wonder if there is any merit in having Roam both constrain and provide visual affordances for producing prose from a very deliberate block style?

Much like the block-based Zettelkasten approach pioneered by Beau Haan, the necessary complexity and nuance can be captured in a bottom-up way, with summaries added as parent blocks which can be understood at a higher level. If you need more detail or wish to verify the claims and evidence then you can dive deeper.

As Joel Chan succinctly put it in one answer to the original thread, it’s the distinction between lossy vs flexible compression.

I think the challenge in any organisation is to instill and maintain the right culture and environment which can facilitate this kind of thinking and writing at scale, and not reduce it down to powerpoint-style thinking.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. As we use (and abuse) Roam it pays to remain cognisant of the constraints of the medium we’re working with and seek ways to avoid falling prey to the traps of a tool.

Until next time,


P.S. 💖 Thank you to both Pierre and Joshua for your generous support.

If you enjoy my letters and would like to help contribute to the running costs you can do so via Buy Me a Coffee.

Or if you'd like some help and guidance to make the best use of Roam, I also offer a few private 1-1 Roam coaching sessions.

Andy Henson

I write Letters from a Roaman, curating community news and resources primarily around Roam Research, though I also include other information applicable to other tools for thought and the area in general. I also share my thoughts on a wide variety of tools for thought topics.

Read more from Andy Henson

Happy Tuesday friends, If you’ve been around the Twittersphere for the last few weeks, you may well have seen the recent splash that Tana is making, with a number of prominent (and former?) Roamans sharing their excitement as the tool comes out of its “stealth” phase and, with echoes of the early days of Roam when the gates were temporarily closed, the desire of others for the coveted invitations to try it out. By way of PSA, and to hopefully save my email inbox from further deluge, while I...

Happy Tuesday, friends, 18 months ago, I posited that the five fundamentals of Roam were: Using the Daily Note Pages Thinking in blocks Indentation Page references and tags Block references Since then, I’ve had what turned out to be a huge article sitting in my drafts which hasn’t yet seen the light of day. Over the next few LFR essay editions, I will discuss these fundamentals and explore them more thoroughly. You’ll have a solid foundation to build on when you have understood and mastered...

Happy Tuesday, friends, In honour of this being my fiftieth Letter, I thought I would break with my usual format and share 50 things about Roam Research. It’s a mix of lesser-known and secret features, tips, tricks and simply things that I like, but I’ll start with what I consider the 5 fundamentals of Roam that, once mastered, give you a solid foundation to build the rest upon. 1. The Daily Notes Page (DNP) Let’s start with the fundamentals that make Roam what it is. Used in conjunction with...