Andy Henson

[LFR] Letters from a Roaman - Letter XXXVII

published6 months ago
7 min read

Happy Tuesday Roamans,

No preamble this week, it's a long one! As the saying goes, I didn't have time to make it shorter.

Around the Roaman Empire

Tools for Thought Events

There’s two interesting PKM-related events coming up this week.

Tomorrow Jesse Martin presents Tools for Thought Rocks:

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Jess Martin
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Really terrific Tools For Thought Rocks event coming up next Wednesday, February 23 @ 9am PT. Speakers include @alexobenauer, @geoffreylitt, and @pixelflipping. You can register here:
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Tools For Thought Rocks! February Event - Zoom
Tools for Thought Rocks! is a talk series about using computers as tools for thinking. Sessions are ...
February 16th 2022

On Friday, Bianca Pereira and Nick Milo are hosting a Twitter Spaces event to discuss PKM for Research:

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Bianca Pereira | Researcher
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February 20th 2022

Roam VC

Phil Morle is creating a shared Roam graph for VCs to create a place for investors to help each other make the most of Roam to better document investment analysis and decisions, and sharing patterns and practices for CRM and other daily workflows.

Interested? Sign up here.

Pop Quiz

Still in development, but I think it's a nice concept, Fabrice Gallet demonstrated a plugin he's working on which will turn any task list into a quiz

Mobile CSS

Joseph Wood has shared some CSS to improve the mobile experience of Roam by making toggling child blocks with your finger better.

Learn more, and grab the code from his website.

Roam Nerd Deep Dive

Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent improvements to Roam?

Josh Brown has shared a lengthier Loom video discussing the technical details behind the welcome performance boosts.

Oura Sync

I don’t have an Oura ring, but this looks like a cool, simple extension from Mateo Neira to pull your data into Roam to reflect on and track it.

YouTube GIFs

Long time readers might recall, back in Letter XXVIII, I mentioned this weirdly cool extension from KauDerK which lets you turn YouTube videos into GIFs and interact with them.

An updated version has now been released with even more power. It's great for visual learners where you need to repeat and review short video snippets over and over.

The best way to understand how to use it is to watch the showcase video, and all the details to install it are in the video description.

Thinking Out Loud

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter about search in our note-taking/tools-for-thought applications, and a somewhat viral article from Dan Shipper about his trouble with Roam.

I’ve been too busy lately to have time to engage in the debates, but I do have some thoughts on the topics and they have been percolating away in the background.

First, on the topic of search, yes a good search function is undoubtedly helpful. As a longtime developer and power-user, I know how I can construct complex searches to find information. But, it’s often frustrating, no matter the tool. There are many occasions I am convinced I have stored a piece of information, but no matter how I try to query for it, I can’t find it. Either I have a huge pile of results that’s mostly noise, or I get nothing.

So here’s an interesting thought experiment:

What if exploration, or the traversal of links, were the primary–perhaps only–mechanism for accessing your notes?

How might you adjust your system to help you retrieve information efficiently?

What would that do for you?

And what would make this more difficult?

A more immediate answer might be to lean on the Map of Contents patterns style of note-management - essentially another form of zettelkasten structure notes or index notes.

They provide a form of categorisation but one which forms over time via a bottom-up approach as you coalesce your thinking around the notes topics. It also affords you opportunities to see those notes again, and expand or iterate on them. Adding further links and refining your thinking on them.

Links as knowledge organisation

Links or page references and tags can provide more value than may be immediately apparent. They are an instantly formed connection between two things, a super-powered form of our own memory where it might take multiple passes for our neurons to make those pathways.

How can we leverage this fact in our systems to help efficiently retrieve and rediscover past notes?

This is the big idea behind Beau Haan’s block-based zettel approach. It’s a simple structure that the zettel index page heavily weights towards linking ideas and reducing the friction to surf those connections later.

I particularly enjoyed a recent essay by Gordon Brander, all you need is links, where he explored taking the fundamental element of links and seeing just how far they could take you.

In it he says:

If we consider each page to be a topic, then links offer a pretty good map of topics within a page. Pull out a list of links from a page, and you approximately have the topics for the page. Collect all the links across pages, rank them by frequency, and you have a sense of the most frequently addressed topics within the collection.

If I treat my zettel structure as that page, with additional links (aka page references and tags in Roam) interspersed as I think my way towards my atomic permanent note then I am also building this structure.

It’s not a great stretch to have Roam, or an extension, use the linked references of a given term to rank by frequency. Plus, if I follow the 5 fundamentals of Roam and use indentation to organise discrete related thought-paths, then I can later use queries to find intersections of them over time. This can help reveal surprising blocks where I’m easily able to traverse the hierarchy to quickly see the full context, and roam further by following the linked trails.

Further, by block referencing the rediscovered blocks as I write and refine notes, it provides another facet to this discovery process where I can see how many times the block itself is referenced. If I keep coming across it from different aspects, it’s also a sign of its relative importance.

Interestingly, Beau doesn’t advocate heavy linking within the zettelkasten fleeting note concept, but I personally find that page references and tags to other topics that I typically explore as they relate outside of my zettelkasten structure give me additional entry points to come across later. This leads me to ideas that came up in my zettelkasten sessions but were not the primary idea that I was working towards.

Effort is a function of value

How does this relate to Dan’s article? In it, he argues (unconvincingly in my view) that Roam failed to help him answer the question, where does this note go? I fundamentally think this is the wrong question to ask.

If you ask a better question, you can get a better answer. Being curious leads to new perspectives, even about things we think we already know and can lead to new insights and deeper understanding.

Instead, ask yourself how you want to come across this information again in the future.

I suspect that where Dan is coming from is where I’m beginning to see that there is an invisible divide between the terms around note-taking, PKM and Tools for Thought. We each have a different, and somewhat unique definition of what that means to us, and the tools we use will guide or hinder us towards those ends.

The PKM term people use seem to want to categorise information and have some kind of “magic” where thinking isn’t required. A common theme I see is I want to get something into my system quickly and then the tool will somehow magically enable me to pull it back out at the right time.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning concepts are getting bandied around a lot. The hope or desire is that the machine will summarise your notes, categorise them perfectly for you, or suggest links or connections you could make.

There’s a place for this, but I’m also concerned where that leads. When we delegate our thinking to algorithms we may inadvertently calcify those processes. I am far more interested in tools that will help me to think better. To augment my mind, not outsource it. My brain needs exercise, just like my physical muscles.

The value of Roam is that its flexible building blocks allow you to add as much or little structure as you need. The downside is that you need to have at least an understanding of how it works to get the most value from it. And it’s easy to make a mess that you won’t realise until it’s too late.

If you’re adding a note that you have an expectation there’s long term value in it, then you haven’t finished writing that note until you have made sure it answers the question of how do I want to come across this again in the future?

If you cannot take the time to do that now, then the note hasn’t enough value for you. Effort is a function of value. To be clear, I also think there’s value in writing more fleeting notes (not of the zettelkasten kind) that have limited value in the moment, to help you think and cement your thoughts but there’s little reason to want to resurface those later. They will likely reappear in more valuable notes because of your repeated thinking about them. Good notes require work. Tools can augment this, but they cannot replace thinking.

Roam’s strength is in its ability to create associative trails with ease for later traversal. It’s not so much the bi-directional links, but how the links themselves can lead to new insight and discovery. The clue is in the name, “Roam” Research.

Other tools are superior for the “brute-force” searching of pure text, and yet others excel in visual representations of knowledge - we often need them all in different ways, and at different times in our quest to better understand things and discovery of new solutions or insights.

Here’s where interoperability rears its head again, as I’ve talked about previously, but that’s a topic for another day.

Until next time,


P.S. 💖 A big thanks to Chinarut and Zach for your recent support. If you enjoy my work and would like to help contribute to the running costs I accept donations 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.