Tag: notes

The Most Practical Skill

Four lessons from four decades of note-taking

In the fall, the Little Miss will be heading into 7th grade. Forty years ago, I too, was spending my summer what 7th grade would be like. In the Los Angeles Unified School District at that time, 6th grade was the last year of elementary school, while 7th was the first year of junior high school. Back the, just about everything we did for school was on paper. We text books which we covered with brown shopping bag paper to protect them. We had beige newsprint for scratch work and loose-leaf notebook paper for other types of work. In class, we often received “dittos”–what today might be called Xerox copies–of assignments.

Today, all three of our kids have school-issued iPads and no textbooks. Paper is a rarity. And with the dearth of paper comes a lack of something else that I’ve noticed over the years: the ability to take good notes.

In the fall of 1983, in my first 7th grade science class, I learned what I consider to be the most valuable, practical skill I took from all of my schooling: how to take good notes. It is the only time I can ever recall a teacher making lessons in note-taking part of the curriculum. Our teacher, Maureen Burrill, had introduced us to the scientific method and was discussing various types of tools and skills that scientists used to further their investigation of nature. One of the most important things a scientist could do, she told us, was to take good notes. Scientists not only had to carefully record observations, and collect data, but their experiments had to be reproducible. Only good, clear notes could do this.

The great thing about Mrs. Burrill, and a most fortunate thing for me, was that she didn’t just tell us this. She demonstrated the importance of good notes in the most practical way possible: for the entire school year, we were to keep all of our science work in a notebook. The notebook was a 3-ring binder, divided into sections using divider inserts. We had to keep our class notes in the binder, as well as other things like tests, homework, results of experiments. It all had to be organized and easily accessible. Mrs. Burrill was treating us like young scientists. Little did I know at the time that the lesson I learned in that class went far beyond science. They are lessons that I am still using today.

Experiments in note-taking

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many forms of note-taking. During the rest of junior high school and all through high school, I took notes on paper. Most of that paper, alas, is lost now. Despite at least one of the lessons I learned about note-taking in Mrs. Burrill’s class, the notes got thrown away, or lost in one move or another.

In college, I continued to take notes on paper, but beginning in my junior year (ca. 1992-93) I began typing up my notes on my IBM PC (286) as a way of helping me review the notes. I came up with a procedure that worked very well for me. I used Word for DOS 5.5 and created a file for each class I took. In that file, I typed up my lecture and reading notes. When it came time for a test, I used Word’s “Index” feature to label terms in the document as items for the index. I then generated an index and printed the file, index included. I used the topics on the index as a study guide with the page number references readily available to review the details. One of the earliest examples of these notes still exists in my archive. It is reading notes from a book we used in one of my political science classes. The file is dated June 19, 1993–just over 30 years ago.

Notes from a political science class in 1993
Notes from a political science class in 1993

When I began working at my company, a few months after graduating, I continued to keep notes: meeting notes, developer notes, outlines of briefings and presentation.

As I was taught in Mrs. Burrill’s science class, I experimented with note-taking. For several years, I kept the equivalent of “engineering day books” in the form of Composition books. In these books, I recorded meeting notes, documented bugs in code and how I went about fixing them, working out requirements for software my team was building. Here is a stack of 11 of these notebook, spanning November 2017 – September 2019, roughly 2,200 pages of notes.

A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019
A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019

I’ve also tried out plenty of tools for note-taking. I’ve used Evernote, Apple Notes, and Obsidian. I was introduced into a wide variety of note-taking methodologies: Evernote and its “Remember Everything” slogan; Obsidian and its “Second Brain”; there was a brief, intense fascination with Zettlekasten and “linking your thinking.” Ultimately, however, I continued to come back to the basic principles of note-taking that I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class.

Four principles of note-taking

Mrs. Burrill did not teach us what we should record in our notes, or even how to organize the notes on the page. She was smart enough to know that everyone had a different way of learning. For some people, scribbling keywords on a page was enough. For others, like me, a more hierarchical approach worked better (e.g., outline form). But she gave us four principles that have made all the difference to me and taught me through experience just how valuable notes can be.

1. Clearly label the subject of the notes

When we learned about the phases of the moon, it was clear to us that our notes should be labeled “Phases of the moon” or something close to that. Clear labeling makes it easy to find your notes. Back in 1983, this was far less complicated than it has become today. The label was not much more than a line scribbled at the top of a page. Today, labels can involve numerous elements, from a title, to a filename, to a tag. Regardless, what I learned was to be as succinct and precise in my labeling as I could be.

2. Don’t erase

Mrs. Burrill emphasized the importance of being able to reproduce our work, especially when doing experiments. If we erased our mistakes, we couldn’t learn from them. We might make them again. Moreover, others couldn’t see the pitfalls that we ran into when trying to reproduce our work. Prior to this class, I would occasionally get math homework back from my teachers with the following words scrawled in red across the top of the page: “DO NOT ERASE.”

But this lesson proved invaluable to me, especially for more difficult subjects like organic chemistry and calculus. Seeing the mistakes I made ensured I could learn from them.

Today, I use Jupyter notebooks as “lab books” when working on code. I never delete anything. If something doesn’t work in the notebook, I’ll jot notes as to why it didn’t work and move on to the next cell and try again.

3. Don’t throw anything away

Perhaps this is a corollary to “don’t erase,” but Mrs. Burrill insisted we keep everything. You never knew when old notes might come in handy. When I was young, some of this was out of my control. Notebooks and folders were lost or thrown away. But once I started keeping my notes on the computer, beginning in the fall of 1992, I have managed to avoid throwing them away. Of course, they take up less room in digital form than on paper. And I do refer to them, now and then, if for no other reason than to prove to my kids that I went through the same thing they did in school by showing them, say, a sample of my math homework from 3rd grade:

Some of my math homework from 3rd grade
Some of my math homework from 3rd grade

4. Date every page

It wasn’t obvious to me why this was important at first. It eventually became clear, and then it became a habit. Put a date on every page. It no only lets me know when the notes were created, but it allows me to put notes in some kind of order. I can see the evolution of my thinking on a subject or even across multiple subjects.

In the digital age, files are automatically dated, but I still put in a date on the first line of my notes anyway, partially out of habit, and partially in case the file date gets changed (it has been known to happen).

Are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today?

When the summer is over, our kids will end 2nd, 7th, and 9th grades respectively. The Little Miss, entering 7th grade, will be in the same position I was in when I was first introduced to Mrs. Burrill’s science class. But are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today, teaching kids practical note-taking? If my observations of my own kids’ experience is any example, then it isn’t likely. No one taught my kids to take notes. They are sometimes given notes to study, but that is a very different thing that formulating the ideas on your own, and summarizing them in a way that works best for you.

I am trying to fill in, to pay forward the great gift that Mrs. Burrill gave to me forty years ago. I am teaching my kids some of the same concepts: not erase anything, or throw anything away, to date everything and label it as clearly as they can. What I am not doing is telling them how they should take their notes. The tools one uses, and the way that one records things is an entirely subjective thing.

Looking back across the decades, and all of the notes I’ve taken, it seems to me that I owe a lot of the success I’ve had to the principles I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class. The notes I took in college helped me graduate. The notes I take in my job have made me a modestly successful software developer and project manager. I frequently impress friends and family by how quickly I can pull up a piece of information or a needed document, thanks to the note-taking principles pounded into my in 7th grade. I hope that my kids can look back and say the same forty years from now.

Written on June 21-24, 2023.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 22: Daily Notes Revisited: The Best of Both Worlds?

brown framed eyeglasses on a calendar
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

A couple of months ago, in Episode 15, I wrote about how I use daily notes as an index to my life. I was impressed by a post I’d read on someone who kept all of his daily notes in a single file, and I aimed to try to reproduce that in Obsidian. Since writing that post, I’ve tweaked things somewhat–enough that I felt it was worth reporting back on. Since this series is an ongoing experiment in going practically paperless, it isn’t unusual for me to change the way I do things when I find ways and methods that work better.

Two competing requirements

In the case of daily notes, I found myself pinned in by two competing requirements:

  1. I want the ability to see more than just “today’s” note. I like to be able to easily scroll through past daily notes. This is a quick and easy way to review things without having to search through a bunch of files, or open a bushel of notes windows to reference something I am looking for. This is what attracted me to the single daily notes file in the first place.
  2. I want to use the native daily notes functionality that comes with Obsidian. This functionality, however, is based on a single-note-per-day, and I’ve found it just doesn’t work nearly as well when all daily notes are in a single file. The main problem was that if I linked to another note from my daily note file, the backlink referred to the daily note file, but not the date in the file under which the link was listed.

So: I want to use a single file for all of my daily notes, but I want the daily notes functionality that is based on one note per day. What to do?

First solution

In order to address this conundrum, I decided to go back to the single-note-per-day. That immediately gained me the native daily note functionality in Obsidian. In a single-note-per-day model, if I link to another note, the backlink shows the date of because it is the name of the daily note file itself. For instance, I list out the blog posts I write on a given day within my daily notes file. In the case of this post, the backlink shows what day I wrote the post:

screenshot showing date reference (in title) to a daily note in a backlink

This is much more useful than when I used a single note for all my daily notes. In that situation, the backlink would show up as follows:

screenshot showing reference to the "daily" file (no date) to a daily note in a backlink

and “Daily” doesn’t tell me the date. That is a big drawback of the single-file model. As I pointed out in Episode 15, one thing that would help would be if the section path that the link was under was displayed as part of the backlink — that at least would pick up the date. I even submitted a feature request for this. But it doesn’t exist now and I have to work with what I’ve got.

One thing I did to attempt to get the best of both worlds was to setup my workspace so that the previous day’s note always appeared in a window above the current day’s note. That way I could easily scroll through the previous day’s note if I needed to reference something there. I pin the current day’s note, but leave the previous day’s note unpinned so I can quickly switch to another day using the calendar.

my obsidian workspace with a 3 windows, 2 on the left split vertically with yesterday's daily note on top and today's pinned below. window the right is whatever I am working on

I played around with this model and it worked okay, but it just wasn’t as useful as being able to scroll through all of my daily notes in a single file. It did, however, get me the benefit of the native daily note functionality in Obsidian, so that was a partial win.

Second solution

After giving it some thought, I came up with another solution that works even better: a single daily notes file made up of transcluded links (embeds) to individual daily notes. This is achieved as follows:

  1. Daily notes are created normally, one-file-per-day, using native daily note functionality in Obsidian.
  2. At the end of each day, I add a transcluded link to the current day’s daily note to the top of a note file called “Daily”

The “Daily” note file looks like this in source mode:

screenshot of Daily file in source mode showing just a list of embedded links to daily note files

When viewed in Live Preview mode, however (which is my default), this same file looks as follows:

screenshot showing the same Daily file in Live Preview mode which renders the embedded daily notes so that they all appear to be in a single file

This allows me to scroll through all of my individual daily notes as if they are in a single file, even though the daily notes themselves are each in a separate file. It allows me to work in a workspace where I keep the Daily file pinned at all times, even while having today’s daily note open in a separate window, like this:

screenshot showing my new workspace with the Daily file pinned on the left and today's daily note pinned on the lower right, with my working file above

In this setup, I can easily scroll through all of my daily notes going back to when I started intending to keep them in a single file (December 28, 2021). What’s more, as I add new items to my current daily note (the window on the lower-right), they appear instantly in the file on the left.

One change I made in the “Daily” file from my previous attempt at a single file is that I reverse sort the entries so that the most recent day appears at the top of the file. I found that I was constantly scrolling to the bottom of the single file to add new notes, and while I like the strict chronology, it was more practical to reverse sort it. Several readers pointed out to me that this is what they did, and it made a lot of sense to me.

While the embedded text within the file is not searchable in source mode or Live Preview mode, it is searchable in Read mode. And I can leave the file in read mode because I only have to made an update to it once a day, to add the current embedded daily note file. That means, if I hit Cmd-F to search in the file, results show for all of the embedded files. For instance, if I search for the term “- read” here is what the results look like:

screenshot of unified daily notes search results spanning across multiple days

Note that the search results span multiple days in this view, meaning they span multiple embedded files. This is what I was hoping for when I began looking into this solution.

The best of both worlds?

This solution — using individual daily note files and a separate Daily file with embedded notes via transcluded links — is better and gets me closer to the two competing requirements I’ve been aiming for. I can use native daily note functionality; I can see references to daily notes in backlinks, and I can scroll through the daily notes as if they are all in a single file. But it is not perfect. There is still at least one challenge to overcome, and a relatively easy one at that.

Challenge: Automating the Daily file

As I said, currently, at the end of each day, I add a new transcluded link to the current daily note at the top of my Daily note file. If I forget to do this, I won’t see the previous day’s note. This isn’t all that cumbersome, but it is something that I want to automate.

A simple shell or Python script can take care of that. The script will add the trancluded link to the new daily note at the beginning of each day so that I can see it there at the start of the day, instead of just at the end. This really is a simple script and when I get it written, I’ll post a link to it on GitHub1.

Daily summary and Dataview

There is one other adjustment I’ve been playing around with in my daily notes. Now that each day is in a separate file, my daily notes template includes YAML frontmatter for capturing some information that I care about. Currently, that template looks as follows:

locations: ["Arlington, VA"]
sleep: 1
summary: Good writing day, busy work day. Upgraded Obsidian. Good response to latest PP post

Here is what this data is for:

  • Locations: a list of places that I was at on a given day. Not every place I go, but rather where I was based on that day. On days I travel, this list contains multiple entries, like [“Arlington, VA”, “Wisp Resort, McHenry, MD”]
  • Sleep: a rating of the quality of my previous nights sleep on a scale of -2 to 2, where 0 is an average night, -2 is a absolutely terrible sleep, and 2 is a dreamless, perfect sleep. For those curious, I learned of this method listening to Jim Collins describe this method on the Tim Ferris Show podcast.
  • Summary: A short, one line summary of my day, written at the end of the day.

I use this in a Dataview table that provides a kind of index to my daily notes. At a glance I can see where I was on a given day. I can also use the summary to help remember what happened on that day. I can then drill into the specific note for more details. I have a note called “Daily Notes Index” and within that note, use the following dataview query:

TABLE summary, locations FROM "Daily Notes"
SORT file.name DESC```

Here is what this Daily Notes Index looks like for March 2020 so far:

screenshot of the dataview table rendering a summary of my daily notes with 3 columns: file, summary, and locations.

This hasn’t replaced my Daily file containing embedded daily notes. Instead, I find this file more useful as a high-level review of my days, something I can scan through at the end of the month or end of the year, or a place I can go to quickly see where I was or what I did on a certain day without flipping through the details of the individual daily notes file.

Putting it all together

To sum up the current state of my daily notes:

  1. I have gone back to using a single-note-per-day to get the most benefit from Obsidian’s native daily note functionality. I always have “today’s” note open in a pinned window.
  2. I maintain a “Daily” note that emulates the all-daily-notes-in-one-file that I started with back in Episode 15. This allows me to easily scroll through all of my daily notes and search them without having to open multiple files. Given the way that I work, this is more efficient for me.
  3. I use the YAML frontmatter in my daily notes to populate a dataview table in a Daily Notes Index file that I use periodically for skimming my days

This is as close as I’ve been able to get to the best of both worlds: each day in its own note, and all notes in a single file. So far, it seems to be working for me, but as always, I am open to ideas an suggestions for improvment.

In next week’s post, I’m going to change pace a bit and talk about my personal views on information security with respect to my notes in Obsidian. I’ve been asked questions about security quite a bit. This was also try when I was writing about using Evernote a decade ago. The post will summarize how I think about security, some tools I use to protect my data, and what I do and won’t worry about. See you back here next week!

Prev: Episode 21: Tags in Theory and Tags in Practice (And Never the Twain Shall Meet?)
Next: Episode 23: Protecting My Data in Obsidian

Written on March 9 and 11, 2022.

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  1. I suppose I could try to make this a plug-in but (a) this is too niche a use case, and (b) I’d have to deal with all of the overhead involved in a plug-in. A Python script on a scheduled job is much simpler for this.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 21: Tags in Theory and Tags in Practice (And Never the Twain Shall Meet?)

blank tags in close up photography
Photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels.com

Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

This episode is less of a “how-do-I” and more of a “how-I-struggle with…” post. I have been working with tags for more than a decade and still struggle with them. I wanted to give fair warning at the top in case anyone is expecting brilliant revelations about tagging notes in Obsidian here.

I can’t remember when I first learned of the concept of tags. As someone who grew up during the personal computer revolution, my approach to organizing information was naturally hierarchical. From my earliest days using computers, operating systems organized files in a hierarchical structure, and it seemed natural to follow that model.

Moreover, my schooling, which from 5th grade on paralleled my experience with personal computers–seemed to encourage a hierarchical form of information organization. Textbooks had tables of contents that were organized by Part / Chapter / Section. We used outlines to plan arguments. School notebooks were organized by tabs (remember Trapper-Keepers?). Even something as unbiquious as TV Guide was organized hierarchcally: by Date / Time / Station. Indeed. the closest thing to “tags” that I can think of were the indexes that accompanied many nonfiction books. Entries in these indexes (which themselves were sometimes hierarchical) spanned the hierarchy of the book itself. That is, an entry for “atmosphere, of Earth” might have references in multiple parts, sections, and chapters of the book in question.

First page of the index of the book The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley, the first book I ever checked out of a library.
The first page of the index of The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley, the first book I ever checked out of the library, and the book that introduced me to science and astronomy,

The best I can say is that my awareness of tags probably came out of the various photo-storage apps and services that began to appear around 2004 or so, a decade after the Internet as we know it began to take shape.

Tags: In theory

These photo apps (Flickr was an early one I recall using) allowed users to “tag” photos with arbitrary keywords. This was a revelation to me. After living in a hierachical box for so long, tags introduced two ways that freed me from that box.

  1. The keywords were completely arbitrary. There was no set list. I could make them up, or choose from words that had already been used.
  2. One was not limited to a single keyword. I could tag an image with multiple keywords, placing it in multiple categories at once.

The latter point especially was important. Hierarchies, by their nature, limit where you can place something. A photo, for instance, can be placed in a folder path called /Family/Trips/Italy, or in /Buildings/Cathedrals. To put the photo in both places requires duplicating the photo file and then maintaining it in both places. Tags compliment the hierarchy, allowing one to tag a photo as “Italy” and “Cathedral” simulatenously, without having to duplicate the file.

There was another dimension to tags that I found interesting: crowd-sourcing. Because I first discovered through Internet services like Flickr, tags were often crowd-sourced, meaning anyone could apply tags to photos, thereby creating a kind of public melange of the categorization of images.

At the time, I remember thinking how useful it would be to have the ability to artitrarily tag files in a file system. MacOS introduced such a feature in OS X 10.9 in 2013. When that happened, however, I didn’t jump on it and start tagging my files.

The problem for me was that tags seem like a great idea in theory, but are much more difficult to implement in practice. I discovered this in my first concerted attempt to use tags — back when I was writing my Going Paperless series for Evernote between 2012-2016. Evernote allows you to tag notes with an arbitrary number of user-generated tags. When I began using Evernote (around 2010) I did what I suspect many users did: I started tagging everything without a whole lot of thought about it.

Tags: In practice, a.k.a., by intuition

In practice, tagging has been tricky for me: a classic case of having enough rope to hang myself. It turns out that, for me, at least, tagging comes with the same problems as hierarchical organization: if you just start arbitrarily creating tags, you create a mess of confusion that it is difficult to escape from. Escape is difficult because the process is self-perpetuating, and once started, I find I’d rather go with the flow than to start over from scratch.

What is needed for tags is some kind of taxonomy: a set of rules to follow for when to apply tags, when to create a new tag, and how tags relate to the information they are organizing. Here, however, I come up against a limitation of personal knowledge and experience: I am not a researcher, nor do I have expertise in subjects like library sciences that might provide some kind of guidance in the development of a useful taxonomy for tagging. Ultimately, I am tagging by intuition, which is probably not the best approach.

So back in my Evernote days, I began to think about practical ways in which tagging fits into my note organization, and from that thinking.

1. Tags can span hierarchies

Hiearchical organization can be useful because its very structure provides a map for locating something. I discussed the practical utility (for me) back in Episode 18, when I talked about how I use folders to quickly locate Maps of Content notes. The main limitation to hierarchies from my vantage point is that a note falls into only one path.

Tags can span hierarchies. If you imagine folders and tags as two dimensions of a grid, then the organizational model of notes would look something like this, where folder hierarchies cross horizontally, and tags (in this case, notes tagged “#jamie”) slice vertically across all folders.

an illustration of hierarchical folders show on a horizontal axis and tags shows on a vertical axis

Tags, therefore, compliment hierarchies by allowing you to create categories of notes that span multiple hierachies. In a practical sense, this allows two quick ways of finding a note or collection of notes: by either following a path in a single hierarchy, or by tag for specific collection of notes that span multiple paths in a hierarchy.

2. Tags can be used to quickly identify an arbitrary collection of notes that have a practical everyday utility

I frequently have to find a note related to a specific person. Kelly might ask, “Do you have Grace’s 4th grade report card from the spring?” Or maybe I need my son’s “School Health Entrance Form” for a camp application. One practical arbritrary collection of notes, therefore, is to tag notes by person. I do this way many notes, and these notes often span multiple paths in my folder structure.

This kind of tagging allows me to quickly locate all notes tagged “jamie”, for instance no matter where they are located, and then quickly whittle those notes down to the specific note I am looking for by adding additional search criteria. In the above illustration, the tag #jamie serves as that arbitrary collection of notes.

Similarly, I use tags to identify document types: forms, statements, correspondence, receipts, confirmations, etc. Again, the documents themselves may be spread throughout a file structure, but if I am looking for all school-related forms for my daughter, Grace, then my search would begin with notes tagged “grace” and also tagged “form” — from that result set, I can quickly locate the specific forms in question, regardless of where they are in the file system.

3. Tags can be placeholders for future ideas and concepts

I’ve also found tags useful as placeholders for future ideas and concepts. I described one of these uses in Episode 20, where I illustrated how I tag task lines in my daily notes files with the “post-idea” tag for ideas that I want to write about here on the blog. I then use the dataview plug-in to collect all of the “incomplete” tasks with the tag “post-ideas” in a query that lists the open ideas in a single place.

image showing a checkbox list of blog post ideas, rendered using the dataview plugin and filtered by the tag "post-idea"

There are also subjects that I have a broad interest in, and I’ve taken to using a tag/sub-tag model for captuing notes related to these interests. A few examples include:

  • theme/theory-of-notes
  • theme/theory-of-work
  • theme/value-of-reading
  • sports/baseball

This provides a quick way for me to collect notes together around a theme or concept that I am interested in.

Tagging problems I still struggle with

Despite these practical uses, I still feel like an amateur when it comes to tagging, and no doubt this is reflected in my tag structure in Obsidian today. Indeed, just looking at my list of tags in Obsidian makes me cringe a little. It still feels too arbitrary.

There is a time investment required to tag a note, but at the time I tag the note, it is not clear whether or not there is a clear return on that investment of time. Adding a bad tag is worse than adding no tag at all because time invested to add the tag is either wasted or, worse, does not help in locating the tagged document later on.

Another problem is that, intuitively, I feel that I should be using the fewest tags required to find what I am looking for. And yet tags, like rabbits, seem to proliferate faster than I can wrangle them in.

All of this points to a lack of taxonomy. A clearly defined taxonomy provides a scope for tagging, and more importantly, removes any abiguity from the tagging process. In other words, there is no confusion between two tags, no flitting about wondering, should I tag this note using tag A or tag B. It is always clear from the taxonomy how best to tag a note. But a taxonomy requires knowledge and experience that I don’t have, and this comes to the crux of the tagging problem that I struggle with today:

I don’t know enough about what I need to know to define a useful tagging taxonomy.

I have started to tackle this problem using sub-tags to try to identify those areas of interest I want to collect, but even this seems tenuous at best. It is an ongoing process, and the better handle I have on what goes into Obsidian, the better chance I have of coming up with a reasonably useful taxonomy in the long-run.

For now, my biggest take-aways when it comes to tagging are to ask myself the following questions when tagging notes:

  1. Does this tag help to locate the note or collection of notes that it takes?
  2. Is this tag clear enough that I will remember it in the future without much thought?
  3. Is tagging this note absolutely necessary? Can I find this note easily without a tag?

Outside of some simple, practical use cases that I’ve outlined above, I’m still wary of tags, and yet, ironically, I use them more than I should. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade with only small hints toward a useful taxonomy. Finding the taxonomy that works for me will be the information-theory equivalent of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Prev: Episode 20: Experimenting with the Dataview Plug-In.
Next: Episode 22: Daily Notes Revisited: The Best of Both Worlds?

Written on March 7, 2022.

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Why Take Notes?

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

There was a thread I saw on Reddit (that I can no longer locate) that asked: why take notes? The thread contained the usual answers that I’d expect to see, but it made me think about my own notetaking and I thought I’d try to answer the question here.

Prior to my junior year in college, I was not a particularly good notetaker. I made it all the way through grade school and high school taking notes in a haphazard way. Indeed, one thing that surprises me to this day is that I can recall only one class that attempted to teach students how to take notes. In 7th grade science class, our science teacher, Maureen Burrill, taught us the importance of having good notes as part of the process of scientific discovery. While my notetaking didn’t change immediately, this idea stuck with me and became a central pillar of my notetaking later on.

Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I read a book on ways of improving how you study. It was quite possibly the first “self-help” book I’d read. I wish I’d thought to write down the title somewhere because it is lost to me now. It was a paperback edition that guaranteed that by using its methods, your grades would improve a full mark. For me, that guarantee paid off. One of the things that book did was provide me with a framework and a shorthand for notetaking that I still use today–although it has evolved in the 30 years since I read that book.

So why do I take notes? I think there are three reasons:

1. As a memory aid

The most basic reason that I take notes is that they serve as a memory aid. I’ve gained something of a reputation among my friends as someone with good recall, but this is more illusion than reality. I take notes for the very reason that I don’t entirely trust my memory. It is wonderful in some ways, and remarkably fallable in others.

When I meet someone new, I rarely recall their name, even minutes later. I’ve managed to remedy this appalling lapse by jotting down people’s names in my Field Notes notebook as soon as we are introduced. When I first began doing this, it felt awkward pulling out my notebook and jotting a note, but now, I rely on it, and it seems to work. I jot down lists, scores from my kids games, notable plays that they made during the event. I jot the name of restaurants that we visit and what I ordered. All of this as an aid to memory.

I find this useful in both the short term and the long term. I remember things better in the short term and can recall them longer when I jot them down. In the long term, I have a record I can refer to which I trust because many of the notes are written in realtime. (See #2 below.)

2. As a way of engaging with whatever I am doing

For some things, notes are a way of engaging with what I am doing. Reading and studying is one example. Engagement, for me, has two aspects. The first is understanding. I take notes to understand what I am reading or studying, whether it is a biography of Lyndon Johnson, or a YouTube video on publishing database projects with Azure Data Studio. The understanding aspect involves composing the notes in my own words (often a kind of shorthand, but one that I can understand).

The second aspect is questioning: asking questions about what I am reading, or studying. Sometimes the questions are rhetorical. Sometimes they draw comparisons to other things. Occasionally I’ll try to answer the questions, but not always. There are notes to help draw out my thoughts on a subject–in other words, to engage with it.

3. To improve and learn (especially from my mistakes)

This is what I learned from my 7th grade science teacher, Mrs. Burrill. When performing an experiment, you want to document exactly how you performed the experiment so that it can be reproduced by others. You want to note observations and results accurately, and then follow up on those observations and results with analysis of the outcome. If something didn’t work, why didn’t it work? If something succeeded, why did it succeed.

Rather than just looking at science experiments this way, I think of many aspects of what I do as little, individual experiments. Writing a story is an experiment. I write it, get feedback, learn from the feedback, make changes, and sell the story. I note what worked and what didn’t and I try to use that information to improve. At work, running software projects or writing code, I do the same. That piece of code ran slower than I expected. Can I speed it up? If so, how?

Back in school, after I’d read this remarkable book, I began doing something I’d never considered doing before: treating papers and exams like the little experiments we did in Mrs. Burrill’s class. If I missed questions on an exam, I studied those questions and tried to figure out what I did wrong. I tried to identify and note the specific error and see if I could locate a pattern so that I could improve my study over time.

This also applies to small, domestic experiments. When we moved into this house nearly 3 years ago, one of the burners on the stove didn’t work. I never thought much about it until yesterday when I decided to take a look at why. I experimented with a few things, and in five minutes had it working. I noted what I did and why I thought it worked. In the future, should a similar problem arise, I have a way of fixing it.

This is why I take notes. Considering all I just wrote, I’m surprised that I can no longer locate the thread that started this all. You’d think I would have taken note of it.

Written on January 30, 2022.

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De-Automating My Reading Notes: A New and Better Way For Capturing My Reading Notes in Obsidian

Way back in February, I wrote a post on how I capture my reading notes in Obsidian. I had been using Obsidian for a little over a month and was blown away by its features. It had just about everything I’d been looking for in a notes tool. I quickly hacked together some scripts and proceeded to begin gathering all of my reading notes in Obsidian, using a kinda-sorta Zettelkasten framework.

In the nine months since I wrote that post, a lot has changed. This was brought home to me when a reader asked me how I got notes from paper books and articles in Obsidian. My original post focused on Kindle notes. What about paper books? It just so happened that I recently finished re-reading One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, and I marked up a bunch of stuff along the way–in the paperback copy of the book. It occurred to me that over these nine months, I’ve started to stray from the automated model in favor of a more manual approach to my notes. This is a lesson I learned from the automation I originally set up: the automation was nice, and efficient, but it was also detached and remote. The notes felt distant; I frequently never even reviewed them. And even the UID titles my script generated was distant and meaningless. What started out as something cool and interesting, proved less useful than I thought.

That’s the way it goes when experimenting to find the best way something works for me. Here, then, is how I capture my reading notes in Obsidian today–call it de-automating my reading notes, or switching to manual override.

Reading Notes In Obsidian: A Case Study Using One Man’s Meat.

There are three things that I do when reading a book to get my notes into Obsidian. First, I read the book and mark it up along the way. Second, I created a source note for the book, that acts as a kind of map of content (MOC) for that book. Third, I review the notes I took, decide which are worth capturing as a separate linked not, which are worth noting in the source MOC, and which are safe to ignore. Call these three parts reading, prepping, and curating, and creating.


Everyone has their own way to read to learn. For me, if I’ve got a book in my lap, I also have a pen handy to underline passages or make marginal notes. To help find the places I markup after I’m finished, I keep spare sets of Post-It Flags handy. Each place I mark up, I stick a flag. When I’ve finished reading a book, it frequently looks something like this:

My marked up copy of One Man’s Meat

The colors don’t mean anything. I rotate through the 5 available colors in the pack. The placeholders they represent vary. Sometimes it is an underlined passage with a marginal note. Sometimes it is an underlined passage without a note. Sometimes I’ll put the letters “ph” in the margin beside the passage because I like the way it was phrased. If I pause to think about what I just read, I err toward marking it. I don’t go and create my note in Obsidian right then and there. Experimentation has taught me that if I wait until I finish, some of the passages I marked aren’t really worth capturing.

Prepping and curating

When I finish reading a book, I do a couple of things. I update Goodreads. I update my list of books I’ve read since 1996. And then, I go back to the book and review the flags I’ve left. I go through all of them, deciding in the overall scheme of what I just read, they are worth keeping. If I don’t think the note is worth keeping or recording, I’ll pull out the flag. Of course, my underlined passages and notes are still there, but the flag is there to tell me if I should collect that note in Obsidian. Whatever flags remain mark things I want to capture.

Next, I create a source note in Obsidian. A source note is a note that represents the book I am reading. In this case, the source note is my note that represents One Man’s Meat. I have a top level “Reading” folder in Obsidian with two sub-folders: Sources and Commonplace. Source notes go into my Sources folder. I have a template for Source notes to ensure there is consistency in their formatting and content. I discuss and other templates I use with Obsidian in Episode 8 of my Practically Paperless with Obsidian series. When I first created the source note for One Man’s Meat, it looked like this:


Once I’ve got my source note, and I’ve whittled the flags down to those that I want to keep, I begin adding my notes to Obsidian. I do this manually, reading from the highlighted passages, typing them into a note in Obsidian, and then adding any necessary meta-data. In general, I capture notes in 2 ways:

  1. Capturing a passage in its own separate note and then link to that note from the source note (MOC) using a transcluded link so that the full note will show up in preview mode. I use this method when I think the highlighted passage and my related notes on it might ultimately be linked to other things than the source note itself. For instance, here is a note from White’s essay “Removal” which I created as a separate note. I then link back to the note on the Source note. (I’ll give an example shortly.)

2. Sometimes, I just want to capture a thought that isn’t really a separate note itself. In this case, I’ll just include it as a bullet in the source note. For instance, in White’s essay “Movies”, I have the following bullet point in the source note:

When all of these notes are created, the source note serves as a master for everything I noted in the book. Since One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays, I list out all of the essays and then using transcluded note links to link to the notes I created for each essay; or, I just add bullet points beneath that essay. The images below show what my source note for One Man’s Meat looks like. It is a long note with the transcluded links so I’m just showing the first few screens of the note:

The notes that appear in boxes are actually separate note files in my “Commonplace” folder that are included in the source as transcluded links. You’ll also see that for some essays, I had no notes, but I included the essays there because (a) thought it would be useful, and (b) if I read the book again, I may add more notes. There are 55 essays in the book so you can imagine this source file going on and on like above with my notes.

Some lessons learned

Just because I changed the way I get my reading notes into Obsidian does not mean my original method didn’t work. It just didn’t work as well for me as I thought it would. My initial idea was that I’d save myself a ton of time by automating as much of the process as possible. But I found that I didn’t really absorb my notes when doing that. It was only when I was culling, curating, and typing in my notes manually that they began to resonate with me.

For that reason, I no longer automate my Kindle notes either. I use much the same process as I’ve outlined above, only instead of using the Post-It flags, I use Kindle bookmarks to mark those notes that I want to keep. This has worked much better for me.

I also found that I was defeating myself by automating the titles of the reading notes with UIDs instead of readable titles. I found that for search purposes, it was far better to have a title like “E. B. White on productivity” than something like “0afe6881-6060-4dd0-8a27-2e91ed323ebc” even if the important text was searchable within the note. For skimming search results, I’ve found that a useful title for a note is key.

One more challenge

Between paper, Ebooks, and audiobooks, the toughest challenge is gathering notes for audio books. But I’ll save that for a future post.

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My Spy Notebook?

We headed to the beach this past weekend for a mini-vacation. Late on Sunday afternoon we wandered into a Hawaiian-style restaurant, Nalu, for an early dinner. I did my usual thing: after scanning the menu to decide what I wanted, I jotted it down in my Field Notes notebook. I do this for two reasons: (1) so that I don’t forget what I want to order; and (2) so that I have a record of it if I ever return. I also usually jot down the name of our server when they arrive at the table. I’m far less likely to forget their name if I jot it down.

When our server wandered over to take our order, I pulled out my notebook and jotted down his name, and then told him what I wanted. He looked at me and looked at my notebook and was visibly uncomfortable. I ordered a beer with my food and that seemed to put him at ease. Later, when he came by to bring me another beer, I had my notebook out again, this time because Grace was teaching us a game she’d learned in school, Pico Fermi Nada1, and I was attempting to play. Setting my beer on the table, our server referred to me as the C.I.A. guy. “You’re always jotting stuff down in your little notebook,” he said. By “always” I assume he meant the time I jotted down my order.

In seven years of carrying around these notebooks, this was the first time–the very first time–that it make someone other than me uncomfortable. I say “other than me” because for the first few years, I felt awkward about pulling out my notebook to jot down the name of the person I just met, or to take notes when on a tour of some kind. No one else ever seemed to notice, let alone mind. But it seemed to really unsettle this fellow. Maybe he mistook the numbers I’d scribble in order to figure out the 3-digit code in Pico Fermi Nada as some kind of secret code.

The pages in question from our evening at the restaurant

Friends have gotten used to me pulling out my notebook to jot something down. More often than not, I hear them say, “That’s a great idea, I should do that.” Occasionally someone mentions that they take notes on their phone and how great that is. I usually just smile and nod at this. There’s no need to go into all of the note-taking and to-do apps that I have tried over the years that haven’t worked as well as my Field Notes notebook and a pen. People occasionally ask about the notebook. This happens more frequently if it is a particularly interesting edition of the Field Notes notebooks.

Field Notes makes a Clandestine edition that comes complete with a decoder ring. I wonder what our server might have thought if I happened to be using that notebook instead of the United States of Letterpress edition I had on me.

Front and back covers of my Clandestine edition notebook.

Looking at these pages now, it occurs to me that I didn’t write down our server’s name this time. I think maybe I was distracted by his thinking that I was a C.I.A. guy.

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  1. Apparently a variant of Pico Fermi Bagel.

The Importance of Writing It Down

My morning routine was a little out of whack yesterday. On Saturday, we made a long day trip to Lancaster, PA, about a 2-1/2 hour drive north. We spent the day at an amusement park for the Littlest Miss’s birthday. We left the house at 8 am on Saturday and were home just before 10 pm Saturday night. It was 300 miles of driving and 7 hours on my feet at the park. I was tired. So I slept in later than normal, and didn’t head out for my morning walk until 7:30 am, an hour and a half later than usual.

When routines go sideways, that’s when things get missed. I left my Field Notes notebook and pens back at the house. I realized this on my walk. I was listening to Episode 528 of the Tim Ferriss Podcast, listing to Tim interview Jimmy Wales. Something was said and I pulled out my notebook to write it down–and my notebook wasn’t there!

So rare is it that I am without my notebook that the feeling I had was the same feeling I get when I feel for my keys and suddenly realize they are not in my pocket. It is that sinking, uh-oh feeling. It latest for a millisecond but it was there. I was annoyed that I’d forgotten my notebook. I pulled out my phone and emailed myself the note I was going to take and continued walked.

My walks are often punctuated with stops like these. Something I am listening to will trigger a thought, or I’ll get an idea for a blog post, or remember something that I have to do later in the day. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to always stop what I am doing and write down the thought. If there is even a question of whether or not it is worth writing down, I err on the side of caution. I have never regretted jotting a note in my notebook, but I have often regretted not writing down some idea that popped into my head, thinking I’ll remember it later. I never remember it later. Often, this means stopping half a dozen times on a morning walk to jot notes. This is true at any time of the day or night. If I wake up in the dark with an idea, I’ll grab my notebook, which is always on the nightstand beside me, and jot the note. Sometimes I’ll turn on the light, other times I’ll do my best in the dark.

My Field Notes notebooks are filled with things that would otherwise have disappeared from my short term memory forever. They are the way I remember things for later. Thus, the importance of writing it down. Sometimes, I feel silly. When meeting new people, I am terrible with names. I’ve tried the trick of saying the person’s name and that never seems to work for me. What I do instead, is casually pull out my notebook and jot down the names as soon as I can. That helps immensely. But people sometimes look at me funny when I pull out a notebook. I’ve gotten over it. I’ve had to, if I want to remember these things.

When I go to the store to get, say, milk, and ask Kelly if there is anything else we need, if she gives me more than 2 things, I write them down. At the amusement park yesterday, I jotted a list of all of the rides we went on, so that I could write in more detail about them later. Just seeing the list helps to trigger memories of the events.

The page from my notebook, describing the rides we went on Saturday.
The page from my notebook, describing the rides we went on Saturday.

Being without my Field Notes notebook was much more uncomfortable than those rare occasions when I forget to take my phone with me. Being able to write things down in the moment helps me continue with my day, and come back to those things later, when I am ready. Whenever I hear myself saying, “I’ll remember this,” alarm bells go off in my head and I’ll write it down. The worst come when those alarm bells go off while driving. Then, I’ll lean on Kelly, and ask her to jot something down for me.

Stephen King has said he doesn’t write down ideas because the good ones will keep coming back and the bad ones will disappear. I see value in that, but jotting down notes and ideas, for me, is quick and easy, and takes up little space in a notebook. So why not write them down, even if I never come back to it?

It reminds me of that old piloting adage: I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here. When it comes to writing notes, I’d rather write it down and never use it, than not write it down and lose it forever.

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My Shorthand for Notes and Other Writing

When I wrote recently about print vs. cursive, I said the following:

I tend to use a lot of shorthand in my journals. I rarely spell out names of my immediate family, resorting instead to first letters. I have dozens of shorthand codes for words and phrases I use commonly.

I was surprised by the number of people who reached out to ask me more about my shorthand. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to present peek into my shorthand and how it evolved. The latter is important because I can’t claim to originate all of it. I learn from the example of others in some cases.

First, a little background. When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was fascinated by the concept of shorthand. I remember walking to the local library and pouring through books on Gregg’s Shorthand. 7th grade was right around the time I had to start taking notes and I was looking for ways to make it easier. Gregg’s shorthand never took, but the idea behind it stayed with me. Between my sophomore and junior years I found a book which in part, taught me how to take better notes. I wish I could remember the name of that book, because it has shaped the way I take notes ever since, but alas, it is lost to me.

Over the years since, I have refined the way I take notes, looking for shortcuts and adapting along the way. Eventually, it became second name to write longhand this way, and I turned it to all my longhand writing that I do for myself. (Although, admittedly, sometimes my shorthand creeps into longhand writing I do where someone else is the intended audience.) Here I’ll cover four that I use most frequently.

Examples of my shorthand in handwritten notes.

Shortcut, courtesy of the Ultima video games

When I was a teenager, I loved the Ultima games by Richard Garriott, a.k.a Lord British. I loved the detail in the games, to say nothing of the cloth maps. I also enjoyed how the game made use of Germanic runes for the language. There was a time that I could read those runes almost as well as I could read English.

One of the characters in the Ultima alphabet was a verticle line connected to a triangle (see the first item in the image above). This represented the letters “th” and I quickly adopted this as my shorthand for the word “the”. This is so ingrained in my today that I’ve lost track of how often I’ve used it in writing I’ve given to others. “The” isn’t used much in notes, but in other writing that I longhand, especially fiction, it comes up quite frequently and my shortcut saves time. I also use this to preface words that begin with “th”, like “there”, “then”, “theory,” etc.

The word “very” is very unnecessary

In a creative writing class in college, there was a discussion of the use of the word “very.” The general consensus was that the word is overused and should be avoided. Of course, it can’t always be avoided, espcially if I am taking notes that capture a quote or something someone is saying. But I did take it to heart in my notes and longhand writing. Instead of writing out the word “very” I draw a horizontal line over the word that “very” modifies. (See the second item in the image above.) So if I’m jotting down the phrase, “it was very hot today,” what I actually write is, “it was hot today” with a line over the word “hot.”

Shortcuts from the story of civilization

One of my favorite pieces of history writing is Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series. While some of the history is dated, the writing remains a real work of art to me. A few years back, I read their Dual Autobiography. One passage really struck me as practical:

We discovered an excellent typist, Mrs. Edith Digate, who soon learned to understand Will’s handwriting and abbreviations (d=ed, g=ing,…, etc.)

Ever since reading that, I’ve taken to using “g” at the end of a word instead of “ing” when I am writing longhand. (See the third item in the image above.) So in writing out words like,”writing” I write “writg”. I also write “runng”, “talkg”, “sleepg”, etc.

I never adopted the “d” for “ed”. I don’t know why. Maybe because it was not as efficient.

Taking a page from the British Secret Service

Anyone who has seen a James Bond film knows that many of the characters within the secret service are known only by a letter: Q and M being the most famous examples. For the most common names I use in piece of writing, I typically will resort to using just the first letter. (See the fourth item in the image above.) In my journals, I use the first letters of the names of my immediate family members instead of the full names. Fortunately there is no overlap. In fiction, I do this for main characters so long as the shortcut will cause no confusion.

Of course, I abbreviate many words for convenience and speed as well. I have grown used to my shortcuts, but I still often lust for being able to take notes using real shorthand. I remember attending a meeting early in my career in which an administrative assistant took notes in shorthand. She was able to reproduce verbatim, everything said in the meeting. The pages looked like gibberish, but I was impressed.

I’m always looking for ways to improve and refine my own shorthand, so if anyone has tips or suggests, drop them in the comments. I’d love to see how others do this.

My Current Obsession: The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast

For the last six days, I have done almost no reading, a thing virtually unheard of for me. Instead, I have been obsessively listening to back-episodes of the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast. Tim Ferriss is the author of the Four Hour Work Week, a book that I skimmed, but never finished. I have, however, read two of Tim’s books that I really enjoyed, Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans. I’ve never been much of a podcast fan, but the thing that attracted me to Tim’s podcast was that I knew he was a meticulous experimenter, and tried to learn from data. I’m this way as well–as I wrote about often in the days after I discovered the concept of the quantified self.

I have always been someone who tries to take actionable lessons from my reading and experiences. When I read biographies, I take notes on things that the subject found useful and see if I can apply them in my life. Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans were chock full of these kinds of actionable insights. (One example: I learned of the Calm app, and have been using it for over a year now for daily meditation.) So I figured I’d give the podcast a try. I started with the most recent episode this past Friday, which wasn’t an interview, but a kind of roundup. After that, I went through the back list of 517 other episodes and marked the ones I thought I’d be initially interested in listening to. The list below is the list that I have listened to in the six days since. It is listed in order beginning with my most favorite. I list the times of the episodes to give a sense of just how obsessed I’ve become with these.

I’ve done the math: that is 19 hours of podcasts in less than six days. Obsessed is probably not an exaggeration. I have filled pages of my current Field Notes notebook with notes, ideas, and scribbling from these podcasts.

Raw notes I've taken from podcasts
Raw notes I’ve taken from podcasts

I’ve then tried to turn these into curated notes in Obsidian, for example from the first Jim Collins interview on the podcast:

Some of my curated notes from the first Jim Collins interview
Some of my curated notes from the first Jim Collins interview

And this is what I’ve managed to get through so far. I’ve got at least another 20 or so in the list I pulled, including a second interview with Walter Isaacson, Ken Burns, Steven Pressfield, Michael Lewis, Edward Norton, Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Allen, Adam Savage, Nick Thompson, Drew Houston, Tim O’Reilly, and more.

I usually get a bit anxious if I am not reading a book, especially after a few days, but I’ve been so focused on these podcasts and what I can learn from them, that it hasn’t bothered that I haven’t done much reading in the last six days. It doesn’t bother me to think I may not do much over the coming week or so as I get through this initial wave of podcasts. It has actually been a pleasant change of pace.

The only problem is what to do with the mass of notes I’ve been generating. I think I’m going to need to set aside an entire day to compile and make sense of them, and figure out what actions I want to take first, and put together a plan. It’s really great fun, I find myself smiling often as I listen to the podcasts, and have been honestly surprised (despite how much I read) at how many of the books mentioned on the podcast I have already read. And of course, rather dismayed by how many I have yet to read.

My Obsidian Daily Notes Automation Script is Now Available on GitHub

Since I am on vacation and happened to find myself with an empty hour this afternoon, I managed to clean up my code enough to where I was willing to put my Obsidian daily notes automation script on GitHub. This is the script that I use to automate the creation of my daily notes in Obsidian.

You can find the repo here.

As I say in the README:

I’m posting this software as-is. It works for me, and a number of folks have requested it and I’m happy to put it here to share it. But I have no time to support it. If I make improvements, I’ll try to post them, but there’s no guarantee there either. I realize that this may not work perfectly on non-Mac systems, but the whole point of posting the code is to let folks see it, fork it, and roll your own from it. Hopefully it works for you the first time. If not, the code’s there for you to mess with.

For those who choose to use it, keep in mind that I run my script on a Mac, and icalBuddy, which I use for pulling in my agenda, is designed for Apple’s calendar app. You may need to look for alternatives for other platforms.

I’m always eager for feedback and suggestions, but as I said, my schedule is such that I don’t have time to provide any kind of support for getting the script working for you.

Obsidian and Vim Mode

For the last several days, I have been playing around with Obsidian in Vim mode. Vim, for those who don’t know, is a powerful text editor that can take some getting used to. It uses different “modes”: for editing, for navigating and issuing commands. It’s keyboard commands are designed for touch typists so that you can do anything you need to do without your fingers ever leaving the keyboard.

Obsidian offers a “Vim mode” which gives some of Vim’s capabilities. I like the idea of Vim but I’m not completely sold on its implementation in Obsidian yet.

Because of how navigation work (basic cursor movements use the h, j, k, and l keys) a fixed-width font is better for Vim. The theme that I use, Pisum, doesn’t make use of a fixed-width font. That meant I needed to edit the styles in the theme to get what I wanted.

This was a useful side-effect of experimenting because I found that it was pretty easy to edit the styles. I copied the styles for the Pisum theme into another .css file and edited there so I didn’t mess up the original theme. I made two basic changes:

  1. I switched to a fixed-width font in the editor (but not in preview mode).
  2. I modified the emphasis style to show an underline. I like seeing the underlying for emphasis because this is what I am used to from decades of writing manuscripts in standard format–in which italicized text is represented with underlines.

Here is an example of what this looks like:

An example of my Obsidian theme changes
An example of my Obsidian theme changes

But there are some serious limitations. For one thing, Obsidian is not Vim, and that is a good thing, since Obsidian is really focused on something different from what Vim attempts to do. It means, however, there is limited support for .vimrc files in which various setting, keyboard mappings, and other configurations that customize the editor are stored. There is a plug-in that provides some limited support for .vimrc files, but it is limited

It is nice that Obsidian includes the Vim mode option because it makes the transition to Obsidian easier for people used to Vim’s keyboard mappings. But after playing around with Vim mode for several days, I think I am going to turn it off. I asked myself how often, while writing do I need to do some of the fancy things that Vim’s commands let me do? The answer is rarely.

All is not lost, however. I learned that it is easy to edit themes in Obsidian–by far easier than any other editor I’ve played with. And some of my edits I’m keeping. I’m turning off the fixed-width font. I prefer the default theme font for notes. But I’m leaving my underlined emphasis in place. And there are probably other tweaks I’ll make. I have it in my mind to produce a theme that looks like Word for DOS 5.5 (which was my all-time favorite word processor). I’d do this more for learning than actual use. After all, these days, everyone want to use a dark theme because it’s easier on the eyes, and that bright blue background in Word for DOS is the antithesis of a dark theme.

Once I have my personal theme stable, I’ll write a separate post about it.

We Need More Practical Lessons

While reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, I was particularly struck by some seemingly minor details. The book is a fascinating look into the modern process of scientific discovery, and there was some discussion of how a discovery written in a lab book and then signed by witnesses in order to document the dates of the discovery. When do scientists learn to do this?

I took AP biology, and AP physics in high school, as well as physics, chemistry and organic chemistry in college and no one every taught me how to properly use a lab book. Indeed, what was implied, at least at that level, was that what the teaching assistants and grad students who led the labs really wanted was nice, neat copy in our lab books with clear results that were easy to grade. I remember many of my fellow students had two lab books: the one they worked stuff out in, and the one they turned in after everything was cleaned up. I couldn’t spend the money on two lab books, so mine were messy.

It seems to me that the mechanics of a lab book–its true purpose and how it is used the real world–is a practical lesson that any burgeoning scientist should learn. But who teaches this? Are there upper division chemistry classes that focus on this? Certainly o-chem didn’t.

This got me thinking about other practical lessons that I would have benefited from, but was never formally taught. How to read a newspaper is one example that I’ve written about before. What about keeping a diary or journal? I don’t ever remember this being taught in school. I don’t ever remember a class in which the pros and cons of journals were discussed. I would have found these things very useful. Instead, I learned how to keep a journal by following (initially) the example Isaac Asimov described for himself in his autobiography.

Lab books are useful tools outside of the laboratory. For the first half of my career, I didn’t keep any kind of notes about the code I was writing. If I had to recreate something, therefore, it was often hard work. At some point, it occurred to me to keep notes as I worked. When I do something particularly complicated, I often list it out in my notes in high level steps, and then fill in the details as I work. I keep one simple idea in mind: a person new to the organization should be able to take my notes and reproduce my work. Technical debt is a big problem in I.T. People come and go and leave behind lots of undocumented code in their wake. You’d think lessons in keeping good notes would be part of the training process, but I’ve never seen it.

For that matter, how about something as simple as keeping a to-do list? I was never taught this in any of my classes.

There was one class I had–a 7th grade science class–in which our teacher spent quite a bit of time teaching us how to organize our work. We learned how to keep our science folder, and how to keep our notes and assignments organized in the folder. It was practical information that served me well through the rest of my pre-college schooling. Beyond that, most of the practical things I learned from books.

I can’t remember a teacher teaching how to take notes: how to identify the important points, and highlight them; what to leave in and what to exclude from the notes; tricks of shorthand to capture information more succinctly. All of this I had to figure out on my own. I read a book between my sophomore and junior years in college, and one chapter was all about note-taking. It changed the way I take notes and I use that method to this day.

I try to pass on some of these practical lessons to my kids. The Little Miss keeps a journal and I encourage that, and allow her to look at my journals in order to take ideas, but mainly so that she understands she can make it whatever she wants it to be. The Little Man could benefit from a daily to-do list, and I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to suggest it, even offering to help him get started by reviewing it together. He resists it, but he is at the age where he doesn’t think he needs it. (He does.)

It seems to me that in addition to classes in science and math and reading and English and history and art and physical education, there should be some practical classes on topics like these. Better yet, practical lessons could be merged into the existing classes.

  • In science, you could learn how to keep a lab book while you do your experiments. The lessons would be about the purpose–not to show you got the right answer, but to be able to reproduce your results, whatever they were.
  • In English, there could be a section on the literature of diaries and journals. There are plenty to choose from: John Adams, Samuel Pepys, Henry David Thoreau, Anne Frank just to name a few. Discussions could ensue about why to keep a journal, the practical value, and the literature can provide examples of what other people have done.
  • In home room, you might learn how to better organize your day, keep track of your work, and manage stress.

We need more practical lessons. I certainly would have benefited from them earlier than I did.