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An Iterative Approach to Notes (medium.com/bytebase)
71 points by mooreds 11 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 47 comments

I've long advocated a simple learning approach to note-taking: don't engineer your organization system from the outset (wiki/labels/etc), just dump your thoughts to disk/paper first.

Then learn from how you actually use that information (rather than how you imagine you would use it). Your use patterns will provide hints as to the correct organizational method. Then you can start specializing.

For instance if your notes are most once-off, there’s no need to organize them. If they’re for writing, you may elect to coalesce and rewrite them into coherent topics. If they’re for to do lists, you can reorganize them using bullet journal methods. If the network is important, then consider a wiki.

This same principle applies in data engineering. If the data's use-patterns are not yet established, don't create a complex anticipatory architecture that may be underused or ill-fitted. Learn from how the users use the data, then create the appropriate architecture.

Otherwise you'd end up with an over-engineered system that soon gets abandoned due to friction.

I have a notebook and I essentially dump everything into it. Each meeting I put a simple header: "Payments Weekly" or "Bob 1:1" or "API Review" and then jot my notes underneath. The only organization that exists is that it's written in chronological order.

I'd like an app with dead simple "just start typing" with a basic header to name the section...

but what I don't want to have to do is go back and clean up and edit and organize. I'm just not that kind of person. I'm not very organized in general, and I don't have the personality traits needed to say "Hmm, I think I'll organize my notes."

But it'd be great if something would detect that I've had five "Bob 1:1" meetings and would group those together, for example. Maybe something lightweight like this exists, but I haven't seen it...

Do you ever re-visit your notes?

* If so, how?

* If not, what is their value?

Edit: I've returned and re-read that comment. It may come off as a little snarky, but it's not intended as such, it's a genuine question. I ask, because I'm interested in how other people's processes work, and wonder whether my system would be of use or value to anyone else.

Not who you were replying to, but:

* Most of my notes relate to a single blog post / article / paper that I read.

* In my notes, I jot down any new concepts I learned, and summarize them in a way I know I will be able to understand later.

* I'm very forgetful, so it helps to have this type of "condensed" representation so I can go back and review in six months when I inevitably forget what I learned.

* It's even better if my note-taking software can help me find old notes that I may have forgotten about. This is where tags and bidirectional links come in handy.

* My notes contain a lot of math, which is why I can't just use a plain text editor. The side-by-side style some editors use (like the VS Code Markdown Preview) is also suboptimal, because it wastes screen space -- normally I want half my screen to be notes, the other half to be a pdf). So far, Typora is the only software I've used that gets math editing right. But I'm slowly working to fix that! [1,2]

[1] https://github.com/benrbray/prosemirror-math [2] https://benrbray.com/static/prosemirror-math/index.html (only tested in chrome)

try https://www.monsterwriter.app/ It has support for inline equations as well as block equations and mermaid diagrams.

Took a look at link 2 in Firefox, both the inline and block equations render excellently. Great looking project!

The rendering is all thanks to KaTeX, which is indeed great! Maybe it's not clear enough from the page, but the page is actually editable -- click anywhere and start writing. You can add new math by typing an expression like $x+y=z$. The untested bit has to do with math editing on -- there are some issues with moving your cursor around using the arrow keys on FF.

Not who you asked but my thoughts:

I usually write notes on paper for _every_ meeting I have in my professional life. Even at meetups or other low-key situations, I will write down things before, during, and after.

However, I hardly ever go back and read them after the event. The point is not to keep a record of what I learned but instead to help me learn _in the moment_.

I have found that by hearing/reading something then creating a new thought/paraphrase of the thing I learned, then writing that new thing down, then reading what I just wrote all help solidify the new knowledge enough in my mind to not go back. I don't remember everything but I have the knowledge associated with other things enough that I can build on top of it, usually.

When I do go back, I hardly know what the notes mean and usually give up and throw the notebook out. The only common exception to this are action items/todos as I've learned to write those very clearly and with clear expectations.

I do return to my notes, yes, but only within a week or two. Typically I'll take notes on Monday and then reference the notes from the meeting at either the next meeting or at a 1:1 or when I'm compiling my weekly status updates to the boss man.

How? I just flip back through my notebook until I find it. The problem is that some days I have 15 meetings and some days I have 3 meetings, and some meetings have 2 pages worth of notes and some have 3 lines worth of notes. And due to the sheer amount of notes I take, it's not easy to remember in which meeting which topic was discussed, so I sometimes have to read 15-20 pages worth of notes just to find the one thing I was looking for... very frustrating.

The value of some notes is the act of taking notes keeps me from falling asleep and missing the 1 thing that I should care about that nobody would tell me otherwise...

This, definitely.

I don't allow my team to bring laptops into any of my meetings, unless they are giving a presentation, and I have taught and encouraged them to avoid taking laptops to other team members' meetings. Instead, we bring notebooks and pens.

This serves a few purposes. First, like you said, it forces you to pay attention. You learn a lot more, and you get more involved. You ask more questions and you walk out of the room having learned something.

Second, it makes you look GOOD. Imagine going into a meeting with the CTO and you're the only person without a laptop, the only one making eye contact, the only one writing things down. As far as the CTO is concerned, everyone else is dicking around on Facebook, and here you are, bluGill, taking notes and being a go-getter.

My team resisted my rule when they first heard them, but (pre-COVID) I've overheard them suggest to other people not on our team to leave the laptop at their desk and bring a notebook instead. It really works.

You’re looking for something like Roam Research or one of the apps it’s inspired.

You beat me to it. Roam's Daily Notes (automatically created) are about as low-friction as it gets to meet the OP's "spec".

Never heard of it. I'll check it out!

> it'd be great if something would detect that I've had five "Bob 1:1" meetings and would group those together, for example.

This is really interesting. Thanks for the idea! We don't currently offer this kind of detection in bytebase.io but I see how this can be very useful.

The way I take meeting notes in bytebase.io is with a feature called "create scratch collection" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlCQZ8xGL-Q). How it works is you hit q and then just start writing, kind of like you're texting yourself.

With scratch collections, you don't need to worry about where your notes go. You just get them down. Then, sometime later, you can go back through and name the notes and categorize them - if you're so inclined. You can also extract anything actionable into todos

I use `org-journal` to have timestamped daily notes. If I think it's going to take more than a couple of minutes, I start a new .org and add bullet points to it (currently just dumping these in some canonical, indexed location, haven't felt the need for something fancier like org-roam yet)

If it's all just plain text, you can grep -a to find all of your 1:1s with Bob. It's not as pretty as some overengineered electron app, sure, but it will get you what you want.

"`grep -a 'Bob 1:1'` Hm, not as much as I expected. Maybe spaces? `grep -a 'Bob 1 : 1'` there's a few, maybe any number of spaces? `grep -aP 'Bob 1\s{0,}:\s{0,}1'` Oh I could have spelled it out `grep -a 'Bob one on one'` Or it could be in a different order `grep -a '1:1 with Bob'` ...

    diff --git a/2020-08-09.md b/2020-08-09.md
    new file mode 100644
    index 0000000..c599ee6
    --- /dev/null
    +++ b/2020-08-09.md
    @@ -0,0 +1,9 @@
    +* Set up one on one again with bob on 2020-08-24 13:00. I thought I set one up
    +  with him for next week already but I can't seem to find it.
    +* I figured out some searches I can do to find one on ones:
    +        grep -a 'Bob 1:1'
    +        grep -a 'Bob 1 : 1"
    +        grep -aP 'Bob 1\s{0,}:\s{0,}1'
    +        grep -a 'Bob one on one'
    +        grep -a '1:1 with Bob'

So far my most effective method has been to stop trying to categorize and organize my notes.

I just use org mode and:

- have a to-do list up top. I try and keep notes as I progress through these

- below is a "waiting" group of todos which I check every few days so they don't clutter the top list

- below that is a simple daily log. I just write notes and tag meetings inside each day. I also write down a checklist of daily goals.

I used to organize everything by category and I found I still had to search for keywords anyways! I have been using a simple linear method for a few months now and have been sticking with it every day. Trying to organize it upfront gets too hard over time.

I watched a few people (Nat Eliason, Tiago Forte, Abi Abdaal) use Roam, EverNote & Notion and they spend so much time in a categorising phase, and the idea of a note having one "parent" topic really restricts cross linking of ideas, Especially in folder based setups like Evernote.

Something like this is very cool and looks like it helps solve that problem. Does it have a roam style graph? Can't see one from screenshots.

Hey, I'm Cara - one of the founders of bytebase.io. Thanks for your question!

Currently we don't have a roam style overview graph.

While a graph can be satisfying to look at, it also encourages striving for "perfection" in your notes. The graph wants you to create a masterpiece.

That's not what Bytebase is about. Bytebase is for the scratch notes core to your daily work - some of which you'll want to refine and organize later. Getting things down is messy and that's how it should be. After the "jot down", Bytebase helps you stay just a little more organized over time by making it easy to organize/categorize in small steps (and giving you flexibility through multiple parents and infinite hierarchy).

Re: navigating around - our approach uses keyboard shortcuts to quickly jump to and hone in on the bytes you need. One way we do this in Bytebase is with Speed Dial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3lS5J71HEM) - which lets you jump to a location in one keystroke.

The graphs are cool, and when I saw them I was seriously tempted. Then I thought:

(a) What does this tell me?

(b) How will I act on this?

I still have no answers to those questions, and while I still think the graphs are cool, and still create similar graphs from my bespoke system, I still don't think they actually give me anything.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

I use Obsidian (which is inspired by Roam). I know some people may use the graphs, but I personally have that functionality disabled. The real important bit for me is the fact that I can have bi-directional linking. For me, graphs are a cool toy, something I can go "ohhh, neat" and then never use again.

I still don't understand what these systems give that isn't provided by a simple wiki with auto- and bi-directional linking. People are getting extremely excited by Zettelkasten, and Roam, and Org-Roam, and Obsidian, etc, etc, etc, and no one seems to be able to explain to me why it's not basically just a wiki.

You use Obsidian ... how is it different from a wiki with auto-linking?

What makes me using Obsidian / Zettlr rather then a wiki is that they use just text files (in markdown syntax) you point the app to. You are not locked in with any of the apps, more specific wiki syntax or wiki infrastructure and are very free to sync or back-up all the contents.

Do you have any plain-file (i.e. non-database) wiki in mind which provides auto-linking and simple tagging?

I'm using the wiki I wrote in about 1998 when I first encountered the C2 wiki. It uses plain text files, and in addition to using mark-down style link syntax, the latest version auto-links from free-text without requiring any special markup. That reduces the friction further.

But what you are saying here is "Yes, it's basically just a wiki, but using plain text files underneath, and without using a specific app or database".

This isn't a criticism, it's just me hunting for understanding from the huge heap of hype. Every description I read seems to lead me to:

(a) It's just a wiki, and

(b) It's not doing what Luhmann says his Zettelkasten did.

So I'm finding the excitement very mysterious, and keen to find out what I'm missing.

> and no one seems to be able to explain to me why it's not basically just a wiki

That's actually precisely what it is for me. It's just an easy to use, lightweight, wiki that uses markdown and has backlinks. Your pages are stored in regular old markdown files, so you can do whatever you want for syncing if that matters.

If I weren't using Obsidian I'd probably be using a lightweight note taking app like Bear, or maybe a personal Wiki. It just feels like a good mix of the two that works for me though.

>> no one seems to be able to explain to me why it's not basically just a wiki

> That's actually precisely what it is for me.

See my reply here ...


I think people who are treating their new shiny systems as a wiki are missing the underlying, most important point of a true Zettelkasten.

I think you misunderstand... Obsidian is precisely a personal wiki for me because thats exactly what I want. I don't even attempt to argue that I'm doing Zettelkasten in any way shape or form -- I even have the Zettelkasten features disabled.

It is just a personal wiki! Focusing on Obsidian, I think the appeal though is that it automatically creates a wiki from your personal notes. Just type [[wikilinks]] and everything else is done for you.

Maintaining a proper wiki by oneself is too much overhead, but Obsidian is a nice extra on top of standard markdown notes.

> It is just a personal wiki!

That's the vibe I'm getting from nearly everyone, and yet there are a few articles out there that say that the Zettelkasten absolutely was not simply a wiki. It was more.

I've found a few explicit statements to that effect, but, ironically, I can't find them just now, but Luhmann talked about "having a conversation" with his Zettelkasten. Simply implementing and/or using a wiki is clearly not the same thing ... that's a personal knowledge repository.

So I think people are still missing something.

This "having a conversation" is misleading because Luhmann uses a different definition than most people: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/1146/communication-...

My understanding is that Zettelkasten is a way of using a wiki. One aspect is "small atomic notes/pages". Maybe you use your personal wiki that way, maybe you don't. Another aspect are "sequences of notes" (Folgezettel) but I'm not sure if that is a side effect of using a physical slip box or a useful concept.

Overall, it seems to be illusive like Agile. You will always find someone who claims you are doing it wrong.

What is it with HN and note taking software, feels like there is a mini boom going on, is that matched to actual need?

HN loves productivity porn, to feel like you're productive without actually accomplishing anything

I don't know if that's how I'd characterize it but it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be productive but spending more time on your productivity system than actually getting work done.

It's a form of gamifying procrastination, which at least makes you feel more accomplished and less guilty afterwards.

Agreed. But a good system ensures that I get things done. Even if you spend more time on the system than the things you do, if you are getting more done that needs to be done it is a win for the system.

Of course systems that get you to get done what needs to be done without all the systems work are better. Whatever works though.

Nail on head. Tried so many of these for me nothing sticks except for notepad. Wanted to try roam but cant justify the cost.

I identify with this so much.

I would say that Roam Research inspired a mini-notetaking-boom! The reason is that it's based off a good idea, but it's very much a walled garden and the $15/mo price is very clearly aimed at attracting institutional licenses, rather than individuals.

The folks at Athens Research [1] are creating an open-source alternative, and I expect they will soon eat Roam's lunch.

[1]: https://github.com/athensresearch/athens

I am prepping for interviews. So much to learn and remember.

I have a script I call brain dump. It is just vim running in a while loop in a terminal. I can switch to at any time with Ctrl+Shift+J. I type some stuff and when I'm done I save as normal and the note is emailed to be behind the scenes. Encrypted with PGP. I can view it from any device and I have great search. And because I happen to run my own email I also completely own this. I don't want to share my musing with another random third-party that will use it somehow to spam me. The next generation of internet products ought to finally be privacy first. Let's make the internet what it is supposed to be.

it requires you to sign up to a website.... it would be better to create an electron app for it that DOES NOT require an account

Bi-directional linking please

Yes, founder here. Bi-directional linking will be coming soon! While we don't support bi-directional linking yet, we do have the ability for bytes to live in multiple locations. Here's a short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1afP_gsvR30

Please add math support, too! KaTeX is a great drop-in option! If you do, please consider "first-class" math support, like the screencaps here [1]. Both block and inline math are important, and it's important to be able to quickly add/edit math nodes. Another good option is to show the math source $\int_a^b f(x) dx$ while editing, and render it after the user commits a cell, much like Jupyter notebooks.

[1] https://github.com/benrbray/prosemirror-math

Latex pls.

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