Plain text can’t save you if you lose the files

Derek Sivers suggests, in a much-linked-to post , that all your stuff should be in plain text files, and I (almost) agree with him.

Most of my notes are in some form of plain text format, but not for the reasons Sivers lists. My notes are in plain text because I prefer editors that use plain text by default. I suggest you use the tools and formats that are most useful to you now. If that’s plain text, then great.

The fear of not being able to open or otherwise read files, someday in the future, is overblown. File formats last a long time. Email, PDF, even Word documents can be opened decades later. Mine can, anyway. But what about in 100 or 200 years? My response is, “Who cares?” I mean, c’mon. My digital notes are going to be tossed in a dumpster along with the rest of my shit by my family like 20 minutes after I die, anyway. Your notes may be more important to the world than mine.

The thing I worry about isn’t “lock-in” or lack of portability or any of those. What I worry about is losing the actual files. This happened to me recently. I try to keep methodical backups, but I was careless with a folder full of Markdown files that were used to render a blog and they are all gone. Hundreds of them. I thought I knew where they were and I thought I’d made backups and a combination of cleaning up and switching machines and poof! All gone. Fortunately, I have the rendered HTML files but my point is that, whatever their format, all files are useless if you lose them.

So, back up those Word docs and PDFs and Mindmaps and Powerpoints. And back up your plain text files, too. At least that way you stand a chance of having them “someday in the future”. You can worry about how to open them then.

The Daily Notes Dilemma

You see, I have a nice wiki , and for a couple of years, I have written a new entry in it (nearly) every day. These “daily notes” have been interspersed and interlinked with the rest of the wiki’s content. It works, but I don’t love it.

Writing in TiddlyWiki is fine. It’s super easy, but it’s also a little clunky, which quickly becomes friction. And the experience for visitors is weird if you’re not familiar with TiddlyWiki. Also, there’s no RSS feed. I sometimes consider this a feature, because it’s nice writing freely and knowing it’s not “going anywhere”. On the other hand, if I were someone wanting to follow along with me, I’d want a damn RSS feed.

So, I periodically waffle between writing my daily posts on the wiki and on a “real” blog. One thing that has kept me in the wiki is that I can easily link things from my daily notes posts to the more permanent entries. This helps build a network of links. I love the ideaof all this linking back and forth, but in practice, it’s not as useful as I’d hoped. TiddlyWiki works better when each distinct idea or thing is created as a separate “tiddler”. I’ll create a new tiddler about something, link to that something, and then transclude the tiddler in that day’s daily. And then I almost never actually take advantage of all that work. So why bother? I mean, it’s not as if I’m trying to build some sort of Zettlekasten here.

I love writing in Emacs and keeping everything formatted as Org-mode files . I like Hugo for blogging and I like the way the rendered site looks. TiddlyWiki is easier overall but Emacs/Org/Hugo is more fun for me and I believe it results in a nicer experience for visitors.

All that to say I’m once again back to using a “real” blog for my daily notes. I’ve committed enough to this that I’ve added a link in the navigation here. You can follow along at daily.baty.net .

An RSS feed for daily.baty.net is available both on its own and as part of my Everything Feed .

UPDATE (May 19, 2022): The wiki is once again seeing most of my daily notes posts.

Highlighting in notebooks

One valid criticism of using paper for notes is that searching through notebooks is rather difficult. With my poor handwriting, scanning for certain information in a wash of squiggly lines can be painfully slow.

For a couple of months now I’ve been going back through my notes periodically and highlighting key words and phrases. I’ve found that if I emphasize the most relevant bit of each note, I can find most things fairly quickly. It also helps when simply perusing old notes. Usually, I want to skip anything “meta” like which pen I’m using or the regular “Why am I still using paper?” fluff. Zipping over the highlighted phrases makes quick work of it.

Someday this could also help with building an index. If I ever decide to bother, that is.

So yeah, highlighting my paper notes is useful and I recommend it. I wish I’d thought of it sooner.

reMarkable is sleeping

I’ve been using the reMarkable 2 tablet for almost three months now. I’m often asked what I think of it. The short answer is this:

I use the reMarkable tablet every day. I love writing on it, but it won’t be replacing my paper notebooks.

If you are thinking about getting one, I have no reservations recommending that you do. The hardware is very nice and the experience of writing on it is terrific. It’s not exactly like paper, but it does feel analog. It feels “real”, unlike using the iPad and Apple Pencil, which feels like writing on a computer screen.

Here are what I’ve been using it for:

  • Morning pages. I don’t write morning pages as a practice, but I often open a new page first thing in the morning and make marks on it.
  • Brainstorming. The reMarkable is great for sitting down, away from the computer, and thinking something through. Sketches, scribbles, and a few notes are a perfect use for the tablet.
  • Drafting blog posts. I’m drafting this very post using it.

A common thread here is that they’re all throw-away notes. I have not been using the reMarkable for things I’ll want to reference later. It’s great for raw materials to be used later in some other format, but less so for long-term notes. I find that it’s still too much trouble to quickly jump between notes on the reMarkable. Swiping from page to page is slow, and getting to an overview of a notebook’s pages requires tap, wait, tap, wait, tap, and wait. This makes paging around in a notebook rather cumbersome for certain things.

I use the reMarkable nearly every day, but only a little. It spends most of its time sleeping.

I keep a paper notebook open on my desk, not the reMarkable. The reMarkable wakes quickly at the touch of a button, but a paper notebook never sleeps.

I use paper for:

  • Personal journaling. Nothing beats paper and a nice fountain pen.
  • Tasks and quick notes. This is my lightweight version of bullet journaling.
  • Jotting things down. Phone numbers, names, anything I need to remember.

As great and convenient as digital tools like the reMarkable are, there is one thing about paper notebooks that I never want to live without, and that is the artifact itself. There is no substitute for a shelf lined with full notebooks. I can pick one up today, or in twenty years, and easily skim around in it. No digital format, as convenient as they may be, can replace that.

My new note-taking system: Don’t take notes.

It feels like the entire world (or at least my corner of) is consumed by the “how” of note-taking. Tools, workflows, processes, backlinks, and on and on. Obsidian? Roam? Paper? I read it all. It’s fun and interesting and there’s no end of things to distract myself with. A distraction is all it is.

None if it really matters, though, and yet we endlessly split hairs and wring our hands and gaze at our navels over irrelevant minutiae. It’s exhausting. I’m not one of those people who wear “I never change my system” as a badge of honor. I can’t seem to stop. I’m too curious for that. FOMO and all.

As an attempt to extract myself from this loop, I’ve decided to stop taking notes for a while. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing. Writing isn’t note-taking. Nor is journaling. I’ll still do that. That’s what all of this is supposed to be for, isn’t it? But I won’t be jotting down my recent thoughts about minimalism or digital record-keeping or the details of a conversation I had with a colleague or how much I paid for the wrench I just ordered.

No more Roam vs Obsidian vs Tinderbox vs Org mode vs The Archive or what-have-you until I stop obsessing over which is better or more private or more open source or if it uses the right kind of Markdown. No more worrying about whether I’m taking “smart” enough notes or if this one should be “evergreen” or not. How long should a zettel be, anyway?

I’m willing to bet there are lots of smart, productive, happy people around that take very few notes and aren’t missing anything. I would love to be one of those people.

Are automatic backlinks useful?

When I started using Roam, I found the way it handled backlinks to be a revelation. Other software does backlinks, but Roam’s implementation made it feel new. Suddenly, backlinks felt necessary.

I started writing everything in Roam’s Daily Notes, and I’d link things by putting brackets around each word or phrase that I thought I might want to review later. I made lots of links. After a while, I noticed that many (most?) of these linked words and phrases would end up as empty Roam pages containing nothing but backlink references.

In effect, what I was doing was creating saved searches.

I noticed something similar in my TiddlyWiki at rudimentarylathe.wiki . The automatic backlink references at the bottom of each note were in most cases links from one of the daily notes, and this ended up as a collection of backlinks like “2021.04.10 – Daily Note”. Not very helpful. Would I be better off just searching for the topic in question? I think so, so I recently changed the note footer on the wiki to do just that. It now shows a list of “tiddlers” with the most mentions of the current tiddler and also those with titles containing the same word. You know, like saved searches.

I’m starting to question the value of automatic backlinks in my notes. I still want them, but I’m not sure I need them the way I thought I did. They no longer feel necessary, but are they useful?

I started thinking about this again after re-reading Sascha Fast’s post, Backlinking Is Not Very Useful — Often Even Harmful . I had an adverse reaction to the article when I first read it. I thought it was mostly sour grapes because Roam was eating The Archive‘s lunch. I read it as, “The Archive doesn’t have automatic backlinks, so they must be bad and you don’t need them!” There was this right in the first paragraph:

Automatic backlinks are not only automatic when there is software that is showing them for you. If you create a backlink apparatus by habit it is still automatic. The automatization software would then be in your head

That felt like some rationalization gymnastics right there. I looked up “automatic” and it said, “done or occurring spontaneously, without conscious thought or intention”. A habit of manually creating links still involves conscious thought and intention.

And then the article went on to try and cast automatic backlinks as “linking notes” vs manual linking as “connecting knowledge”. I thought that was a bit of a semantic crutch.

Here’s another stretch…

Just think a moment about how difficult it really is to use the internet and its web in a productive way. The single most productivity-destroying problem with using the internet is the temptations link provide. The same is true for your Zettelkasten if your link structure is not well-groomed.

To compare the distraction of links on the internet at large to those within my own writing in a curated Zettelkasten doesn’t seem at all relevant.

I was looking for problems with the article going in, and I felt that I found them straight away, so I skimmed the rest with a jaded eye and a bad attitude.

I may have overreacted.

Now that I’ve spent a year building my notes using tools that make backlinks easy and automatic, I’m coming around to Sascha’s point of view. I have hundreds of empty “pages” containing nothing but backlinks. There’s no context, no color. No knowledge. It’s just “linking notes”. Here’s Sascha’s closing comment:

Backlinks are a perfect example on how features of software not only can be useless but actively harming you work by redirecting your attention towards to the superficial belief that you need to place links, instead of trying to connect knowledge.

I still feel that “harmful” is an exaggeration, but I better understand his point now that I’ve had some time with it.

The answer to the title of this post is, of course, “It depends”.

Many people use the term “zettelkasten” for any old pile of notes. But for a true zettelkasten, one containing notes specifically intended to help garner and build one’s knowledge over time, automatic backlinks aren’t as useful. Explicitly linking between ideas and notes and providing context for the links is much better.

For other collections of notes, though, automatic backlinks can be very helpful, even though they aren’t functionally much different from saved searches. For example, I keep notes about people I know. Having backlinks created automatically whenever I link to “Mom”, for example, is a nice way to see all of the times I’ve mentioned her, right there next to my notes about her. This, for me, is very useful. Hi mom!

TiddlyWiki is more fun than Roam

I fell in love with TiddlyWiki almost exactly 2 years ago . I wrote in it almost daily until late August, 2020 , when I moved full-time into a public Roam database.

Roam is great and I love it. I’ve tried everything else, and nothing beats Roam for easily taking, linking, and re-using notes. I’m still using a private Roam database for work projects and CRM-type stuff, and it’s great for that.

Roam is efficient, fast, clever…and boring. Easy isn’t the same as fun.

TiddlyWiki is fun. It’s playful. I can’t really explain it, but creating new “tiddlers” and messing around with customization and finding new organizing principles is actually enjoyable in TiddlyWiki. I am probably one of only a handful of people who actually prefer the separate view and edit modes.

So, I’m going to return to using TiddlyWiki instead of Roam for my daily notes and scraps. My wiki is still at rudimentarylathe.org , which is a thousand times more fun as a URL than https://roamresearch.com/#/app/jackbaty am I right? I expect Roam will offer custom domains at some point, but so for they don’t.

I feel that TiddlyWiki’s local-first, single HTML file, free and open-source approach is better suited as a place to do “public self-modeling” for the long term.

Plus, it’s more fun. I hope to see you there !