Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

I hear people say that a lot. You probably have, too. Maybe that statement was directed at you. It has been with me.

What do I mean when I talk about people saying I can't understand why ...? They say things like:

  • I can't understand why you bought that
  • I can't understand why you use that software
  • I can't understand why you like that band

And the list goes on.

When someone says I can't understand why ..., they're looking at a situation from their perspective. They're looking at a situation through their filters. They're comparing whatever it is to their own likes and biases. They might even have had a bad experience with something, or not had their (often unreasonably lofty) expectations met.

When someone says I don't understand why ..., there's often an element of reproach or an assignment of guilt in that statement. They might just want to make you feel bad for making the choice you did. Sometimes, they're trying to mock you for making what they consider a bad choice.

Ignore them.

You chose to buy or use or like something because it suits you. Because it fits your needs.

The opinions of others don't matter. What matters in this case is your opinion. Letting the opinions and ideas of others influence you can give them a small degree of control over you. Control they don't deserve and should never have.

You can only be true to yourself, to your opinions, to your ideas. Trust them. Trust yourself.

If you smith words for a living (or because you enjoy it), you find yourself spending a lot of time reading. Not just for research, but because you enjoy good writing. Sometimes, you come across the work of a writer who you want to punch in the face. Why? Because they're just that darned good.

I devoted 2021 to rereading a number of books. One of them was C by Tom McCarthy. He's one of those writers I want to punch. Several times. Yes, he is that good.

C is the story of Serge Carrefax, a man born at the dawn of the age of electricity and wireless. The novel weaves the tale of how technology influenced and shaped Carrefax and, by extension, influenced and shaped the world. Even though I don't write fiction, I have to admire McCarthy's technique. Some people have said the novel is Pynchonesque (and in some ways it is), but the story also has McCarthy's own distinct stamp on it.

I do envy McCarthy as a writer. But reading (or rereading) his work and the work of other skilled writers gives me something to aim for. I may never reach their heights, but it's worth a try.

Ones that encapsulate my thoughts about note taking and the tools used to do the deed in question:

Note-taking isn't rocket science

There seems to be something of a cottage industry (for lack of a better term) in the online world. A cottage industry of people who vocally question the choices of others. Not only questioning those choices, but implying or outright stating that their choices are wrong.

Case in point: in early September, 2022 this post by blogger Paolo Amoroso had the dubious honour of being shared on Hacker News. I read the comments on the Hacker News post, and more than a couple of them were questioning Amoroso's choice of using a device running ChromeOS as his daily driver. Especially when he has better options.

I've been on the receiving end of that kind of criticism more times than I count. It doesn't sting, but there is more than just a bit of arrogance and condescension wrapped up in that criticism.

It's people applying their standards, their needs, their biases, their choices to you. It's them expecting your needs, your way of doing things to tightly dovetail with theirs. Not realizing, of course, that we all do things differently. That we all have different needs. I call that the power user fallacy. And it was on full display in some of the comments for that Hacker News post.

What you decide to use is your choice. Not someone else's. It's up to you to pick whatever technology that suits you best, even if that isn't what someone who purports to know better than you chooses. It's a matter of what works for you.

If your choice doesn't work for someone else, the problems don't lie with you. The problems, as Robert Fripp aptly said, lie elsewhere.

More.

That's something many of us strive to do. More work. More reading. More activities. All in a pursuit to, we hope, better ourselves and fill supposedly idle moments and to keep idle hands busy.

It can be a constant push to find more things to do, to tackle more, all in the name of productivity. At least, what you think will be productivity.

You can do more. But the questions you need to ask are Do I need to? and Do I want to? You need to ask those questions because more can become a trap. You find yourself trying to fill as many of your waking hours as you can with something. With anything, no matter how small or big. All with the aim of being productive.

To me, that path leads you to false productivity. You're doing more work, but little of that work might matter. It's often tasks you've set to fill time, to rather than to do something meaningful. It's replacing quality with quantity.

I know a number of people who try to read and learn everything they can. An admirable goal, but they usually rush through books and articles and courses. I wonder how much they're actually retaining. I wonder what kind of relationship or connection they have with what they're reading or with what they're trying to learn. Often, that connection is shallow and tenuous. They're only scratching the surface rather than delving deeper and internalizing what's before their eyes.

You risk burning out if you pack too much into your life. Burnout that can hit you hard and fast, out of nowhere.

Remember that your life doesn't have to be a continuous stream of work and activities from the time you wake up until the time you turn in. There's nothing wrong with taking time to rest, to relax, to reflect. You'll be doing less, but you'll be getting more out of it.

Give it a try.

In the early 1990s, I was heavily into desktop publishing (DTP). As I was learning that craft, I couldn't afford the DTP heavy hitters of the day — PageMaker, Ventura Publisher, QuarkXpress. But I did have a copy of WordPerfect 5.1 (yes, the version that ran on DOS) on my trusty 386. And, one day while browsing in a downtown Toronto bookstore, I stumbled across a volume titled Desktop Publishing with WordPerfect 5.1.

Pairing software with dead trees, I managed to learn how to publish long, well-formatted documents using a tool that wasn't really designed for that task. It was a cumbersome process, but it was possible.

In learning to desktop publish with WordPerfect 5.1, I gleaned a valuable lesson: unless you have no other choice, it's not worth the time or effort to push your tools beyond their intended uses.

Read more...

A while back, I devoted an edition of my weekly letter to personal knowledge management (PKM, for short) and how I thought PKM had become too complex and riddled with tool fetishism. As you can expect, I did get some comments tossed my way.

Because inquiring minds want to know, some of those comments (a few mocking) asked what my PKM setup is, what group of tools I use to manage my information.

To be honest, I'm wary of calling what I do personal knowledge management. How I collect and use information is definitely not on a grand enough a scale to have that lofty tag applied to it. And my tools reflect that.

It'll come as no surprise to those who know me that my setup is fairly basic. It lacks the complexity, the whiz-bang, the shock and awe appeal of the newer, flashier, sexier PKM apps and methodologies out there. But it suits my needs, which is all that matters.

So what do I use? I take notes using using Nextcloud Notes, and create outlines using WorkFlowy. To be honest, if Nextcloud had an outliner app, it would be bye-bye WorkFlowy in an instant.

Yes, that's it. Nothing more. OK, aside from a paper notebook into which I jot ideas, write (very) rough drafts, and the like. But as soon as can, I put all of that into Nextcloud Notes.

Why to I use those tools instead of, say, Obsidian or Roam or Notion or org-mode? They're simple. They do what I need them to do. Both are light and easy to use on web, on desktop, or on my phone. That said, I don't use the WorkFlowy desktop or mobile apps.

As I said, my setup is basic but it works for me. The heavyweight PKM tools I've tried offer me few or no advantages over using plain text files and a text editor. For what I do, those larger, more complex PKM tools are just a bit too much. Embracing the so-called constraints of Nextcloud Notes and WorkFlowy helps me stay productive without resorting to a lot of complexity.

I also have regular intervals in which I review and, where necessary, prune the information in my tools. That takes me one hour every six weeks or so. Those sixty minutes do wonders for clearing out the cruft. And taking that time is as important to a good PKM setup as being able to efficiently and effectively collect the information that I might eventually delete.

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