Friday Brainstorm 7 🧠
Knowledge graphs, note-taking, and a short story
Happy Friday and welcome back for the seventh issue of Friday Brainstorm! This issue has a singular theme - metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking.
Here’s an overview of what’s in store:
new article on knowledge graphs
Roam, the future of note-taking apps
the book that revolutionized my writing system
an incredible short story on memory
As always, I want to hear from you. As you read the newsletter, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions, related resources you’ve found inspiring, as well as any feedback around how I can make these better - just reply directly to this email.
What I’m Writing
This article is a more speculative than past writing. Here’s a snippet:
The way in which we transmit abstract ideas between people hasn't changed much in recent history. Until Elon Musk makes direct knowledge transfer possible, we're more or less stuck with having to explain our ideas to others. What does that process look like on a granular level?
[. . .]
To explain an abstract idea, I need to unravel my map of interconnected ideas into a linear narrative that you can follow. If I do my job right, you will create your map of interconnected ideas that closely matches mine.
Every time we learn an idea, this is basically what's happening. As fallible and imprecise as this process is, we have gotten pretty good at speaking or writing in a way that people would understand more or less clearly.
The source of confusion and misunderstanding stems from the middle step, where interconnected ideas are converted into a linear narrative and then back. What if we could convey the interconnected structure of our ideas more directly, without the middle step?
Given how central the sharing of knowledge is, it's natural to ask whether technology can be built to streamline this process.
Roam Research might be the breakthrough we needed to popularize knowledge graphs. Learn more in the next section below 👇
Tools for Thought: Roam Research
Roam Research is a tool that has profoundly influenced the way I think. Honestly, I’ve been really excited to share since I first started using it in October, but I wanted to wait until it became more mainstream so that people would be more likely to adopt it.
Roam is a note-taking app that’s designed to work more like your brain naturally does. In your brain, there are neuronal connections between related concepts. For example, the concept of a dog might be linked to bark, pet, friend, animal, cat (see below).
Similarly, Roam stores all your notes in a graphical structure behind the scenes. Each page is a node in the graph that links to many other pages.
Unlike the one-directional links you’re used to on the internet, these links are bi-directional. In other words, each page links back to all the pages that are linked to it. This makes it easy to traverse your graph of ideas, much like your brain operates.
How is Roam different than other note-taking apps, like Evernote? There is no friction to starting to use Roam - since there’s no structure, you can start anywhere and build from bottom-up. By comparison, other apps force you to define a rigid structure of folders or notebooks up-front. This is problematic because (1) a note can only live in one notebook even if it relates to two areas and (2) your interests may change over time and you’ll have to restructure your notebooks.
Roam is built around making it easy to draw connections between ideas. Unlike other note-taking apps, Roam makes it extremely easy to spin up new pages and make connections between things in stride.
This frictionless interface has conditioned me to always be thinking about how an idea relates to other ideas I’ve noted. If you think of creativity as connecting distant ideas, then Roam supercharges the process by making the connections easily searchable.
Here are a few resources to learn more about Roam and it’s use cases:
An information hub for Roam Research (collection of resources)
How to Take Smart Notes
The primary use-case of Roam for me is to take notes on books, articles, and podcasts.
I used to passively read books only to forget their contents a couple of days later. That’s until I read Sönke Ahrens’ How To Take Smart Notes, which completely revolutionized the way I consume information.
The system described in this book is inspired by that of the 20th-century German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who published 70 books and 400 articles in his lifetime. The book promises to help you build
“a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.”
Luhmann’s core insight was that a note was only as valuable as its context, or connections to other information. It’s not enough to simply make highlights in a book you’re reading because you won’t remember the idea that the highlight gave you.
Instead, Luhmann paraphrased the ideas that he was reading about in his notes. This forces you to actively engage with the ideas rather than just passively reading them. It also pushes you to immediately capture any ideas that the reading may have inspired.
Another mistake that many people fall into is thinking “Under which topic do I store this note?”. Instead, you should be thinking “Under which context do I want to stumble upon this note in the future?”. You want to store your notes in the context that you want to re-discover them in rather than the original context of the book/article.
The core principle is getting compound interest on past thinking - never having to think through the same idea more than once. This can only be done if you have a robust system for capturing and organizing your notes and thinking.
For a quick guide on how to implement this system in Roam, check out this article.
What I’m Reading: Exhalation
Ted Chiang’s Exhalation is a collection of short stories that he’s written over the past few decades. Categorically it’s science fiction, but the stories don’t resemble the stereotypical sci-fi narrative. Instead, each one makes you think deep and hard about what it means to be human and how to relate to the world around us.
My favorite story from the book is The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling. Ted finds a refreshingly original way to explore a common theme in sci-fi: a future where we have a permanent video recording of every moment in your life.
How would this technology effect the human psyche? Think about the saying, “forgive and forget”. Our fallible memories are the basis of how we move past arguments and negative experiences with people. What if, instead of fading away, old memories could be played back with perfect accuracy?
The genius of this story is in the structure - Ted introduces a parallel narrative that is set in the past. It explores how the introduction of writing influenced a tribe that has previously only relied on storytelling to exchange information. We don’t think of writing as technology, but it extends our cognitive abilities to be able to represent abstract thoughts on a physical medium.
By interleaving these two narratives, Ted helps us think through how a future technology might change our psyche through the lens of how a past technology (writing) has influenced us.
⏺️ Check out the book ⏺️
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm! What did you think? Anything that stood out or sparked your curiosity? Let me know by replying to this email.