Transcript: Joel Chan: Knowledge Synthesis, Analog Media and Zettel Questions

Transcripts Nov 10, 2020

This is the transcript of my conversation with Joel Chan on RoamFM.

In this episode, we talk with Joel Chan, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland.

His involves the following quote: 'My research seeks to understand and create generalizable configurations of people, computing and information that augment human intelligence and creativity. I want to help create a future where any person or community can design the futures they want to live in.'

In the pursuit of his research, he has stumbled into Roam and is dedicated to seeing its possibilities. Implementing a hybrid Zettelkasten and Zettel Question system, he has designed a system to achieve knowledge synthesis which is what we will be talking about in this episode.

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Transcript

[00:00:19]Norman Chella: In this episode, we talk with Joel Chan, who is an assistant professor at the university of Maine, Maryland, his research teaching explore systems that support creative knowledge work, essentially. he is specialized in tools for thought.

[00:00:35]To give you an idea of his research. He writes the following quote, my research seeks to understand and create generalizable configurations of people, computing and information that augment human intelligence and creativity. I want to help create a future where any person or community can design the futures they want to live in.

[00:00:54]and in the pursuit of his research, he has stumbled into Rome and is dedicated to seeing his possibilities. After having done a Rome tour with Rob hayfield, a previous guest on the show, he implements A hybrid Zettel Castin evergreen notes and Zettel question system that he will outline in the talk.

[00:01:14] So talked about knowledge synthesis, Which is a personal interest of mine. How would you integrate information and knowledge from different fields in order to create something new synthesis defined as creating something that is greater than the sum of all its parts Joel's workflow, how he creates notes.

[00:01:32] That leads to zettels. What is a Zettel. The failures of a subtle custom system in his Rome graph and how it had evolved over time to become the system. Now, analog media Joel shares with us one of his Zettel questions or questions that he's been pondering over time.

[00:01:48] Why is analog media so powerful? It's super interesting question to dive into and honestly, a roller coaster ride of a conversation. So let's dive into my chat with Joel Chen. Assistant professor at university of Maryland.

[00:02:04]Time is of the essence here. And I know that you have a lot to say. Might as well, just get right into it. Mr. Joel Chan, welcome to RoamFM. How are you doing?

[00:02:15] Joel Chan: Doing well, excited to talk about this.

[00:02:19] Norman Chella: I am also excited to talk about this and probably might as well just add in all the bits right beforehand, because we do have quite a number of thoughts, surrounding the usages of Roam, not only in a collaborative manner, but.

[00:02:33] Also in your specialty, And I really want to deep dive into that, but before we get into that, there has to be like this before times, before you stumbled into the tool Roam, how did you discover the tool and what were you doing beforehand that led you to that?

[00:02:48] Joel Chan: Yeah. So, um, so I'm an academic, I do research and most people who do research have some kind of, uh, external note-taking system. Um, it's pretty rare and hard to do serious, um, knowledge work only using only your first brain. I think I started out with just word documents. Just word documents, just notes, a binder of notes, a bunch of word documents.

[00:03:18] They were dated. , so like I have my research logs. Uh, it kind of modeled after like, the most common pattern in science is a lab notebook. Right? So you have basically like a commonplace notebook. Um, it's completely sequential, it's analog, uh, and that's actually a very powerful pattern anyway. , and that's why Roam's daily notes I think is, surprisingly powerful.

[00:03:41] People don't fully grasp how useful it is to have that time component. So that's why I had like, You have the date in the title and then some, some topic. and so there's tons of those and then there'll be other documents. Like here's a synthesis of, my ideas about this, this project, or I did a lit review.

[00:04:00] Here's a summary, all in word documents. So that's phase one. Uh, and it spilled out into, you know, like I would draw on the whiteboard, uh, print out a giant piece of paper and like cut out the graphs and put them onto the piece of paper, scribble on a graph with whiteboard, with markers, you know, just to spill out from the page, but that was the setup before.

[00:04:24]I forget when, sometime during my PhD, I came across Evernote. and the reason to do Evernote was just to stop having so much paper. and so I actually did Evernote premium. I was a Evernote premium subscriber, uh, recently, recently unsubscribed. Um, I did the similar thing in Evernote as well.

[00:04:46] Right. So a title, kind of research logs, I think I've had a little bit notes, research logs, um, and Evernote actually has some linking, right? So you can link to notes. Um, I did some of that, but I did get frustrated with, The kind of cabinet metaphor. So actually in, in my Evernote, I don't use sub notebooks.

[00:05:08] Right. So it's the same kind of deal as to the Microsoft word kind of bunch of documents, but kind of dumped into one big, uh, uh, place. Uh, so I have a cabinet notebook in Evernote, all the notes go in there that are not about action. Right. So anything that's a task is not in cabinet, but everything that's referenced with, it goes in cabinet.

[00:05:30] And I used, I tried to use tags to wrangle it, but it didn't work super well. the caveat is that I still got useful work done. Right. So it's not like I was completely crippled. you only start to feel it break when you decide to venture outside of your comfort zone, try to synthesize new ideas from new fields all at the same time or tackle a problem that you're not super well versed in.

[00:05:55] Right? So actually, if you notice, if you track it, the trajectory of lots of academics, it's towards less structure and less externalization over time. So, full professors typically, have their second brains in their students and collaborators. They rarely write lots of stuff down. They, uh, most of it's in their head already.

[00:06:16] Like it's internalized. And also they have access to basically a bunch of different external memories. They go walk up to their collaborators office and they talk to them and then they get what they need. and they don't need to write everything down. Right. Uh, and so that's part of it. And the other part of it's as if you stay within your specialty, by the time you get to full professor stage, which is like, let's say you have five years of tenure, five years for PhD, 10.

[00:06:45] Uh, maybe five to 10 years to a full professor. So 20 years like doing something for 20 years is well past the quote unquote tenure rule, which is false, but there's a reasonable heuristic for getting, becoming an expert.

[00:06:58] By that point, you're well practiced and anytime you encounter a problem within your domain, you don't need to learn that much.

[00:07:06] Right. So you've noticed this pattern. Yeah. So, for me, I, my research is more interdisciplinary, so I'm constantly outside of my comfort zone. So I begin to feel more and more pain, uh, as I venture out from my PhD as opposed to less pain. Right. So, um, actually, so then the first time I encountered Roam was, At the end of 2019, I think.

[00:07:31] And I didn't think very much of it to be honest, like I was saying, Oh, it's seems like, uh, I've I've used workflowy. Workflowy is great. There's this nice collapsing thing. I didn't really understand. I didn't notice the backlink feature. Um, the, the person who got me into Rome, I would credit two people.

[00:07:50] One is, um, Beck Tench. She's not. I don't know if she's super, she's invested in a different tool, a tinderbox, uh, but she introduced me to the idea of Zettelkasten and she implements her Zettelkasten in the software, Tinderbox, which is Mac only. I have windows. That's why I don't use it. that Tinderbox tool is actually quite mature.

[00:08:11] It's been around for quite a while. Um, has a very small but active user base and, uh, Beck did a bunch of YouTube tutorials on that. So Zettelkasten gave me the idea of linking. Um, and also I was prepared because this is my area of research, trying to understand how people develop new ideas, how do they, how can we build tools to support creative work?

[00:08:33] Um, and I was, I'm still focused on researchers as a use case of kinds of people who are doing creative work because research is creative. You're trying to do something that nobody has ever done before. You're trying to expand knowledge. And so how do we build tools to support that?

[00:08:51] So that's the background I was constantly searching for examples of tools that do this kind of thing. Then with that backdrop, I came across, Stian Haklev's video showing how he reproduced his research PhD note taking workflow in Roam.

[00:09:09] And that was like, ha okay, here's somebody using this for something that's similar to what I'm thinking about.

[00:09:15] And I'm starting to see this like linking stuff going on. Um, I still didn't use it right away.

[00:09:23] And then in early January, I decided to give it a run. I don't remember why, but, once I started that it was, um, the rest is history and. The first evolution I think was understanding just the page, referencing backlink stuff. It's been a useful way to just not worry so much about putting stuff into folders, which I already didn't want to do.

[00:09:48] Right. The way I use Evernote, I put everything into having it, but I couldn't wrangle the mess. Right. So I had to pick my poison either I can't find stuff because it's locked away in a folder or I can't find stuff because I can't resurface it. Cause Evernote search is great, but it's not, you know, it's not a silver bullet right.

[00:10:06] You can't search your way through the chaos. Um, so yeah, so in Rome, pages were the first thing that was interesting, I can sort of explore the graph that way. And then things really started to click once I figured out the mapping between daily notes and the pattern of time stream. Right. Always write stuff in daily notes and then move stuff into further development.

[00:10:32] That's the main pattern is always the time stream. Things are always happening. You always scratching. I've, uh, a tag in my daily notes called fleeting notes where nest under that any ideas that I just came to mind. So day notes is the magic junkyard, right? Everything chaos.

[00:10:49] There's not much, much structure there, but, um, it's super useful to have that to dip in and out. Right. So they daily notes the constant stream of idea development. And then you branch off into say Zettels or literature page or a project page, um, and dumped back in. so think about like the underlying kind of chaos stream, and then you dip up into, um, sort of more focused gardening, more focused development of ideas.

[00:11:21] And that's how I've started to really use Roam. That's when it really started to click because actually the first, first version of my Zettelkasten didn't work because I was trying to do         like. The super structured thing, like, um, branching off trying to follow exactly the numbering system. And it just was too much friction and felt like I wasn't ready for it yet.

[00:11:44]Um, so really things started working when I, um, use this pattern of chaos stream development stream. and even the second version of my Zettelkasten also was okay for solidifying what I already knew. Right. So my, my evergreen notes with the nice, like declarative titles, like effective synthesis is hard or, um, you know, scholarly communication operates on documents as the base unit, those kinds of declarative sentences as titles.

[00:12:13] It's great when I thought about something a lot already, and I can crystallize it into a evergreen note, but that's not a good fit for the early stages of trying to learn something. Um, so I kind of bottomed out in terms of what Zettels I could write, um, pretty quickly.

[00:12:30]this next phase of that was, um, There's a guy on Twitter in the Roam community. but he tries to maintain some pseudonymity because of his profession. So on Twitter he's um, Victor Hugo's imagination.

[00:12:43] Norman Chella: Ah, yes. Yep.

[00:12:44] Joel Chan: Yeah. Uh, I don't know if he's come on the podcast yet. Uh, but he's also like

[00:12:48] a pro.

[00:12:49] Norman Chella: he is not, but I have contacted him,

[00:12:51] Joel Chan: Yeah. So he's prominent a very prominent member of the community. Um, but he introduced this idea of Zettel questions, right? Like just questions, like a note that's not a statement, but a question. And the art of writing good questions is critical to creative work. And so that, that transformed it to version three, which is what it is now, which is I think working quite well.

[00:13:14] So in the early stages, you have lots of, cause that all questions like, um, do synthesis infrastructures already exist? Or what is the best way to, To model ahead of time, whether having diverse ideas will actually help you? These are kind of focusing questions for research projects.

[00:13:30] And then I started to dump things, refer to it in daily notes, right? So daily notes, there's still chaos. And then I can freely mix between these different questions that I'm thinking about and I'll reference it, reference it, reference it to the time stream. And then once things start to develop, I start to realize I'm repeating myself for one idea.

[00:13:50] Then it starts to make sense to crystallize that into a, uh, a Zettel. Right? So one example of this is, um, there's a stray observation that, um, someone mentioned to me, Ben Reinhardt, uh, Andy Matuschak has this idea that the best, most transformative insights only come from a single mind. So it's a very provocative, uh, you know, like it goes against this idea of collaboration.

[00:14:15] I think it's very subtle, right. So I transform it to be. If you're going to get into a collaboration with people and for it to be productive, you have to act as a single mind.

[00:14:25] Right. You have to be some kind of merging of minds but anyway.

[00:14:27] Norman Chella: That I can agree with more.

[00:14:28] Joel Chan: Yeah. Um, so I don't know if that's what they mean by that. That's how I understand what it means.

[00:14:33] Cause there's this idea of distributed cognition, right? So that, that, that phrase kind of got referenced block referenced for awhile in the time stream. And then eventually got to a point where like, okay, there's something really interesting here. I keep referencing it and I can develop this idea more and it can start to pull together the connections to distributed cognition.

[00:14:53] Um, nice examples of the idea. So that turned into a Zettel with that evergreen note kind of quality. That had been after like a few months, maybe half a year of it just showing up in a time of stream in the chaos stream. And

[00:15:10] yeah, I mean, it just takes, it takes, it takes a while. Um, sometimes it takes that long, probably longer sometimes for it to really crystallize.

[00:15:18]so anyway, Um, that's where I am now. Um, so the, you can think about like the Microsoft word days, um, and then the Evernote days, and then the Roam days. I think I branched off into other topics too,

[00:15:34] Norman Chella: Oh, no, no, no. This is like, this is really what I wanted to hear because when I saw your tour with Rob Haisfield, there are similarities with your system and mine. So when I started looking at it, I was like, wow, I understand some of this. Especially when you mentioned the Zettel questions, I call them prompts.

[00:15:53] Actually, I use a different, I use different metaphor. I don't use gardens. I actually call it like a mine. Um, I call it gunpowder. So gunpowder is what you use to like to spark something? Right? So, yeah. So if it's a prompt that will trigger you to either go into a rabbit hole towards a specific field or a specific idea or flesh out a concept, I actually want to ask if you have a Zettel question out there, must it point towards a specific project or do you have it just as, Oh, this is just one idea that I've been thinking about.

[00:16:23] Let it repeat, let it grow over time. And only under the natural continuous stream of time. Will it surface up that you will think to yourself? Oh, it's coming up so many times that I feel that it's now relevant enough. I must flush it out. Okay.

[00:16:38] Joel Chan: Yeah. So, the answer is both right. The answer to the first, the first answer is that yes, it's often related questions, projects, because that's the nature of my work. Right. Um, every research project has to be aimed at some interesting question. but, um, that also sparks other questions or some of the questions that just in the back of my mind.

[00:16:58]one question that really interests me right now is. why is analog media so powerful? Right? So if you actually, so, there's this. Idea of productivity porn of like, you know, the, the knowledge management community. I put myself in that, uh, in that boat as well of like loving to tinker with the system and trying to like set it up just right.

[00:17:22] And feeling out all these hacks. I have a tendency to do that. Right. And you end up spending more time trying to set up your system than actually doing. Good    work. Andy has been a good voice in the community trying to say, it's not, note taking that matters. It's effective thinking. Right.

[00:17:37] A lot of really effective thinkers, people who are famous for having produced good work. they're not going to be the people that use the latest software or the most fancy workflows often they just use a notebook,

[00:17:52]Norman Chella: Ah, okay, so that triggered the question.

[00:17:55] Joel Chan: Yeah. So there's something very powerful about, okay. So you can say like, Oh, you know, like they're lazy, but I don't think that's the case. Right. So if you, if you look very closely at how they use the analog media. I think you discover a lot of very powerful ideas. That, are actually, so again, like the original  Zettelkasten was pen and paper, right.

[00:18:17] It was like these index cards, but the way he used it was super powerful. I'm reading this book on Darwin, Charles Darwin, and his notebooks. Right. Um, he had like thousands and thousands of pages of notebooks. He used the commonplace book idea. Um, just lots and lots of notebooks and people are still studying it today.

[00:18:35] Um, but,

[00:18:36] Norman Chella: By the way. Do you know?

[00:18:37] Joel Chan: uh, the book name is, um, I'll send it to you. It's um, Darwin on Man, it's it's, it's a psychologist. It's a 1974. and, it's part of like psychology and creativity, but also there's a whole field of study of Darwin, trying to understand Darwin's notes, trying to uncover the secrets of what happened, uh, it's a subfield of history.

[00:19:00] So anyway, um, Darwin one interesting fact is that very few of his notes are intact. So he cuts out pages from his notebook.

[00:19:13] Norman Chella: Oh,

[00:19:13] Joel Chan: And Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So he cuts off little pieces and rearranges them. And so that's why part of why studying Darwin's notebooks is so hard because none of them are fully intact. I think the number, um, I can pull it up from my Zettel right now, actually.

[00:19:31] Um, this is, this might be worth, um, turning into a SRS card cause the details matter. There's significant excision of notes in Darwin's notebooks. 40% of the pages are excised. Okay. Uh, 40%. So, um, you can see, like they don't use it the way they use analog media is different. Also they mix a lot of media in there, right? So they're not using just text, you see development of sketches over time, but interspersed with reflections and notes from sources and observations.

[00:20:06] So this like. Place for multiple media and multiple styles of thinking mixed is also something that I think Roam finds a bit challenging, right? So it's hard to sketch and, uh, work with, non-verbal media in Roam. And it has enough that it will overcome some of that limitation, but there is a limitation that paper does not have, as you can do as structured as you want as little structure, as little verbal as you want.

[00:20:34] Right. So the question, why is analog media so powerful is very powerful. And that emerged while I was thinking about a bunch of different stuff, right. That actually branched off from, This idea of, like I just talked about like most transformative insights come from a single mind, thinking about then distributed cognition about, how different minds are able to melt together, whether the mechanisms by which they can, you know, think the same thoughts and then thinking about how.

[00:21:01]Every individual person sets up their environment as a distributed cognition system, if it's effective, right. They don't have to think as much, um, the environment does some of the thinking for them know that it means to think about, okay, now I can try to understand why, why is it that, you know, lots of people, don't use the latest, fancy tools and workflows.

[00:21:22] They look very simple, but they produce excellent work and it's not in spite of their, um, humble media. It's because of how they use it. There's something powerful about how they do it. So yeah. So these, these questions emerge over time.

[00:21:40] Norman Chella: Yeah, this, uh, this is, this is quite the grand question. And even just thinking about it feels very heavy in terms of the, the possibilities of what the answer could be, because it feels like they have already built some kind of what's the word for it? Way of thinking or perspective on notes or definitions in their own.

[00:22:02] I call it internal environment because. Uh, in order to go from either a this Zettel to this Zettel or this field to this field, uh, which is probably going to be the question. The next question I was going to ask was just about synthesis, but, um, there's a lot of context switching in involved. And that's extremely important, right?

[00:22:20] Even, even in the realm of paper, which is the most structurally irrelevant, not, not irrelevant, but like where structured doesn't really play

[00:22:29] Joel Chan: It's flexible.

[00:22:30] Norman Chella: Yes. The most flexible, right? The most organic medium ever, because you can put anything on paper and it will work.

[00:22:36] Um, you still have to do some level of context switching because when you have written work and then you have sketches, you have diagrams, maybe you have video, maybe you have conversations with other people.

[00:22:44] Like if I transcribe our conversation right now, and then that becomes a Zettel under your roam graph, how will you create value? Or how will you implement effective thinking on that? Like, so the possibilities there are so great. Like it is the, it has the greatest value from. The medium of paper.

[00:23:01] And if Rome is trying to emulate that, then basically we're saying here that Roam's biggest competitor is fricking paper like notebooks, right?

[00:23:09] Joel Chan: I actually think that's right. Yeah. So, um, there's another quote that I credit to. I forget who, uh, David Chapman, I think on Twitter. Um, so Richard Feynman did this interview, right? And the interview is like, Oh, look at your notebook. This is wonderful. Look at this record of your thinking. And Richard's like, no, I did the work on the paper. You have to think on the paper.

[00:23:31] Okay. Like, it's just like, there's not a record of my thinking. This is actually my thinking on paper. Uh, so like the point I want to make that also is like, analog media is very powerful, right? Like lots of really effective thinkers use analog media, but I don't really know of basically any examples of people doing kind of constant creative work that don't have some kind of elaborate system that they've developed. Whether it's an analog or whatever. Right. They have some practice when I say system, I mean, practice, culture, tools, you know, habits, not just like the, the system, the computer system itself. Right? So, um, again, like example, like Darwin literally had thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of, I think it was nine by 11 inches notebooks.

[00:24:18] Norman Chella: Okay. That's that's

[00:24:20] Joel Chan: That's a lot. Right. It's a lot, uh, and lots of people that, again, this practice of having a lab notebook, there's a reason that it's a tradition in science. Right. So just to make that point, like, um, yes, it doesn't seem fancy in from a tech busy standpoint, but it is very sophisticated from a practice standpoint.

[00:24:38] Norman Chella: But, but the thing is we, it's fascinating to deep dive to this, mainly because they didn't have Roam at the time, obviously. Right. I mean, but, but, but they're trying to achieve. What Roam is providing for us in the most accessible way possible,

[00:24:54] Joel Chan: Yeah,

[00:24:54] Norman Chella: only within the realm or only within that environment where I have these 10,000 books on 10,000 pages, I will cut out my notes to stick them.

[00:25:04] Joel Chan: yeah,

[00:25:05] Norman Chella: it sounds like one off references or one-off embeds. It sounds like that, right. Um, just to create like whatever project or just to finish up a thing, they can achieve that moment of clarity, where they can push through with whatever knowledge worker they have to do. So in the end, like what Roam is trying to do, we have already solved ages ago, but Roam is right now, at least to, at least from what I've seen the most efficient digital solution

[00:25:33] Joel Chan: I think that's right. Yeah. I, I, I think that's right. why I think Rome is interesting as well is so there's a point about, yes, the paper is powerful because it's so moldable. Right. But that's also its weakness right. So it's very easy to use analog media in a terrible way.

[00:25:53] Norman Chella: Hmm. Yeah.

[00:25:54] Joel Chan: Right? Like if you. Right. If you never excise and you only write in texts, for example, and you never date your notebooks, right?

[00:26:04] There's these little practices, then you won't really get a lot of benefits. Roam is opinionated, right? So there's, there's place for tools that embody. The features of, uh, the whole system, how to use it, right? So Roam forces you to do this daily notes thing. You have to fight against it to not write something every day.

[00:26:25] Right. Um, the backlinks are there as like a key feature. So it pushes you towards that kind of thinking. Right. So the media can be opinionated in some ways. So people is powerful because it's completely moldable, but it's also its weakness. Right? So that's why I'm excited about Roam is like more people can adopt this way of thinking that many will implement in Analog media after a lot of, um, sort of reflection.

[00:26:50] And not necessarily learning from other people, developing what works for them. And they kind of converged to this, um, way of, uh, dealing with their notes that Rome embodies in its design just by it kind of pushes the average user towards that I think that's very powerful. I would love to live in a world where basically everybody thinks, uh, does that kind of pattern of knowledge management. I think that's very powerful.

[00:27:16] Norman Chella: Yeah. It's it's that? It's that accessibility in achieving that moment. And we have many names, like has been mentioned on the show, like, or even just conversations on Twitter, like, Oh, is that aha moment like, Oh, I can create something interesting or all of a sudden this reference leads to X, ABC, which is interesting.

[00:27:33] It's pretty, pretty great. But if you think about it empirically, we can achieve that. It's just that Rome has allowed people to one get access to that moment more, like frequency-wise and to the quality of it. Just because of all these extra features, like the linked referencing and like the block relationships, because that's a whole other story altogether.

[00:27:54] And that does come down to something that I always wants to talk to you about, which is your work on synthesis. So the word synthesis is a huge word for me, like, because I came to the conclusion of knowledge synthesis. Last year, I'm not even an academic, but knowledge synthesis last year was a huge phrase or a term for me, mainly because of me reading up, academic articles on polymathic thinking or polymathic studies.

[00:28:22] And, uh, I I've reached out to like researchers in polymathic studies to hear what their take is, uh, and the way that they would do conversations and interviews with people who can integrate. Knowledge from field to field and more so I don't want to take too much of your time, but I at least want to ask you maybe from a Roam's perspective, seeing how the tool is growing or seeing how people are converging or seeing how the level of accessibility or the onboarding of more and more.

[00:28:53]People to naturally become knowledge workers of their own, you know, information in whatever day, pay attention to, what, what do you think is the trajectory for people to become either more polymathic or engage in greater knowledge synthesis with Roam by their side? I would love to see maybe like what you're afraid of seeing or maybe are there improvements on Roam right now that you think would really help with the, with that, end goal in mind with just greater knowledge synthesis? Cause I am super excited for that to happen as all with everyone.

[00:29:25] Joel Chan: Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, synthesis the idea, the word itself just means creating something bigger than the sum of its parts. Right? You're synthesizing something new. Synthesis, I think is an underappreciated engine of knowledge work, uh, in terms of like people talk about brainstorming, right?

[00:29:47] People talk about execution. Um, you know, people talk about sharing data synthesis, like, so one very powerful example of synthesis is a theory, right? I have a theory. I have a model now of how all these parts fit together. So for example, right now, with the pandemic, we need a synthesis of. The mechanisms of transmission and how it interacts with society to have a coherent strategy, right.

[00:30:14] Because there's no way you can just optimize on one path, which is like, how do we stop people from emitting droplets? That's only a small part of the story, right? How do we change people's behavior, but you have to put altogether, right? So synthesis is about putting everything together. And often you have to put things together from multiple fields.

[00:30:33] All right. So again, with the pandemic, you need to know about aerosol science. You need to know about virology. You need to know about epidemiology, all these different things, right? Uh, sociology, it turns out matters a lot. Right? So recently there's this thing about, um, colleges, like, are being upset with students, for socializing and they don't understand from a sociological standpoint, institutions have a manifest function and a latent function, the manifest functions where people think, uh, institutions are about.

[00:31:00] So universities are about learning, but the latent function is what they provide to society that everybody doesn't really talk about, like by super-important. Latent function of colleges right now is to help young adults socialize into adulthood. And right. So taking, taking that away again. So you need some sociology too, right?

[00:31:20] So you need all these things together. So. Going back again to word land and cabinet land Evernote land, right. This metaphor of files and cabinets lends itself to siloing. Right? You have to categorize things. You have to put something into a box. You start to see how, like I'm using language that people are starting to get nervous about right.

[00:31:43] Putting something in a box makes you feel nervous. Right. And it should, right. If you are, you need the ideas to be alive, to be able to mix theory to come together. Right. So, um, a space like, like Rome, where it's natural to link things. And resurface ideas and compose. So I'm developing, I have developed this kind of three part way of thinking about what is required for synthesis.

[00:32:09] You need to have compression. The ideas need to be atomic and represented it in some atomic granular way so that it can intermix and have more surface area. To interact. There needs to be context because if you encounter an idea, that's excised from its context entirely, then you're not going to be able to make sense of it. And you're not going to be able to use it very well.

[00:32:32] It's hard-worn lesson from my field of CSCW computer support, and corporate   work, people tried to build this knowledge, repositories and decontextualized knowledge and just have this like raw statements of fact.

[00:32:44] And it turns out that it's not very useful.

[00:32:47] You need to know who wrote this, uh, in what context was it useful? Um, you know, why these limitations are that kind of stuff. So context would be important and then some way to compose composability. So Roam hits all three of these really well. Right? So it, it forces you to go, not just the difference between say a markdown based thing like obsidian and Rome is the block structure, right?

[00:33:09] You have an extra level of compression. You can reference things at the block level and remix and recombine buying at the block level in addition to the page level. Context also comes from transclusion with the block referencing embedding, right? So you can push something into a new context, but you never lose the link to the original context. That's super important.

[00:33:29] Composability with block referencing, you can combined things into bigger ideas, right? So these, these three affordances, I haven't really seen all at once in any single tool yet. Um, yeah, a little bit of it with tinderbox. Um, so these niche tools, right? Niche tools have it. Tinderbox, some people repurpose like a qualitative research software, like NVivo Atlas, TI that was built for a qualitative research analysis.

[00:33:57] It turns out that has all those features as well. So there are lots of academics that, uh, do their literature review stuff in this software. There's entire tutorials and workshops for how to use qualitative research software to do lit reviews because they find that they can't do it. Right.

[00:34:12] I think that Roam has so many of these ingredients, right? And it's very natural to implement Zettelkasten in your Roam. It's opinionated, but if the its opinions align with what my understanding is of the best practices for how to do synthesis, how to build a system that supports your synthesis process over time, you need to be able to compress things.

[00:34:32] You need to be able to contextualize them. You need to able to compose them. There's a new one that I'm thinking about, which is this multiplicity. Um, this mixing of, different media, not just different media, but also different styles. So I've been talking to another member of the community, Sue Borchardt, uh, she's a research artist. We're thinking about this, like dialectics Hybris versus soft styles of thinking, big picture versus details, visual versus verbal.

[00:35:00] Being able to bounce back and forth between those is a key strength of analog media. In Rome right now, that's the limitation. It's very text-heavy, which is fine for a lot of things. But, you run into trouble being able to mix sketches in, but also going into more structured things like tables and, uh, say uh, I want to come up with a really sophisticated, meta analysis or a graph, a causal graph.

[00:35:24] It's hard to bounce back and forth between those. I know that they're not really focusing on that right now because it's very hard and they want to sort of, but that's where I think the ceiling is, um, as they start to mix media more and make it easier to dialectic between styles of thinking kind of media and also, um, begin more and less structure quantitative versus qualitative. Um, that's where the ceiling really starts to blow off. And you start to overtake paper.

[00:35:54] Because in paper you have a limitation, you cannot say, for example, reference audio, but you can in a digital space, right.

[00:36:02] Um, you can't put screenshots in and manipulate them. So I think Rome has a higher ceiling than paper. Right now in terms of that particular dimension of, and again, like you said, like you do excision, you cut and paste that's one level, right? It's a onetime thing you can do. Right. So Roam and digital tools are able to do many, many kinds of rights.

[00:36:25] So I think the ceiling is higher on all dimensions. It's just that, a well-practiced person using analog media is going to outperform somebody who's still learning for the first time. Right.

[00:36:34] Norman Chella: Yeah. And that comes from the foundation of like these strong set of like hardened principles of writing these things. Because if this person would just switch mediums or try out a new tool, Their system is going to work. They're going to have a huge headstart and in front of anyone, they're going to do similar work.

[00:36:52] And paper being where it is right now, like just with how versatile it is in terms of knowledge work, in terms of trying to create something new in terms of trying to synthesize something, uh, makes it, uh, a huge competitor. I never really thought about it until now. Like I do, I still do like. Pen and paper a lot, because context switching wise, I do certain types of thinking in pen to paper, and sometimes it just doesn't work out after I copy it over.

[00:37:18] Yeah. Um, and on the multiplicity, I do agree in the way that I would visualize that would be, if you were to define a note on a graph of like a 2d graph, like two dimensions, multiplicity would include a third dimension, a Z axes where it would shift between non-verbal to verbal. And I think that will be one way to think about it.

[00:37:40] Uh, mainly because like, from a background in trying to study like communication channels, where the amount of messages is being lost over time, depending on the medium that if you can translate that into multiplicity, how to articulate that really well. I think you have like a really strong. I guess, Zettel question or Zettel right there, uh, for you to ponder on and, uh, we are coming up on time, so I might as well, uh, get straight to the very last question.

[00:38:06] I would love to end this conversation on and maybe we'll continue another time later on, but for now, Joel, what does Roam mean to you?

[00:38:14]Joel Chan: What does room mean to me? That's a really good question. For me, I'm most excited about Rome as a. next phase of this long tradition, starting with Doug Engelbart of realizing the promise of hypermedia and these obscure ideas that are pretty common in the academic world, in terms of thinking about synthesis, thinking about, uh, what a note is, thinking about creativity, thinking about back links and hyperlinks, and hypermedia.

[00:38:45] And we've been hampered so far in my world by not being able to see the thing work because we had to build these little prototypes and nobody can use them. So we only get to observe it being done for a few months with some lab participants. What Rome represents to me is an opportunity to observe, what will it be like if more people use it for real things, then we can start to see and observe, okay.

[00:39:13] If we can now go further than our, um, sort of abstract thinking, uh, over the last few decades, thinking about these ideas that are not new, right. Again, like, uh, Conor is very upfront about the ideas in Roam are not new. It's kind of back from those roots, but now we have opportunity to actually push it forward.

[00:39:32] With use. So action produces information is the name of a blog post. Uh, and I think that's very powerful, uh, again with it in my own area, if I can't see it being used, I can't learn about it. And so that's why I'm so excited about Roam is more people are going to use it for real things and start to be able to understand, okay, how can we push it further than this kind of abstract concepts that we've been playing with?

[00:39:55]So that's for me, like selfishly as a, it helps me as a researcher with my own work, but also I think it's, uh, to me presents a, you know, a new era in terms of studying and building, um, tools for thought, because it actually makes it accessible and you can start to see it in use and then push it forward.

[00:40:16] Norman Chella: Fantastic. I love that. I'm also super excited for that and, um, to see Conor trailblazing, these ideas and packaging them in a way where. You know, people can actually start using it like actual use cases, actual examples that you can read about. You can observe, you can make notes out of, you can turn that into Zettels.

[00:40:35] You can synthesize the case studies that you've read, because people are starting to use Rome or at least applying these ideas that you've read ages ago. So I am also pretty excited for that. Joel, thank you, if we want to reach out to you to contact you in any way or form from this conversation, what is the best way to do that?

[00:40:55] Joel Chan: The best way for me to respond to personal communication is my email. and that's from my website. My website is pretty easy. Joelchan.me. Um, you can link to it in the show notes as well. And then my contact information is there. Um, some people do reach out to me. My DMs are open on Twitter, um, but. Twitter has terrible programmable attention.

[00:41:16] You can mark things as unread. So if I can't like reply to it right away. Um, I have to sort of make a note too, so you can reach out to me on Twitter as well. I'm pretty active on there, but email is the best way to make sure that I will respond to you.

[00:41:28] Norman Chella: Of course, and all of these will be in the show notes as well as the public RoamFM graph. So not want to take too much of your time. Joel, thank you so much. And I will see you soon.

Tags

Norm

Norman Chella is the Podcast Rainmaker, Polymath in Progress and a very strange writer. His creative pen name is N.T. Cloever. You can find his words right here.

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