April 8, 2021

Obsidian IconObsidian Icon

Using Obsidian

Product: Obsidian
Price: Pricing - Obsidian Free for personal use.

Obsidian is described by the developers as:

Obsidian is a powerful knowledge base that works on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files.

I need to restart.

Obsidian is an Electron program. I hate those. They feel like a compromise. In fact, by design, they are the lowest common denominator for any platform that you can run them on.

Obsidian runs on Windows, Linux and macOS. It doesn’t support any of the features which make Windows, Linux or macOS special or unique. I don’t know anything about Windows or Linux. I know the macOS and I am going to point out things that Obsidian doesn’t support on the macOS:

  1. Services menu.
  2. Text replacements and settings in the Keyboard preference pane of macOS. No two spaces turn into a period. No capitalizing the first letter of a sentence.
  3. Doesn’t use the system dictionaries.

These are features unique to macOS and they are not supported at all. I hate the experience. Why am I writing about Obsidian?

Obsidian brings a new take on the task of note-taking to macOS. It is built around the concept of linking notes together, explicitly making obvious the links between your notes. The core feature of Obsidian is the ability to link your notes and make visible the interconnected linked knowledge base that you have built with your notes.

Along with that focus on creating links, Obsidian has the following features which are relevant to me.

Pure Text Files

Obsidian files are Markdown formatted plain text files. They are local, I keep them in the Dropbox folder. Plain text files gives me the ability to switch from the program if I want. I am not locked in. The files are accessible and editable in any text editor.

If I decide to adopt a different text editor, I can move on without any pain.

The Ability to Access Multiple Folders

Obsidian is not restricted to a single folder. The program conceptualizes folders as vaults and a vault can have multiple folders in it. You can switch to different vaults, depending on your needs. In addition, you can assign different themes and features to individual vaults.

Full Support of Markdown and Other Goodies

Along with its wiki-style linking, Obsidian supports CommonMark and GitHub Flavored Markdown.

You can have mermaid - Markdownish syntax for generating flowcharts, sequence diagrams, class diagrams, gantt charts and git graphs., slides, and other javascript based additions.

If you haven’t been exposed to Mermaid, it might be worth your while to take a deep dive into it.

Obsidian has a slides plugin which lets you create presentations in Obsidian. Another feature which might be something you want to take a deep dive into.

Customizable

Obsidian windowObsidian window

Obsidian is heaven for anyone interested in tweaking their editor. You have complete control over the look of the program through themes. There are a bunch of those available in the program and you have the ability to edit them for your own needs.

Keyboard commands are customizable. You can assign/change any of the keyboard commands which ship with the program. This enables macOS standard keyboard commands. You can define them yourself.

Extendable Through Plugins

Obsidian has a published API (in beta) for extending the program through third-party plugins. Early adopter developers are adding a slew of third-party plugins to the program and they have enhanced my use of the program.

The plugin architecture makes it possible for users to add features to the editor and it lets non-developers benefit from the creativity and ideas of the user base.

I am going to highlight three plugins which I find useful:

  1. Typewriter Scroll Obsidian Plugin: Has added typewriter scrolling and focus mode to the program. Two features I was missing from iA Writer now available in Obsidian.
  2. Paste URLs into selected text “notion style”: Highlight text, paste an URL, and that turns it into a Markdown-formatted link. Convenient and easy.
  3. advanced-tables-obsidian: Improved table navigation, formatting, and manipulation in Obsidian.md: Makes the process of creating, editing and presenting tables easier and prettier.

User designed plugins let users customize and extend the product in ways that a developer alone can never match. It is what makes Atom, Visual Studio Code, Sublime Text, Vim, and GNU Emacs special. I am excited to see this feature brought to a note-taking application.

Knowledge Management

This subject is new to me.

Obsidian is focused on the concept of creating and maintaining a second brain. The design of the product, the features it introduces, and the execution are geared towards the concept of a second brain. In other words, knowledge management.

There are a bunch of folks who are trying to think through this and come up with solutions designed to make you and your note-taking system efficient. Two examples:

  1. The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information - Forte Labs
  2. Linking Your Thinking Workshop

I have no idea of the relative efficacy of these and other alternatives. I am in the process of exploring the ideas and trying to make sense of them.

This is what I do know:

  1. I read the book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers eBook: Ahrens, Sönke.
  2. I explored the Zettelkasten Method site and have used the product The Archive (macOS) • Zettelkasten Method. I wrote about it, The Archive Adds Zettelkästen to the Note-Taking Arsenal - Bicycle For Your Mind.

I used to view my notes as a collection of information. A subset of my notes are geared towards that goal. I install a new Alfred workflow, I need to remember what the triggers were to launch the workflow, I have that information in a note. It is not going to be a part of a thinking exercise in future. It is an information unit which is going to be useful at a future date.

Now I also create other kinds of notes. Notes which are geared towards the end goal of clarifying my thinking about a topic. I view them as inputs to aid my ability to think. I create these notes with the notion that it would be pleasurable to read them again. That means I care about what I write. I try to see how it fits into the constellation of thoughts I have had around that topic. I link to other notes which deal with the same topic or express similar notions. It is a deliberate activity rather than the dump of information which I used to consider the main purpose of my note-taking. It is a new way for me to think about my note-taking.

Caveats

Niklas Luhmann was an extremely productive social scientist and he used a note-taking system (Zettelkästen) to help him think things through. Adopting or adapting his system, for your own thinking is not going to make you as productive as him.

Going into the weeds on a Zettelkästen system like How Long a Zettel is Too Long? is not going to make you as productive as Luhmann either. In fact, I am not sure that it is going to make you productive at all.

Concentrate on the thinking. Don’t get distracted by the tools or processes which aid your thinking. Focus on the act of thinking, pay attention to the process of moving from point A to point B, explore the assumptions behind that move. Understand and challenge those assumptions. Refine your thinking. Rehash your thinking. Reform your thinking. Reject your thinking. Think. Write it down. Read it. Write some more.

This field of Knowledge Management has given birth to a cottage industry of “experts.” How does one define “good” thinking as opposed to “bad” thinking? What are the measurable units? How do you know that one process being sold is better than the other?

Obsidian reminds me of Tinderbox: The Tool For Notes. There are folks, folks who are smarter than me, who swear by the effect Tinderbox has had on their thinking. Didn’t do anything for me. I tried. I got the University to buy me a copy. I bought the Tinderbox Way. Read it several times and couldn’t figure out how best to utilize the program to help me. After several attempts, I gave up. I couldn’t understand Tinderbox.

Obsidian MapObsidian Map

I don’t understand the utility of this either. What does it tell me? It is pretty. I need to explore this idea because I don’t get it.

My advice:

  1. Be skeptical. Don’t copy anyone’s system.
  2. Think and write. Write and think. Repeat ad nauseam.
  3. Surround yourself with people who are brighter than you.
  4. Argue with them.
  5. Be honest with yourself. Question your assumptions. Question your logical progression. Recognize that you are fallible and probably close to being an idiot. You don’t have all the answers. Try to improve.

Back to Using Obsidian

I use Obsidian like a text editor. I like the linking and back-linking but that is not the focus of my use of Obsidian. My interest is on using the product as the one stop application for all of my writing. It is a replacement for Sublime Text, BBEdit, iA Writer or nvUltra.

It fulfills that role for me. These are the things which make it suitable for the task of my primary text editor:

  1. Great Markdown support.
  2. Typewriter Scroll Obsidian Plugin gives me typewriter scrolling.
  3. Folding of headers.
  4. Ability to handle large files.
  5. Customizable keyboard commands.
  6. Easy switching between oft-used files through obsidian-shortcuts-for-starred-files
  7. Fantastic theme and its settings. Minimal theme for Obsidian and its Settings plugin to control colors and fonts in Minimal Theme

Obsidian can be “The One Text Editor” for all my needs. It is not for the following reasons:

  • Obsidian is a memory hog. It isn’t the fault of Obsidian. All Electron apps are.
  • The non-native nature of Obsidian irks me. I miss the Services menu. Typora, an Electron app supports Services. It is doable, wish Obsidian would support that. Would make life easier for those of us reliant on Services.

Obsidian is a good solution, but both Sublime Text and BBEdit are better solutions for my needs.

Recommendation

If you are an academic, try Obsidian. As an aside, if you are an academic, please concentrate on your teaching. Don’t ignore the teaching to focus on your research. I know it is not your fault, the institutional incentives are geared towards research, but the focus of an University should be on teaching and not on producing research nobody but other academics are going to read. This is a phenomenon which plagues the social sciences and it is disgusting.

Obsidian is a great app for the dual activities of thinking/writing if you are willing to put up with the non-native nature of Electron apps. It brings innovation to the field of note-taking and the plug-in infrastructure is exciting.

macosxguru at the gmail thingie.

Resources and Other Takes on Obsidian:

An interesting perspective on Obsidian: BSAG » Obsidian

A list of Obsidian resources: Obsidian Resources - Dynalist

An opinionated take on notes and note-taking: Evergreen notes - Andy Matuschak Notes - Obsidian Publish

From the guy who wrote the book on “Smart Notes”: how to take smart notes - YouTube

A different perspective: Learn to play the fool - Austin Kleon

The Second Brain. Building a Second Brain: An Overview - Forte Labs

Detailed User Experience with Obsidian: 100 Days in Obsidian, Pt. 1 – Interdependent Thoughts

Another Perspective on Obsidian: Loving right now: Obsidian.md


Obsidian macOS text editor


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