Archive for September 2008

How a popular blogger reads 600+ RSS feeds every day

This is about a year old, but very relevant here. Timothy Ferriss, author of “The 4-hour workweek”, interviewed Robert Scoble and filmed his RSS reading process (he’s suscribed to more than 600 feeds!).

In the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, the magic relies on being really quick at judging an article from its title, its overall look and other cues. There are a couple of technical tips, though, about using the Google Reader interface efficiently, like relying on keyboard shortcuts.

Here’s the video:

Personal wiki: WikidPad, from a programmer’s point of view

In my introductory post on personal wikis, I briefly explained their use to organize personal knowledge. I also said I use WikidPad, personally. Here’s the rationale behind my choice.

Main points

WikidPad is a desktop application, so you have to install it locally, as opposed to wikis accessed through the Web. It works on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. You can download it here, and here’s a quick start guide.

The killer point, for me, is that WikidPad allows for quick edition and navigation. Speed is crucial: if you feel slowed down, chances are you’ll just give up or at least won’t use it with all benefits of a personal wiki.

WikidPad screenshot

Wikidpad main features are:

  • Easy and quick edition of entries, with on-the-fly formatting and linking (explained bellow)
  • Outline view (on the left) and other navigation helpers (ex: history of last accessed entries, useful keyboard shortcuts)
  • More ways to structure your entries
    • TODO lists produced by gathering TODOs on all entries
    • Entries attributes, which allow you to list all entries that have a given attribute
  • It’s open source, written in Python and can be extended with modules
  • The data is stored in plain text, one .wiki file per entry

The “programmer’s point of view” in the title stems from the fact that the speed of edition might be achieved with more conventional edition behavior (WYSIWYG or Word’s style edition), but then one loses the wiki syntax which to a programmer (or simply nerd) is very appealing for being similar to plain text formats. That’s the unique mix of WikidPad, from what I gather.

Edition behavior: details

WikidPad has a sort of dual-mode of edition/viewing. An example is best to explain: if you mark a word be in *bold* (with asterisks), you don’t have to switch back to “formatted view” mode for it to be showed in bold: it’s shown that way while editing, on-the-fly.

Example of on-the-fly formatting
(++ is for title, *for bold*, _for italics_, etc.)

That turns out to be a real time saver, for me. With all other wiki software I have used, edition is done differently, in either of two ways.

In one case, there’s a constant switching back-and-forth between “formatted view” and “edit view”. TiddlyWiki operates in this way, for example. The thing is, most of the activity done in a wiki involves small modifications here and there, so this “switch” happens often enough to make it cumbersome, to my experience.

In the other case, the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) behavior, you don’t have to switch, but you format using buttons or keyboard shortcuts, just like in Word (ie. you select the text and click “B” to make it bold). Most people will probably find this a better option, but as a programmer (or just a nerd?), I love the fact that there’s nothing hidden: what I write is all there is in the .wiki file that represents the entry (ie. you work directly at “source” level).

Side note: programmers will recognize WikidPad’s behavior as being the one of an IDE (integrated development environment), esp. for the code coloring aspect. That’s why WikidPad motto is “an IDE for your thoughts”. It also features auto-completion of WikiWords, as another similarity.

Outline view

Example outline (here for the help, which is itself a wiki)

A killer principle of wikis (vs traditional note organizers/outliners) is their very flexible structure: you’re not restricted to having a note be a “child” of one and only one note. You can link from any entry to any other. Yet hierarchies are very intuitive, since we’re used to placing files in folders, and folders in other folders, etc.

WikidPad gives you both. Sure, you can link from any entry to any other one. But an entry linking to another one automatically becomes a “parent” in the hierarchy (outline) displayed to the left. And yes: an entry may have multiple parents that way. (Surprisingly, this does not cause any universe-shattering paradoxes)

This outline gives you yet another way to navigate in the wiki and speed things up.

Extensibility

WikidPad is open source and written in Python, a language which many programmers like to work with for personal projects. WikidPad allows you to write and load your own extensions.

Some extensions you can readily use allow you to visualize the topology of your wiki (with GraphViz) or include mathematical formulas or graphs (MimeTex, Ploticus).

Links and references

Knowledge and learning concepts map

I found this very detailed map of learning and knowledge concepts, made by Dr. Rodridgue Savoie of the National Research Council of Canada. Readers with a some time and curiosity will surely find it to be a wealth of paths to explore:

A part of the map

Personal wiki: a tool to centralize your note-taking

One of the tools I want to explore further here is the personal wiki. It has played a central role in my knowledge workflow in the previous years, and helps me getting my thoughts and learning in order.

Concretely, the tool I use is WikidPad, which has many interesting features, but I’ll get back to it in other posts, for sure! But if you want to get started quickly with nothing to install, just take a look at TiddlyWiki: it’s a single Web page you save on your computer and you got an instant personal Wiki.


Screenshot of WikidPad


Screenshot of TiddlyWiki

Wikis and personal wikis

Wikipedia is probably the best known wiki system. A wiki is an hypertext, meaning, like the Web, that it’s a set of pages linked together by words that point to other pages, ie. hyperlinks. Another feature of a wiki is the simplicity of page creation: a simple syntax that looks pretty natural, making it easy to create lists, sections and links. You can learn the basics in under 10 minutes.

One last feature I’ll mention is the collaboration aspect: usually, a whole group (or everyone) can edit a wiki. Basically, you create a page, add some text with the wiki formatting, save it, and it becomes a Web page. Then, someone else comes on that page, clicks the Edit button, makes some changes, clicks Save, and the Web page is modified.


Editing a WikiPedia entry

That’s where a personal wiki differs: only you modify it. It’s up to you to decide whether to share it or not, but other viewers can’t modify pages.

Advantage as a note taking tool

The way I propose it here, you use that wiki as a note taking tool, but a pretty powerful one. You can link entries to one another. You can link to Web pages or documents. Over the months, it can become rather huge. It’s your own space: you organize it as you see fit. The links give structure to the whole, and you use them to navigate from a page to another.

You can use it for whatever note taking you have to do, and all your notes exist in the same “space”. This allows you to link an entry on (say) avocados to recipes, or notions of gardening or Mexican geography, if you feel like it. Now, whenever you learn something new about avocados and write it on that page, that notion is “near” those other pages, due to the links you can click on to quickly access that related information.

As a further and more concrete example of a personal wiki in action, take a look at this post by a medical professional who uses WikidPad to organize some of his professional knowledge.

As a project management tool

Some people will also use their personal wiki to organize their projects. Once again appears the benefit of linking to whatever you want: your projects involve specific topics (say, creating Web pages), and you can easily link to those topics from the pages concerning the project. Then, when working on the project, you’ve got all this related information nearby and quickly accessible.

As an example in action, there is a version of TiddlyWiki that is specifically made for the popular Getting Things Done (GTD) personal organization system: GTDTiddlyWiki.


Screenshot of GTDTiddlyWiki

A mirror of your own knowledge

A clear consequence of being the only one modifying your wiki is that, well, all modifications were done by you… If you use it consistently, that means your personal wiki becomes a mirror of what you know.

While learning, you may enrich it. As some do in school by note taking, you reorganize the notions you grab here and there on a given topic, make them your own by reorganizing them along the way you chose to divide the topics, and adding personal experience you had with knowledge you really used. You can also eliminate the parts that are less interesting or seem to overlap each other.

There are a wealth of benefits, in my own experience, but the sense of truly building something while learning is my personal favorite. You’re not plainly reading, you’re truly building your knowledge and have something to show for it.

In the following posts, I’ll be sharing some elements of my experience with a personal wiki. I know I’m definitely not alone in that practice, so if you have you own experience here (weird use cases etc.), you’re very welcome to comment!

Related posts

Further links

Clay Shirky’s talk on information overload

Via a LifeHacker story, I found this video of NYU New Media professor Clay Shirky’s opinion on the information overload problem. It’s very interesting, if a bit long, so I made a summary of some of his points:

  • We always hear the same story: information being produced increasingly fast. That makes us feel good about ourselves: that’s why I can’t get anything done, see!


IDC information overload chart (mentioned in Shirky’s talk)

  • In the past, the editor had to filter for quality what went out of the printing press, due to the risk involved if the book didn’t sell. But the Internet introduced “post-Gutenberg economics”, where the filter for quality is now “way downstream” from the source, since everyone may publish.
  • So we shouldn’t see the problem as an information overproduction at the source problem, so much as a personal filtering problem.
  • He takes email spam as an example: we set up filters, but after a few time we notice more spam gets in anyway: our filters need tweaking. It’s about old filters continuously breaking and needing to be fixed.
  • Social media and the Internet in general bring new systems that break old ways of exchanging information, and makes us formalize and need to take responsibility for information flow issues, who our information might reach, how public it gets, like privacy of Facebook events.
  • Conclusion: information overload is not just a superficial problem, something that can be solved by programming once and for all. Algorithms can help, yes, but we need to rethink social norms and when we face overload, ask ourself personally: which of my filters just broke?

As some people underlined in comments at LifeHacker, “solving” information overload is nothing new for another fundamental reason: it’s about chosing what we’re personally interested in. One cannot master every field there is, obviously. In the end, it’s about personal choice, not just about what’s universally “good” or “bad”. That’s one problem with social bookmarking: one story might be very interesting to you and not to the mass, not even to people in what you consider your own field.