How New Note-taking Apps Give You Information Management Superpowers

Master craftspeople don’t just work to make stuff; they also work on the work itself. A master carpenter will set up his shop for efficiency, develop deep relationships with his tools, and establish practices, habits, and mindsets that allow him to work in a state of flow.

Knowledge workers, too, must work on their work. As with craftspeople, this entails building empirical knowledge, developing generative mental models, and stewarding a toolset/environment that supports productive work.

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What I Learned about Labeling from Making Hot Cocoa

I love hot cocoa. A friend taught me a great recipe: cocoa powder + maple syrup + homemade cashew cream + hot water. I add a pinch of cayenne pepper for bite. (Cashew cream: soak unroasted/unsalted cashews overnight in water, then liquefy them in a Vitamix.)

Before you try to make this, you need to be aware of an important distinction. In American grocery stores, you’ll find two kinds of cocoa: cocoa mix and cocoa powder. They’re not the same.

Based on the selection of brands and varieties, cocoa mix seems to be more popular. You’ll find it in the same aisle as coffee and tea — i.e., the store assumes that if you want to drink cocoa, you want cocoa mix.

It’s a safe assumption. If you want a cup of hot cocoa, the mix is more convenient: it includes powdered sweetener, creamer, and (in some cases) frills such as freeze-dried marshmallows. You simply add hot water, et voilà — a sweet cup of cocoa.

That’s not what you want for this recipe. Instead, you want cocoa powder, which is just the primary ingredient without the extra stuff.

It may seem subtle, but this distinction matters. Here’s how Wikipedia describes cocoa powder:

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The Informed Life with Karl Fast, part 1

Episode 69 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with my friend Karl Fast. Karl is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He’s the co-author of one of my favorite books from last year, Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding. (The book’s other co-author, Stephen P. Anderson, was my guest on episode 39.)

The conversation with Karl focused on “Interactionism,” a term he’s using to describe the emerging understanding of the role of interaction in cognition.

Where is the locus of understanding? Is it the app? Is it in the brain? Or is it more connected to all of these things? And what is it that connects these things? In the way that I’ve come to see it, I have come to see interaction as the fundamental thing that connects all of these together. And I’ve come to believe that we have a relatively weak way of talking about interaction or an understanding of all of the ways that it happens.

To understand what’s going on here, Karl walked us through the twin concepts of epistemic actions and pragmatic actions, which come from the cognitive science field. It’s deep stuff, and important to grok — especially for people who design for interaction.

Towards the end of our conversation, it was clear that we’d need more time. So, I’m trying something new with this show: we broke up our conversation in two parts. This episode includes part one; the second part will be out in two weeks, in episode 70. With this format tweak, I’m trying to strike a different balance between depth and length. (I always try to keep episodes close to 30 minutes.) I’d love to know what you think of this innovation.

As I noted on Twitter, one of the things I miss most about attending in-person conferences is the ability to have “hallway” discussions with my friends and colleagues. The Informed Life has given me the opportunity to have these conversations during the pandemic. This interview with Karl is a great example; I found it fascinating and insightful, and I hope you do too.

The Informed Life episode 69: Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 1

Book Notes: “The Inner Game of Tennis”

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Inner Game of Peak Performance
By W. Timothy Galwey
Random House (Revised Edition, 2010)

It’s been many years since I last picked up a racket, and I have no immediate plans to do so. So why read a book about tennis? While The Inner Game of Tennis focuses on the game, Galwey is writing about something deeper and more broadly applicable:

It is the thesis of this book that neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.

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Jimmy Wales on Constraints for Bad Behavior

If you’ve read Living in Information, you’ll know I think highly of Wikipedia. It’s a very valuable artifact; a convenient agglomeration of the world’s key knowledge. But it’s more than that: Wikipedia is also where that artifact is created — a place, a culture, a system that produces ongoing value for everyone, for free.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is one of the people most responsible for establishing and stewarding that place. In a lengthy interview (audio, transcript) with Tim Ferriss, Wales discusses Wikipedia’s history, the values that make it work, and how it’s different from other social networks.

The entire conversation is worth your attention, but I was particularly taken by the discussion of how to regulate bad behavior. What should users be allowed/forbidden to do? What guardrails should the system have to prevent bad things from happening?

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Om Malik on Being Categorized by Data

Om Malik writing in his blog:

Categorization is part of the human condition. Our brain uses categories to help us make sense of a lot of facts we experience. It is how we learn. As humans, we need categories to contextualize our world, and that includes each other. What is more important is the intent behind the categories.

Categories, as such, have bias by intent. The bias allows us to ignore variables we don’t want to deal with and place boundaries around a category. It’s important because by ignoring them, we have to use fewer cognitive resources. The bias itself is not good or bad. It is the intent that leads you in different directions. That intent determines what variables we focus on and the ones we ‘choose’ to ignore.

Malik reflects on how “in our post-social society, these categories have become even more granular and metastasized.” A worthwhile read for anybody who categorizes things for a living — e.g., information architects.

The Perils of Data Categorization – On my Om

The Cognitive Costs of Bad UX

Mark Wilson, writing in Fast Company:

According to a new research paper published by the analyst firm Forrester—for which researchers interviewed nearly 200 design teams and dozens of frontline workers in fields like retail—the enterprise software we use at work is slowing us down, and for all sorts of reasons, from individual components of the UI to the workflows that take us from one piece of software to another.

We connected with Andrew Hogan, Forrester’s principal analyst specializing in design, who led the research. He points out some of the biggest problems he sees in these tools and offers critical insight on how some companies are fixing enterprise UX.

Hogan discusses several issues with enterprise software, including slowness, unclear workflows, and — my favorite — bad labels. The article also covers some reasons why enterprise software tends to suck.

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TAOI: Hair Texture Filters

The architecture of information:

Kait Sanchez, reporting for The Verge:

Pinterest is launching a search tool to help people narrow their hair inspiration searches by hair pattern. When users search for hairstyles, new filter options — for coily, curly, wavy, and straight textures, as well as shaved / bald and protective styles — will appear under the search bar.

As I read this, I was wondering how they’d tag the various hairstyles. The answer, of course, is machine learning:

Pinterest says the hair pattern feature uses “computer vision-powered object detection” to determine which hair types are shown in hairstyle pins. “We built hair pattern search with in-house AI on top of our foundational computer vision technology that is used in visual search and shopping,” says a Pinterest spokesperson. The company says its algorithm has detected hair patterns in over 500 million images on the platform.

There was a time, around twenty years ago, when information architecture was a central concern for designers working in digital media. You don’t hear designers talking as much about IA these days, but it’s more important than ever.

As software eats more of the world, we share more aspects of human experience through digital systems. People are interested in hairstyles. Why not have a search interface that makes them more findable?

Pinterest is adding search filters for different hair textures – The Verge

Don’t Eat the Menu

Once, I was almost killed while walking in downtown Oakland. I’d waited for the light to change, so I could cross the street. After the crossing light came on, I started to walk. Just then, a car sped through the intersection, missing me by inches.

I’d done everything “right”: I was paying attention (i.e., not looking at my phone), using the crosswalk, and had waited until the light said it was OK for me to go… and I still almost got hit. What happened?

I was “eating the menu,” a phrase I picked up from Antony De Mello and J. Francis Stroud’s book Awareness. It appears in the context of a rhetorical question:

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