636: Workflows with Ryan JA Murphy


He does get credit for that right at the start!



I keep hearing about Obsidian but I just can’t see the appeal and I really want to Lol.
The interface feels so clunky and it just feels like one has to spend tons of time setting the program and not actually be able to work. Price seems also to be steep if you want reliable (obsidian) sync at ~$10 a month.

I’ve been using UpNote and found the interface, integrated instant-sync and price so much nicer.


  1. Beautiful. Dark mode is incredible.
  2. Easy to use
  3. Everything built in
  4. Cross-platform (Android, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows) electron-based app.
  5. Incredible price ($1 or $20 lifetime!)


  1. Not end to end encrypted :frowning:
  2. Worrying future as team is only 2 people (although they are motivated)
  3. Like other software has some bugs.

Thanks for your recommendation.

It looks like a nice app, for me and my preferences.

@ryanjamurphy, I really enjoyed this episode of MPU. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and workflows with us!


I’ve certainly had a few “ghost” files when that issue came up last year. Four or so, IIRC. I was able to recover them from backup and moved on once DEVONtech reported that they believed they’d resolved the issues.

It is a shame that the ghost issue happened, though, and I can understand why it might scare a user off. I guess I prefer to accept a little risk, plan for it (e.g., have good backups), and continue to leverage the power of DEVONthink’s features.

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Ditto what @jacobio said—this was a good episode! @ryanjamurphy, you mentioned that there are some best practices for notetaking and knowledge management more broadly. That caught my attention—curious what you might have been referring to in terms of “best practices.”

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Aha, this is where I get to practice the most essential scholarly skill of all: admitting I don’t know!

Yet, anyway.

Still, to elaborate on the point I made in the show…

I often see conversations about knowledge management and productivity get sidewinded by the thought-terminating clichés that “there’s no best way to do ‘X’”, and/or “we are all unique!”

It is an understandable perspective:

  1. Everyone’s definitely unique.
  2. “Best” is a very hard thing to measure and compare.

Still, even if everyone’s special, we can establish some principles and variables that we have in common with at least some others. Similarly, even if “best” is nebulous, we can decide upon some common outcomes/goals/outputs we share that we can roughly measure and/or compare.

In technology, all of this is the domain of design science in information systems, which proposes that everything we want to do with an information system (1) is designed, and (2) can be tested. In fact, that’s the simple cycle:

(From Hevner et al.'s “Design Science in Information Systems Research.”, p. 89)

So, in knowledge management, or productivity, or what-have-you:

  1. we should be able to identify some requirements/constraints;
  2. we should be able to design alternatives to solve for those requirements/constraints;
  3. we should be able to test those alternatives against the requirements; and
  4. we should be able to come up with better alternatives based on what we learned from 1–3.

I’ll give a simple example. Say you’re taking notes for the explicit purpose of learning in order to pass some standardized exam. It’s pretty well-established that spaced repetition is an essential step in deeply learning a complex topic.1 Ergo, we can identify a technological rule for this situation: “If you’re taking notes on a subject in order to pass an exam on the subject, then take notes that can be easily reviewed, and develop a practice of reviewing and refining them over time.”

Obviously there’s some bits to unpack there. What does it mean to “take notes that can be easily reviewed,” for example? This is why we say “design science.” Like other sciences, new theories lead to new propositions to be developed and tested. And, like other sciences, the same general technique can apply: generate alternative solutions to what it means to take notes that can be easily reviewed, test them, and then eventually we’ll have some demonstrated options that seem better than the rest.

Hope this helps!

1: This does not mean you need to use cloze deletions on flashcards. Simply revisiting topics, questioning your understanding of them, and correcting any misunderstandings counts as spaced repetition.


That was a great episode with a great guest! Thanks, @ryanjamurphy. There was a question about whether the the article that came out a while ago that claims that the pen is mightier than the keyboard still applies. Their finding was that with a pen, you’re forced to write more slowly and so must make decisions about what to write and what to exclude. This initial analysis of the information let to better interaction with the material compared to those who just copied what their professor was saying verbatim typing quickly.

I think you can be just as judicious and interact with the material using technology (like a laptop). You can have a conversation with what you’re writing down. It’s just that it’s forced upon you when you need to go slower while writing.

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Fantastic episode. I need to play around with Concepts more.

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Thank you for posting that.

We live in an “age” where many believe (do they?) that

  • that you-know-who invented the MOC.
  • that N Luhmann “invented” the “slip box”, indexes, “lit notes” (sic).

Like Marc Andreessen says, this is the “current thing”, and, as so, we have to endure it.

It is “systematic”.

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It does help—thanks for sharing your thoughts and providing a citation. Actually, I’ve never encountered the phrase “Thought-terminating cliché” before, but it’s a useful framework for understanding how many conversations come to an end. Anyways, it seems like the “best practice” is an approach to hypothesis testing in the IT context. This—design science—is a topic I need to continue to think about.


Thanks @ryanjamurphy

Great episode! Glad Systems Thinking made it to MPU!


My personal findings, as a school teacher, are that in the initial stages of note-taking children will tend to write down everything verbatim. With practice, they can learn to summarise and process information on the fly, and write more concise notes. Once they get to A Level or University I think this is a fundamental requirement.

With less of my anecdoatal evidence, I can also say that the majority of students who have tried to use a computer and keyboard have failed to create good notes since to do so in a Physics lesson would require considerable skill. Good notes require formulas, diagrams, linking,… all of which is incredibly hard to do at pace on a non-touch device.

So, what I have observed is that the pen is mightier than the keyboard in Physics, but also the Apple Pencil is, for many students but not all, mightier than the pen.


This was an excellent episode and Ryan did a great job. Thank you!

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FWIW If it’s useful I have found the research that shows this study fails to replicated. Of course I have it all stored in DT, so I can copy the references here if it is interesting.

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I took UpNote for a quick test drive and it looks very nice. I prefer Obsidian’s interface, but I can see the appeal of UpNote’s familiar three pane layout: lots of apps work this way and you can be up an running in no time.

I’ll add a few “cons” that would keep me from using it as an alternative to Obsidian (my main notes repository), Notebooks (my quick-and-dirty workspace for self-contained, short-term projects), and Devonthink (my PKM hub).

  1. The real deal-killer: for the mac app, at least, all your notes are stored in HTML format in a database buried deep in the Library folder on your hard drive. Per the developers, here’s the path: ~/Library/Containers/com.getupnote.desktop/Data/Library/Application\ Support/UpNote/. (The developers also cautioned me not to try to edit the HTML directly. Thumbs up to the developers, by the way, for their quick response to my questions!)

Obsidian and Notebooks store your notes wherever you choose to put them—your computer’s hard drive, attached storage, or a cloud-based service—in formats that can be directly edited from other apps. (Devonthink can work this way too if you choose to index your files rather than import them. I do both.) This is a must-have for me because my workflow and the way I manage my various digital repositories. Obviously, ymmv, but this is why I’ve moved away from apps like Apple Notes, Bear, DayOne, etc.

1.a. I index my Obsidian folders in Devonthink. I don’t think I could do that with UpNote, or, if I could, I suspect it wouldn’t be advisable. I need Devonthink’s “AI” to mine my notes and document repositories for the information I’ve got stored there.

  1. You can attach a file to an UpNote note (with a 20 mg cap per file), but you can’t store files in UpNote. In other words, it can’t function as a repository for other kinds of documents that you can view from within the app itself. I don’t store anything but markdown notes in Obsidian, but I do put documents in Notebooks when I’m working on a project there. And of course I import and index all kinds of files in Devonthink because that’s what it’s for.

A question re syncing: I can understand not wanting to pay $120 per year for Obsidian syncing. I get around this by putting the vaults I need to sync to mobile on iCloud drive, which works just fine. Is there a reason why that wouldn’t work for you?


In the Episode @ryanjamurphy you mention in passing exporting highlights from DT in Markdown. You also mention an automation that updated the export if there are changes.

Funny I’ve been asking on the DT discourse for the same: Export PDF Highlights and Annotations to Obsidian? - DEVONthink - DEVONtechnologies Community and currently there aren’t answers.

Can you share what you do?

Also I smiled at the conversation around systems thinking and causal loop diagrams, it’s nice to see this mentioned to a wider audience.

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I’m also quite interested in this issue. Ryan has shared elsewhere that he will be posting a blog on this shortly. For the time being, however, these two posts in the Devonthink forum will give you a sense of his approach:

Get PDF annotations count with AppleScript? - #5 by ryanjamurphy - DEVONthink - DEVONtechnologies Community


Danke. I think I’m well on the way to owing @ryanjamurphy a beer.