PKM for building a first brain

I am in the midst of a fairly radical career change, working to become a river guide. This obviously involves acquiring a bunch of new knowledge, both about river rafting and about the Grand Canyon (where I eventually hope to work). This being the golden age of PKM systems, I’ve created a new Obsidian vault and started creating and linking notes.

The complicating factor is that the river is no place for a computer. This will not be a tool for “a conversation with the slip box” in Luhmann’s sense of it. I’m ultimately trying to use Obsidian to build knowledge and understanding that ultimately has to live in my brain, rather than the computer. Instead of trying to “build a second brain”, I’m trying to externalize this information so I can internalize it again. Have any Mac Power Users used a PKM system for when they won’t be able to consult the system directly, in the moment? Any advice?

I’ll note that I have thought about Anki or similar flashcard software, but I don’t think that’s quite the right tool at least at this point. For both the river rafting knowledge and information about Grand Canyon geology, biology, and human history, I think the links between concepts are going to be very important. There may be a role for spaced repetition, but I think it’s only going to come after all this info gets distilled through Obsidian.


Congratulations! Sounds like a superb move for you.

I don’t have a direct answer, but it might be worth googling how London black cab drivers learn (what, I think, is known as) “the knowledge”.

They need to memorize every street they might ever drive down.

Apparently, the parts of their brains that deal with maps and so on are bigger than ever on else’s.

It sounds similar to what you want to do, though, given London weather your endeavor may be drier.


This will of course be a very personalized knowledge base design- there is no one way to do it.

That said, there are some similarities to medicine in that on the surface, each rafting trip (or patient visit) is fairly straightforward on first glance, but actually the terms and concepts used in any one instance are part of a vast set of knowledge.

I would suggest one way (not the only way for sure) to approach this is to create a journal or blog of each day’s trip. In doing so, you will naturally wind up putting key terms in wikilinks brackest; then you can expand on that later. Over time it would naturally build into a large and useful set of specialized fund of knowledge that you or others can reference.


@rkaplan is right when he says there is not one way to do it. But something I found really helped was actually writing and drawing. If you are out and about take a paper notebook and pen (waterproof fineliner!). Write notes and make sketches what you see. There is evidence that when you sketch you are far more likely to remember. It doesn’t matter if you think you cant draw.

Of course later in the day you can transfer and type the information into your PKM of choice.

The Knowledge idea for @Clarke_Ching is interesting. The way cabbies learn is to get on a small motor bike/scooter/moped and drive the routes until they learn them. You often seen them on their mopeds with a big clipboard strapped to the handlebars. It can take three or fours years to qualify. More info here

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It sounds like you need a way to Learn and re-enforce remembering the information. Capturing into Obsidian is good, but you need some form of Flash Card or other way to revise the correct information to make it stick.


This is not directly similar but I had to learn a huge amount of information about literature for my Ph.D. qualifying exams. I took notes on the computer, with extensive hypertext links, but I also printed them out for use in in 3-ring binders, so I could study during work breaks, where I didn’t have access to a computer. I annotated the binder pages, and the physicality of reading and writing, including the physical appearance of the page with diagrams (and yes, maps!) helped me retain the information.


In the pre-personal computer era, the nurses I worked with had laminated index cards that contained a tremendous amount of information (drug doses, formulas, etc). You may want to use these for some critical info that you want with you on rafting trips.

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Obsidian has an Anki plugin. I think you need capture (Obsidian/DevonThink) and repetition of relevant information (flashcard).


I’m also a fan of Anki flashcards (or other SRS.)

I also suggest synthesizing and rewriting more notes (in Obsidian, or wherever.) Writing mini-essays about some of these new terms and concepts will force you to internalize more of them. Seconding sketching and map-making as well.

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I remember doing that, which included a lot of legal opinions and briefs as well! I admit, I don’t miss those exams! The exams were three days long, eight hours each day, not including the verbal exam and dissertation review committee “interrogation”. :grin:

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How about a waterproof headset and a remote team member who can take PKM notes from your running commentary and alert you to the rapids ahead? Might need to involve satellite communication due to steep walls of Grand Canyon. :slightly_smiling_face:

Edit: And a helmet with an antenna on it!

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Another vote for Anki – doesn’t matter which specific toolset, whatever works.

“Understanding” is important, but many people diminish the importance of “memorization”. Anki is sold as a memorization tool, and that makes people think it isn’t helpful for think beyond memorizing trivia.

Memorization is the first step to understanding.


Agreed. The way I like to think about this is, “one cannot think critically and creatively in a vacuum.”

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My experience is limited to a few class III river trips back in my university days. But IMO, boat/raft/kayak handing is a skill that is learned in much the same way as driving a car or flying a plane, etc. Study, training, practice, practice, and more practice. Learning the basics can take a relatively short period of time. Adapting those skills to ever changing enviroments takes experience.

I always started by reading everything I could on the skill I was wanting to acquire. After a while I selected an instructor and started training. And I continued to study as long as I was using that skill. A pilot prepares for a trip by checking his equipment and the weather, etc. And by reviewing the route he will take, the approach to landing at his destination, etc. It’s the same for many activities. If you’ve ever watched a group of skydivers prepare for a jump, they rehearse the moves everyone will make on the jump before they get on the plane. A “dirt dive”.

If I were to guess, your PKM would consist of maps of the rivers, annotated with interesting sights to see, stories to tell, as well as hazards to avoid. Information that you could review before each run. I would keep a log of every trip, with enough details to allow me to recall the trip months and years later. You would be surprised how much you can recall when presented with just a date, a list of names, and one or two details of an event from fifty years ago.

I used pen & paper. You have a world of choices, just make sure your choice is waterproof. I ended up in the water, tucked into a ball, hanging on to my paddle more than once.:grinning:

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I think it’s an important step, but at least for me, I don’t think it’s the first step. I tend to do a lot of hashing stuff out on paper/on the computer/etc., then memorize and internalize, then go back to paper/computer in sort of a cyclical fashion. I’ve just never done that with a PKM type tool.

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As someone noted, there’s a Anki plugin for Obsidian. It looks like there are at least a few other spaced repetition plugins available.

So maybe you can distill the information within Obsidian (and your brain) while also enhancing your memory of the key details with spaced repetition.

Best wishes on your endeavor!

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I would suggest using images too, i.e. landmarks you can see from the river. Make sure your phone or camera is set to include coords in the meta data.


One set of drawings or maps is not the end - The river is a much more dynamic system than street system and conditions change with flow. There is a need to balance of remembering where the locations of hazards under current conditions but also realizing and recognizing that new hazards can/will develop during different times. Being able to collect and share historical knowledge and present conditions with others is also part of the system.

Then what you are really going to need is an intraocular overlay a la the Terminator!

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That might work - or eating brain remnants from old river guides…