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The last element in his file system was an index, from which hewould refer to one or two notes that would serve as a kind of entrypoint into a line of thought or topic.
Indices are certainly an old construct. One of the oldest structured examples in the note taking space is that of John Locke who detailed it in Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils (1685), later translated into English as A New Method of Organizing Common Place Books (1706).
Previously commonplace books had been structured with headwords done alphabetically. This meant starting with a preconceived structure and leaving blank or empty space ahead of time without prior knowledge of what would fill it or how long that might take. By turning that system on its head, one could fill a notebook from front to back with a specific index of the headwords at the end. Then one didn't need to do the same amount of pre-planning or gymnastics over time with respect to where to put their notes.
This idea combined with that of Konrad Gessner's design for being able to re-arrange slips of paper (which later became index cards based on an idea by Carl Linnaeus), gives us an awful lot of freedom and flexibility in almost any note taking system.
Building blocks of the note taking system
- atomic ideas
- written on (re-arrangeable) slips, cards, or hypertext spaces
- cross linked with each other
- cross linked with an index
- cross linked with references
are there others? should they be broken up differently?
Godfathers of Notetaking
- Aristotle, Cicero (commonplaces)
- Seneca the Younger (collecting and reusing)
- Raymond Llull (combinatorial rearrangements)
- Konrad Gessner (storage for re-arrangeable slips)
- John Locke (indices)
- Carl Linnaeus (index cards)
- May 2022
The biggest mistake—and one I’ve made myself—is linking with categories. In other words, it’s adding links like we would with tags. When we link this way we’re more focused on grouping rather than connecting. As a result, we have notes that contain many connections with little to no relevance. Additionally, we add clutter to our links which makes it difficult to find useful links when adding links. That being said, there are times when we might want to group some things. In these cases, use tags or folders.
Most people born since the advent of the filing cabinet and the computer have spent a lifetime using a hierarchical folder-based mental model for their knowledge. For greater value and efficiency one needs to get away from this model and move toward linking individual ideas together in ways that they can more easily be re-used.
To accomplish this many people use an index-based method that uses topical or subject headings which can be useful. However after even a few years of utilizing a generic tag (science for example) it may become overwhelmed and generally useless in a broad search. Even switching to narrower sub-headings (physics, biology, chemistry) may show the same effect. As a result one will increasingly need to spend time and effort to maintain and work at this sort of taxonomical system.
The better option is to directly link related ideas to each other. Each atomic idea will have a much more limited set of links to other ideas which will create a much more valuable set of interlinks for later use. Limiting your links at this level will be incredibly more useful over time.
One of the biggest benefits of the physical system used by Niklas Luhmann was that each card was required to be placed next to at least one card in a branching tree of knowledge (or a whole new branch had to be created.) Though he often noted links to other atomic ideas there was at least a minimum link of one on every idea in the system.
For those who have difficulty deciding where to place a new idea within their system, it can certainly be helpful to add a few broad keywords of the type one might put into an index. This may help you in linking your individual ideas as you can do a search of one or more of your keywords to narrow down the existing ones within your collection. This may help you link your new idea to one or more of those already in your system. This method may be even more useful and helpful for those who are starting out and have fewer than 500-1000 notes in their system and have even less to link their new atomic ideas to.
For those who have graphical systems, it may be helpful to look for one or two individual "tags" in a graph structure to visually see the number of first degree notes that link to them as a means of creating links between atomic ideas.
To have a better idea of a hierarchy of value within these ideas, it may help to have some names and delineate this hierarchy of potential links. Perhaps we might borrow some well ideas from library and information science to guide us? There's a system in library science that uses a hierarchical set up using the phrases: "broader terms", "narrower terms", "related terms", and "used for" (think alias or also known as) for cataloging books and related materials.
We might try using tags or index-like links in each of these levels to become more specific, but let's append "connected atomic ideas" to the bottom of the list.
Here's an example:
- broader terms (BT): [[physics]]
- narrower terms (NT): [[mechanics]], [[dynamics]]
- related terms (RT): [[acceleration]], [[velocity]]
- used for (UF) or aliases:
- connected atomic ideas: [[force = mass * acceleration]], [[$$v^2=v_0^2+2aΔx$$]]
Chances are that within a particular text, one's notes may connect and interrelate to each other quite easily, but it's important to also link those ideas to other ideas that are already in your pre-existing body of knowledge.
See also: Thesaurus for Graphic Materials I: Subject Terms (TGM I) https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/tgm1/ic.html
Article that focuses on how important it is to create links between atomic ideas in a zettelkasten.
- atomic idea links
- library science
- linking ideas
- hierarchy of notes
- atomic notes
- information science
- note taking
- index links
- topical headings
- Apr 2022
It is difficult to see interdependencies This is especially true in the context of learning something complex, say economics. We can’t read about economics in a silo without understanding psychology, sociology and politics, at the very least. But we treat each subject as though they are independent of each other.
Where are the tools for graphing inter-dependencies of areas of study? When entering a new area it would be interesting to have visual mappings of ideas and thoughts.
If ideas in an area were chunked into atomic ideas, then perhaps either a Markov monkey or a similar actor could find the shortest learning path from a basic idea to more complex ideas.
Example: what is the shortest distance from an understanding of linear algebra to learn and master Lie algebras?
Link to Garden of Forking Paths
Link to tools like Research Rabbit, Open Knowledge Maps and Connected Papers, but for ideas instead of papers, authors, and subject headings.
It has long been useful for us to simplify our thought models for topics like economics to get rid of extraneous ideas to come to basic understandings within such a space. But over time, we need to branch out into related and even distant subjects like mathematics, psychology, engineering, sociology, anthropology, politics, physics, computer science, etc. to be able to delve deeper and come up with more complex and realistic models of thought.Our early ideas like the rational actor within economics are fine and lovely, but we now know from the overlap of psychology and sociology which have given birth to behavioral economics that those mythical rational actors are quaint and never truly existed. To some extent, to move forward as a culture and a society we need to rid ourselves of these quaint ideas to move on to more complex and sophisticated ones.
- visual thinking
- Open Knowledge Maps
- Donut Economics
- behavioral economics
- Markov monkey
- Research Rabbit
- atomic notes
- Connected Papers
- multidisciplinary studies
2. What influence does annotating with an audience have on how you annotate? My annotations and notes generally are fragile things, tentative formulations, or shortened formulations that have meaning because of what they point to (in my network of notes and thoughts), not so much because of their wording. Likewise my notes and notions read differently than my blog posts. Because my blog posts have an audience, my notes/notions are half of the internal dialogue with myself. Were I to annotate in the knowledge that it would be public, I would write very differently, it would be more a performance, less probing forwards in my thoughts. I remember that publicly shared bookmarks with notes in Delicious already had that effect for me. Do you annotate differently in public view, self censoring or self editing?
To a great extent, Hypothes.is has such a small footprint of users (in comparison to massive platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc.) that it's never been a performative platform for me. As a design choice they have specifically kept their social media functionalities very sparse, so one also doesn't generally encounter the toxic elements that are rampant in other locations. This helps immensely. I might likely change my tune if it were ever to hit larger scales or experienced the Eternal September effect.
Beyond this, I mostly endeavor to write things for later re-use. As a result I'm trying to write as clearly as possible in full sentences and explain things as best I can so that my future self doesn't need to do heavy work or lifting to recreate the context or do heavy editing. Writing notes in public and knowing that others might read these ideas does hold my feet to the fire in this respect. Half-formed thoughts are often shaky and unclear both to me and to others and really do no one any good. In personal experience they also tend not to be revisited and revised or revised as well as I would have done the first time around (in public or otherwise).
Occasionally I'll be in a rush reading something and not have time for more detailed notes in which case I'll do my best to get the broad gist knowing that later in the day or at least within the week, I'll revisit the notes in my own spaces and heavily elaborate on them. I've been endeavoring to stay away from this bad habit though as it's just kicking the can down the road and not getting the work done that I ultimately want to have. Usually when I'm being fast/lazy, my notes will revert to highlighting and tagging sections of material that are straightforward facts that I'll only be reframing into my own words at a later date for reuse. If it's an original though or comment or link to something important, I'll go all in and put in the actual work right now. Doing it later has generally been a recipe for disaster in my experience.
There have been a few instances where a half-formed thought does get seen and called out. Or it's a thought which I have significantly more personal context for and that is only reflected in the body of my other notes, but isn't apparent in the public version. Usually these provide some additional insight which I hadn't had that makes the overall enterprise more interesting. Here's a recent example, albeit on a private document, but which I think still has enough context to be reasonably clear: https://hypothes.is/a/vmmw4KPmEeyvf7NWphRiMw
There may also be infrequent articles online which are heavily annotated and which I'm excerpting ideas to be reused later. In these cases I may highlight and rewrite them in my own words for later use in a piece, but I'll make them private or put them in a private group as they don't add any value to the original article or potential conversation though they do add significant value to my collection as "literature notes" for immediate reuse somewhere in the future. On broadly unannotated documents, I'll leave these literature notes public as a means of modeling the practice for others, though without the suggestion of how they would be (re-)used for.
All this being said, I will very rarely annotate things privately or in a private group if they're of a very sensitive cultural nature or personal in manner. My current set up with Hypothesidian still allows me to import these notes into Obsidian with my API key. In practice these tend to be incredibly rare for me and may only occur a handful of times in a year.
Generally my intention is that ultimately all of my notes get published in something in a final form somewhere, so I'm really only frontloading the work into the notes now to make the writing/editing process easier later.
Reviewing The Original of Laura, Alexander Theroux describes the cards as a “portable strategy that allowed [Nabokov] to compose in the car while his wife drove the devoted lepidopterist on butterfly expeditions.”
While note cards have a certain portability about them for writing almost anywhere, aren't notebooks just as easily portable? In fact, with a notebook, one doesn't need to worry about spilling and unordering the entire enterprise.
There are, however, other benefits. By using small atomic pieces on note cards, one can be far more focused on the idea and words immediately at hand. It's also far easier in a creative and editorial process to move pieces around experimentally.
Similarly, when facing Hemmingway's White Bull, the size and space of an index card is fall smaller. This may have the effect that Twitter's short status updates have for writers who aren't faced with the seemingly insurmountable burden of writing a long blog post or essay in other software. They can write 280 characters and stop. Of if they feel motivated, they can continue on by adding to the prior parts of a growing thread. Sadly, Twitter doesn't allow either editing or rearrangements, so the endeavor and analogy are lost beyond here.
- card index for writing
- Vladimir Nabokov
- Hemingway's White Bull
- atomic notes
- combinatorial creativity
- tools for creativity
- The Original of Laura
- Mar 2022
maybe i need to explain that i changed the way i write in rome a little bit 01:23:42 because i um use the blocks as um individual notes so that 01:23:55 the page can become what in the traditional center cast might be a note sequence and if two notes are directly related i might just add another block 01:24:07 because you still have the granularity with the block references um a question would become part of that note sequence and 01:24:19 [Music] they are just a part of the writing itself so i don't have a special question page 01:24:33 i have a lot of questions within the ongoing dialogues and sometimes 01:24:44 um there are the ones that turn into a project and um so they are on top of my mind and um they 01:24:59 might move into the uh shortcut section because i just want to jump right back into that the next day 01:25:13 but there is no sophisticated system to deal with questions they are just part of it
Sönke Ahrens uses block references in Roam Research as zettels (or atomic notes), but puts them into larger pages almost as if he was pre-building larger project pages, as described in his book.
- Feb 2022
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Make permanent notes.
The important part of permanent notes are generating your own ideas and connecting (linking them densely) into your note system. The linking part is important and can be the part that most using digital systems forget to do. In paper zettelkasten, one was forced to create the first link by placing the note into the system for the first time. This can specifically be seen in Niklas Luhmann's example where a note became a new area of its own or, far more likely, it was linked to prior ideas.
By linking the idea to others within the system, it becomes more likely that the idea can have additional multiple contexts where it might be used and improve the fact that context shifts will prove more insight in the future.
Additional links to subject headings, tags, categories, or other forms of taxonomy will also help to make sure the note isn't lost completely into the system. Links to the bibliographical references within the system are helpful as well, especially for later citation. Keep in mind that these categories and reference links aren't nearly as valuable as the other primary idea links.
One can surely collect ideas and facts into their system, but these aren't as important or as interesting as one's own ideas and the things that are sparked and generated by them.
Asking questions in permanent notes can be valuable as they can become the context for new research, projects, and writing. Open questions can be incredibly valuable for one's thinking and explorations.
- Dec 2021
I think smaller projects that are faster to build are better for research in this space. Building many smaller projects rather than large ambitious ones have helped me because I avoid getting too attached to one particular idea or product, and with smaller-scoped prototypes I can try many more iterations against the same question or problem. It also lowers the barrier to entry to try more risky ideas – “I’ll try this for a weekend” is much easier than “I’ll have to shift my schedule the next couple weeks to fit this in; is it worth that?” A culture of shorter, more atomic projects will also encourage everyone to break down large ideas into smaller ones that are individually testable, which I think is a good practice regardless of whether those ideas are for a product or an experiment. On the other hand, cycles that are too short obviously run the risk of keeping us from trying more ambitious or complex ideas.
Atomizing projects and research ideas is very similar to the idea of the atomic note.
If useful things can be turned into re-usable building blocks, then it can be easier to build and design larger and more complex systems out of them.
- Aug 2021
Another theoretician of the index card system, the German sociologist Niklas Luhman, whose so-called "Zettelkasten" (slip-box) has achieved independent fame in Germany, used to talk about this first analytic step as "reduction for the sake of [building] complexity." 
Luhmann used the idea of "one card, one fact" as the first step of "reduction for the sake of [building] complexity."
Historically reducing things to their smallest essential form or building blocks makes it much easier to build up new complex things from them.
Examples of this include:
- Reducing numbers to binary 1 and 0
See Luhmann, Niklas (2000) Short Cuts. Edited by Peter Gente, Heidi Paris, Martin Weinmann. Frankfurt/Main: Zweitausendeins), p. 33.