Seriously

I know I’ve been off on two long tangents recently: The long series of posts about practicing self reflection kept this blog busy for two months, and before-and-after that I’ve been doing a deep rabbit hole exploration of Slipboxes. I’m still yappin’ about Slipboxes, but I think we’ll be seeing more random things here in April.

But before that happens here’s another thing related to the Slipbox: I found this really detailed summary of Ahrens’s, How to Take Smart Notes. I’ve been reading and studying these notes, as I’m reading and studying the book. Take a look at this post, How to Take… —the site is literally named The Rabbit Hole. You’ve been warned.

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Already knowing

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

~ Leo Tolstoy

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Bombast

When is the last time you read a dictionary? Have you ever sat down, and started reading the dictionary at the very beginning? My mind has been melted and reformed. My foundations are shaken, (and stirred.)

Things were defensive from the outset: The literally-first, full sentence I encountered—set off within a box, with a fancy-schmancy Merriam-Webster logo atop—is, “The name Webster alone is no guarantee of excellence.” Followed immediately by the we’re-sick-of-litigating, but-that-isn’t-stopping-us thumb in the eye of, “It is used by a number of publishers and may serve mainly to mislead an unwary buyer.” Considering myself forewarned, and forearmed with a magnifying glass, I pushed forward into the volume set entirely in a font size whose capital letters tower exactly 2 millimeters. Sure, the Preface—a two-column wall of microfiche occupying the totality of page 6a—was winsome, as far as, I assume, dictionary Prefaces go. Pragmatic was the listing upon page 7a of persons comprising the Editorial Staff. However, things became serious, bordering on salacious, with the Explanatory Chart printed, (apparently primarily for practical purposes,) in sprawled repose across pages 8a and 9a as a visual menagerie detailing the architecture and idiosyncrasies of the dictionary’s didactic details. None the less, the degree of magniloquence encountered in the long-form Explanatory Notes for that chart, which begin on page 10a, and which span some 40 columns, is penultimate.

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One Slipbox to rule them all

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

~ J R R Tolkien

At least, one Slipbox to rule over all the various mediums of information I have.

You see, the Slipbox also solves a problem I’ve known I’ve had, (stop laughing at me!) for a long time: PDF documents get lost. Not, “I can’t find it,” lost but lost under the gently falling snow which ultimately covers all. For a while, I used to print and comb-bind stacks of things from their digital format, just so they would be “equal citizens” in my spaces with other professionally printed things. But, (aside from the killing trees wastefulness of it,) this is a crap-ton of work. Yes I have them in a folder, (not on a hard drive but rather on a file server with a redundent array of drives backed up into the cloud,) but I never look in that folder. Out of sight, and they’re soon out of mind.

The Slipbox solved the real problems of finding a PDF and remembering to continue reading it. (Aside: Bear in mind that being able to print-to-PDF means I can turn anything from the Internet into a PDF. You should too.) I simply create a slip in the Slipbox for the digital document; When Where Matters: How Psychoactive Space is Created and Utilised, wound up at 8d in the Slipbox, (still early days in my fledgling Slipbox’s addresses.) So I prepended “8d – ” to the filename and then threw it into the storage folder.

Perhaps you guessed that I have a small mark on the slip too? I do. It’s a little sort of dog-eared document icon telling me that there’s a digital document “attached” to this slip. Done. Now the slip points to the digital doc; Digital doc points back to the slip.

And then I tossed that slip on my desk with the stack of books I’m currently reading. Second problem solved: Digital PDF is now on the same footing at things physically on my desk.

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A structure to work _in_

Having a clear structure to work in is completely different from making plans about something. If you make a plan, you impose a structure on yourself; it makes you inflexible. To keep going according to plan, you have to push yourself and employ willpower. This is not only demotivating, but also unsuitable for an open-need process like research, thinking or studying in general, where we have to adjust our next steps with every new insight, understanding or achievement—which we ideally have on a regular basis and not just as an exception.

~ Sönke Ahrens from, How to Take Smart Notes (2017)

I know I’m reading the right thing when—POW—I feel like a whole bunch of loose threads in my mind suddenly make sense. I’m a master at plans and organizing. (Outlines, processes, Allen’s GTD system, etc..) But my current quest for a knowledge system began in earnest when I could no longer ignore the aching feeling that there was something I’m missing; there’s something I’m not doing correctly. Ahren’s point about “imposing structure” on oneself is the insight. There’s a time for that. (And again, I’ve got that sorted.) I’m gleefully skipping off into experimenting with a new structure to work in. This isn’t all clear to me yet, so these blog posts aren’t going to be perfectly clear either. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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but- ima- gah- werds-

Let’s consider another story, this time a tale of science fiction.

~ Stephen Pressfield, from https://stevenpressfield.com/2018/08/ins-and-outs-part-two/

“Ins and Outs.” That piece is short. It’s insightful. …and it’s about two movies that would definitely make my top 100, so there’s that.

Two things: The more I read from Pressfield, the more I want to open a bottle of scotch and weep that I will never write anything good.

And also, the more I read from Pressfield, the more hopeful I become that maybe something will absorb through my thick skull and mabye one day, just maybe, I’ll write something good.

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Better left alone

Many see the trees but not the forest, or bark up the wrong tree, speaking endlessly, reasoning uselessly, without going to the pith of the matter. They go round and round, tiring themselves and us, and never get to what is important. This happens to people with confused minds who do not know how to clear away the brambles. They waste time and patience on what it would be better to leave alone, and later there is no time for what they left.

~ Baltasar Gracián

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Conversing: Generating great questions in real-time

What more could you ask for?

Pick any two ideas, presume they are connected, and present that connection as a question.

I’ll wager you’re thinking, “that’s easier read than done.” But, it is easy. Simply ask:

Is there a connection between X and Y?

Exercise: Pause here and think of a few random pairs of ideas. The faster you pull the ideas out, the better. Take two ideas and say the question in your mind. Are they not surprising, the trains of thought which spring up? If you manage to stump yourself in finding a connection, would it have been an interesting exchange if another person had been involved?

Where’s the trick?

The trick is right there in the very first line I wrote, in the first phrase:

Pick two ideas.

The two ideas are connected; that’s how your mind was able to pick them. The trick uses your mind’s built-in super-powers of observation and curiosity. To ask a great question, people focus on finding a question. It’s far easier to make a question out of something great.

Clearly the degree of greatness of your question depends on what ideas you pick. Fortunately, the more you pick-two and ask about the connection, the better you’ll get at picking better ideas. You’re refining your mental observation skills and refining your taste in which ideas will combine into a great question.

Complications

In mechanical watches, a “complication” is some additional function. Indicating the day of the week, the date, or the phase of the moon, are in reality not that different in terms of complexity; They are each simply a complication. It’s the total number of complications that impresses the watch aficionados.

I’m going to throw a bunch of complications on top of this idea. By analogy with the watches, I’m suggesting that no one of these is any better or more complex. Each complication is simply a possibility you could add. One of your goals, in any conversation I care to think about, is to have your tools and skills disappear in service of the conversation. Only through experience can you learn how complicated to make things. It varies based on every conversational parameter you can imagine. Sometimes, the barest simplicity is the best choice—“is there a connection between X and Y?”—and sometimes…

It’s not you, it’s me. If the question you’re posing might be too personal, taboo, etc. you can couch it in a dash of self-deprecation. “I know this sounds weird, but is there a connection between X and Y?” Your conversation partner can easily parry—in fact, people will automatically and subconsciously parry this way if they are uncomfortable—with, “Yes that’s weird. What sort of wacko would ask that?” Being a great conversationalist, you can then proceed in another direction. (Or press on!)

The joy of wonder. Rare, (and possibly psychotic,) is the person who isn’t sucked in when you express honest wonder. If you really are wondering—that is probably how you picked those two ideas in the first place—then it’s going to be obvious that you’re enjoying asking about the connection. “Oh, wow! Now I’m wondering if there’s a connection between X and Y.”

Grammar ain’t all that. Did you catch that? That last example wasn’t a question. Turns out, it’s not necessary to speak a grammatical question. All you ever need to do is convey that you have a question. In the Movers Mindset podcast I get endless mileage out of saying, “And of course, the final question: Three words to describe your practice.” Which is a statement stapled to a sentence fragment, and I don’t even pitch-up at the end to make it sound like a question. Statements using “wondering” are the obvious way to do statement-questions. But there are more: “I’m astounded I never realized there’s a connection between X and Y.” That one has a quiet little question—“is there actually a connection here?”—tucked in under the loud astonishment. There’s also, “I can’t believe I never noticed the connection between X and Y.” Even snarky, “…next you’re going to tell me X and Y are connected.” Complications sure, but filigree has its place.

There can’t possible be more

I’ve described this entire thing as if it were something you do once, (and then use the question.) Eventually, you can generate two, sometimes three or more, two-ideas-and-a-connection questions before the pause gets pregnant. With practice, you can regularly generate 2, and then choose the one you like better.

This is particularly important if you’re trying to lead the conversation—“lead” as in “let’s go for a stroll and I secretly want to show you my favorite bakery along the way,” not “I want to lead you to a mugging”. Being able to ask great questions is one thing, but being able to ask a series of great questions that lead to a through-line, however tenuous, is pure wizardry.

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Herbal bitters

Bitter herbs have a well-deserved reputation as digestive aids in most systems of traditional medicine, and in many systems of cuisine. The ability of bitters to support balanced secretion and motility, especially in the gastric phase of digestion, relies on a few important mechanisms that are mediated through taste receptors (T2R family) and involve neuronal, hormonal, and vascular effectors.

~ Guido Masé, from Herbal Bitters (2015) https://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/sites/default/files/bitters-mase-2015_1.pdf

Bitter herbs have a role in appetite regulation, blood glucose management, and obesity. This is something I’m only just now learning. They have been used medicinal for, pretty much, all of recorded history, and the more medical science looks the better things are looking. More recent traditions have added “bitters” to drinks (an Old Fashioned is a classic example) but—say it ain’t so western culture!—the bitters at your local bar are more for taste then for function.

Anyway. The linked PDF paper was an eye opener.

Also eye opening: We sat around our kitchen table this morning tasting various bitters—the same way you’d do beer, scotch, wine… or any other tasting. Tres interessant!

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