Personal knowledge systems

Continuing my deep dive—hopefully it doesn’t become a drowning—into Knowledge Systems: Yesterday I spent a little time tinkering with Discourse to see what I could do with it. There is a mind-numbing array of tools that could be used, but I keep coming back to the point that I don’t actually understand what I’m trying to build.

I’ve spent significant time thinking about that, and reading about that, but it’s still not clear. It’s like standing in an aisle of tools each shiny and powerful; I know people who have piles of tools. Fortunately, the best way to understand is to build. And so building I am. (Out of sight privately, sorry.)

I seem to recall hearing a metaphor about house building: Start with a sofa in the lawn, add features as needed. Be prepared to knock it down and start again.

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Slip boxes aka zettelkasten

Zettelkasten is usually mentioned as a note-taking method. However, the end goal of Zettelkasten is not gathering and collecting notes, but rather creating a competent and knowledgeable communication partner. The main interaction with the slip-box is not when we are writing and adding new notes, because the slip-box is not there to be an archive of our memory and knowledge. Slip-box is there to be an apparatus with which we think. Therefore, the main interaction is when we communicate with the slip-box by confronting ourselves and our thinking with our prior knowledge.

~ Eva Thomas from, https://medium.com/@ethomasv/understanding-zettelkasten-d0ca5bb1f80e

This appears to be part four of a series: On knowledge systems, Push and pull, and Commonplace notebooks. Depending where you are on your personal journey you may have been sitting back, chuckling, waiting for me to “discover” zettelkasten. …to which I reply, “y u no email me about zettelkasten?!”

Now this idea I definitely have seen before. I can recall stumbling on the idea very early in my personal productivity and self-awareness journey. Without looking, I’ll bet I found it first on 43 Folders. I had the distinct pleasure of following along through Merlin Mann’s journey—trying to keep up, but not succeeding at the time. (Posts on that site run from 2004, through 2011.) If you just went, “43 Folders? …what’s that?” You need to go look at 43 Folders.

…oh sorry, I was off on a tangent there. I just realized Mann has a podcast that’s on episode #503. Shit. Another thing I probably need to listen too. I’ll just say: My web site serialize tool can drip podcast show notes pages at me too, so I’ll drip all those so I can skim the show notes, and I’ll just listen to the few that are “must listen” [in my opinion of course.]

*shudder* I’m all over the map today. Zettelkasten, right.

When I first encountered it, I got stuck on the idea that it’s “notes” in “boxes.” Why would anyone want to do that, now that we have (back then) web sites where you can tag stuff, search, edit, etc.? Now I see this part—trimming my lead quote down—is the neat part:

The end goal of Zettelkasten is creating a competent and knowledgeable communication partner. The slip-box is there to be an apparatus with which we think. Therefore, the main interaction is when we communicate with the slip-box by confronting ourselves and our thinking with our prior knowledge.

Do you see it now? The slip-box system can be slips of paper, digital notes/files, or many other implementations. The original slip-boxes (physical things, pre-Internet… actually, pre-electricity,) were used by one person. Using modern technology we can implement one that allows people to collaborate too. (If we wanted. Not saying I necessarily want that.)

Oh, and guess what I built four years ago. A very complicated, (that’s not a compliment,) system for weaving together references, summaries, and articles on a site called Hilbert’s Library. It was literally my first attempt to build a knowledge management system. I’m now thinking it’s over-designed—I mean yes, sure… I over-think and over-design everything. But I mean that now I see why the design I built into it actually gets in the way of it being maximally useful as a knowledge management system.

What? Oh, yes, people have built lots of ways to implement slip-boxes. Notably, Emvi does that (among other things, because zettelkasten can be confusing so they pitch it in various use cases.)

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Commonplace notebooks

Continuing my train of thought from On knowledge systems and Push and pull, today I want to dive into something called a commonplace book. (For the third time: no denouement today.) In line with more modern language usage, I’m going to prefer commonplace notebook; books are today commonplace, and we use the word “notebook” for the ones we create privately.

Settle in, this is about to get tangential.

I first encountered this idea at 8am, November 13th, 2020. Literally. I’ve never heard of the idea of a “commonplace book” previously. And here I am in the midst of finally pulling on a thread which I’ve been calling a quest for a knowledge system… trying to solve a problem which is as yet ill formed. I’ve been reading through the entire Farnam Street web site; it’s like 5,000 non-trivial web pages skimming a few every day for well over a year. This November 13th a little before 8am I happen to reach, John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books. Which, probably is not worth clicking through. First off, “common” modifies “place” so we can drop “common” without fundamentally changing the meaning—so sayeth grammar. Therefore Locke’s method is for organizing books about places. I very nearly didn’t even skim it. But I did. And realized it’s his method for organizing commonplace books. Oh my god Becky, that’s completely different. Wait, what’s a commonplace book? (There’s a link in that post about Locke’s method.) POW!

Commonplace books are personal knowledge libraries; notebooks full of collected ideas and bits of wisdom all mixed up together. Here, we take a look at their history and benefits.

~ from https://fs.blog/2014/07/networked-knowledge-and-combinatorial-creativity/

Am I on Candid Camera? This is so apropos of my recent thinking, it’s H.P. Lovecraft level eery.

Zooming out…

The knowledge system I’m seeking is not simply a repository into which I want to toss everything. For example, Evernote is not a solution that will work. It’s too easy to put things in. (Likewise for any home-grown version I might cook up with documents or cloud storage.) Sure, Evernote and other solutions are eminently searchable—that’s a good thing. But I continue to avoid such tools because… well, because I don’t want simply a giant collection of everything. I don’t want to simply amass everything I’ve ever been exposed to. (We already have an Internet. We don’t need Craig’s Internet assembled within the other.) But, I’ll call these desirables the “power” features.

I’m intrigued by the commonplace notebook solution as it requires a good bit of effort to add things. Effort is required to evaluate each new idea to be added. Effort is required to see how it “hangs together with” the rest of what I know, at the time when I encounter the new thing. This suggests individual, manual and mental labor, [meaning I have to do everything, possibly even including manually writing things down on paper] is also a desirable feature.

Some combination of those “power” and “manual” features feels like a sweet spot.

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Push and pull

Aside: Like yesterday, there’s no conclusion here today.

A large part of books’ allure is that they never interrupt. They sit inert, exactly where you leave them, (physically or digitally,) and respond the instant you decide you want to engage. You are in total control. Eons ago, I saw the difference between books and the Internet described, overly simplistically, as “pull” versus “push” modes of information flow. That’s true for a book; a book is completely pull oriented. However, the Internet can be used in either mode. It can both “push” information at you and enable you to “pull” information towards yourself.

I became convinced that I needed to pull information towards me and ruthlessly prevent any pushing. This was a simple continuation of my love of books and reading. Reading exposed me to so many new ideas, so I expanded the trawling into the Internet, and to make room for the new things I was finding I squelched things that were being pushed at me. Over many years I began to read trade publications slowly learning which ones were just advertising vehicles and which ones contained real ideas. I joined professional organizations and read their publications. I found web sites that were things I wanted to read and dutifully kept up with them, (either by visiting regularly or by following their RSS feeds.)

I was eventually in complete control of what information I was exposed to. Nothing was being pushed at me against my will, but this became far too much to keep up with. And once the pulling becomes a habit, it’s effectively pushing. I burnt out and crashed hard. I rage-quit a number of things I had been keeping up with, and stopped visiting a swath of great web sites. I began reading physical books more, but this it was only a sort of reset. It left me back at the beginning; I’d learned a lot about how to manage my exposure to information but I was once again starved for new information. These days, I’ve renewed interested in some sort of “knowledge system” and in addition to points I made yesterday it’s also a way to manage this pull-versus-push problem.

More than half a century before blogging, Instagramming, tweeting, and the rest of today’s ever-lowering barriers of entry for publishing content, Bush laments the unmanageable scale of the recorded human experience.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/10/11/as-we-may-think-1945/

After a bit of cool perspective from history, it gets around to talking about the importance of not just categorizing and compressing information for storage—think “library” or “internet”—but the ultimate importance of being able to use the information. Spot on this topic I’ve been slowly trying to unpack.

So, thinking about a knowledge system in the context of pulling information: I currently have a lot of fresh information that I pull; I could say I’m regularly exposed to many new ends of thread. However, I also want to be able to pick a thread, (or two or three,) and to be able to continuously pull on it. My knowledge system should enable that.

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On knowledge systems

Caution: This post is long-ish but does not have a denouement. ;)

As I commonly do, I went to the mental well this morning to see what I’d find to add to the ‘ol blog. I hauled the bucket, and found two ideas which have been sitting there for months. Every time I go to the well, these two come up on top. Time to try to do something with them.

I’ve been actively thinking for years about getting a handle on learning. There’s a huge amount of things I’m delighted to simply learn from by osmosis. I read something, or experience something, and it affects me to some degree. I’ve had countless experiences where long after, I can clearly see the influence has percolated. I know this type of learning works well, and it’s effortless; I’ve mastered this type of learning and in so far as I can relax about trusting the process, it just works.

But there’s a type of learning which I haven’t been doing at all for years: Organized learning directed at a particular goal. I’ve not even been attempting to make any progress on that. Here’s an example of a specific thing I’d like to learn about:

Psychoactivity is a particular kind of relationship between a person, their body, what they perceive and the context of that perception. Psychoactivity occurs when a person’s thoughts, emotions and body sensations take on symbolic significance in response to what they are perceiving.

Space becomes psychoactive once a person’s mind-body starts to react symbolically to their physical surroundings and/or to their imaginative mind-space. David Grove coined the term ‘psychoactive space’ because it seems as if our perceptions are causing us to react and that we have little choice in the matter — which is true to some extent. When our perception of a space and the spatial relations contained therein have an independence from us, we are effectively living in the symbolism of the space moment by moment. Although I am referring to the space as psychoactive, I want to emphasise that psychoactivity is a relationship between the perceiver and the perceived (and/or the perceiver and the context).

~ James Lawley from, https://cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/29/1/When-Where-Matters-How-psychoactive-space-is-created-and-utilised/Page1.html

I stumbled over that article a while back, skimmed it, read it, read it carefully, … and realized I need to spend a lot more time on the topic of psychoactive space. That site itself is large and I’ve not stuffed it through my usual website serialize tools because it deserves more than to be simply “read through.” Also, it is clearly going to point me off to other books, journals, and articles. I feel like I’m standing on a hilltop looking at a vast landscape thinking, “I need to make a map, or something, while I have this perspective because once I descend from this hill it’s going to be rabbit holes all the way across this landscape.”

So that leaves me with my original, (at the top of this post,) general quest for a knowledge system, and this intriguing, specific example in need of a knowledge system. It’s time to start thinking about knowledge systems. (Which, one might realize, unfortunately presents me with the need for some sort of knowledge system to learn enough about knowledge systems to decide which . . . )

When it doubt, I deploy the familiar tools which are at hand. One of my favorite tools is to ask the right questions, in particular these three questions:

Is this a problem I really need/want to solve? Srsly bro’? Yes. Next question please.

Is the scale of the problem sane/do I have sufficient resources? I’m not asking for a knowledge system (time for an acronym! “KS”) to track all human knowledge. I don’t even need it to be collaborative. It doesn’t have to be complete—in the sense that if I’m using this KS to learn “psychoactive space,” it doesn’t have to also store all my knowledge about “architecture” and “bio-mechanics.” I want a KS that’s a power tool—better than a manual screwdriver. I’m not wanting a KS that outsources the driving of screws. I want a KS that one person (me!) can build and use. Glancing out at the universe I can see lots of things which could be a solution. (Things like “Evernote” spring to mind in case you’re eyes are popping out of your head from all this stratospheric cogitation and you just want me to shut up and get to the punchline but sorry this post doesn’t end with me telling you what KS I’m now using.)

So far, so good. Final question:

What would a solution look like? The KS would be easy to get started. I don’t want to spend months figuring it out. I want to start building the house by tossing a sofa in the bare lot and calling it a first approximation. I’ll erect a tarp when the weather threatens, walls in the fall, etc. It’s not important that it be easy to add to—no, some effort should be required to sift and summarize or filter or whatever as the knowledge is built. Stateful: meaning every time I climb back to that metaphorical hilltop to survey the landscape, I don’t want to have to redo any of my thinking from the last time I was there; duck up to the hilltop, achieve instant perspective and return to the landscape. online is also not a requisite: Sure a lot of the material I’d be learning from would be online, but some won’t be… and importantly, I’m a human not a computer so while I use online tools… well, paper and all works fine too. Plus anything online has maintenance. …but it does need to acknowledge and deal with stuff that’s online.

I have ideas. But as I cautioned at the top, this post is just a place where I wanted to think through all of the above.

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